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Neftali Soto-Padro v. Public Buildings Authority; Javier Soto-Cardona

March 12, 2012

NEFTALI SOTO-PADRO, PLAINTIFF, APPELLANT,
v.
PUBLIC BUILDINGS AUTHORITY; JAVIER SOTO-CARDONA, IN HIS OFFICIAL AND PERSONAL CAPACITIES; LEILA HERNANDEZ-UMPIERRE, IN HER OFFICIAL AND PERSONAL CAPACITIES; ADRIAN ACEVEDO-RIVERA, IN HIS OFFICIAL AND PERSONAL CAPACITIES; RUDY MARTINEZ-CALDERON, IN HIS OFFICIAL AND PERSONAL CAPACITIES; FABIO BARRETO-MARTINEZ, IN HIS OFFICIAL AND PERSONAL CAPACITIES; JOSE GIRONA-MARQUEZ, IN HIS OFFICIAL AND PERSONAL CAPACITIES; MIGUEL DAVILA-SANCHEZ, IN HIS OFFICIAL AND PERSONAL CAPACITIES, DEFENDANTS, APPELLEES.



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Gustavo A. Gelpi, U.S. District Judge]

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thompson, Circuit Judge.

Before Lynch, Chief Judge, Stahl and Thompson, Circuit Judges.

FOREWORD

Our story concerns a dispute that arose after Puerto Rico's Public Buildings Authority (PBA) restructured its organization in the late 2000s.*fn1 We start, naturally, with the facts. And because the case is here on summary judgment, we present them in the light most flattering to Neftali Soto-Padro, the summary-judgment loser, consistent with record support. See, e.g., Rodriguez v. Municipality of San Juan, 659 F.3d 168, 175 (1st Cir. 2011). Spoiler alert: when all is said and done, we affirm the district judge's rulings across the board.

THE REORGANIZATION

For the uninitiated, the PBA is a commonwealth-created public corporation whose central mission is preparing plans for and meeting the maintenance needs of "physical facilities related to government services," and whose seven-member governing board includes four persons appointed by Puerto Rico's Governor. See P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 22, §§ 902-04, 906. The board approved the reorganization that has caused this dust-up - a reorganization that eliminated some PBA positions and created new ones too. Out went Field-Operations-Supervisor positions, for example, and in came Field-Operations-Manager and Technical-Services-Supervisor posts.

Soto-Padro is a member of the New Progressive Party (NPP), one of Puerto Rico's two main political parties. The other is the Popular Democratic Party (PDP). At some point in the restructuring process, he went from being a Field Operations Supervisor to a Technical Services Supervisor. According to the summary-judgment evidence, here is how that happened.

After the PBA cut the Field Operations Supervisor positions as part of the reorganization, Soto-Padro applied for three PBA jobs: Auxiliary Regional Director, Field Operations Manager, and Technical Services Supervisor. A trio of PBA officials - Conservation Area Director Fabio Barreto Martinez, Special Assistant to the Executive Director Miguel Davila-Sanchez, and Executive Sub-Director Jose Girona-Marquez - interviewed him for the latter two positions. Human Resources and Labor Relations Manager Rudy Martinez-Calderon also sat in on the interviews. Everyone except Soto-Padro was a PDP sympathizer.

The Field-Operations-Manager job went to Adrian Acevedo-Rivera, a PDP sympathizer and former Field Operations Supervisor. Another PDP sympathizer, PBA Executive Director Leila Hernandez-Umpierre, wrote Soto-Padro that he had landed the Technical-Services-Supervisor position instead. But despite being offered a job that he had applied for, Soto-Padro soon had a change of heart. He realized that the switch from Field Operations Supervisor to Technical Services Supervisor would lower the range of possible pay-raise options, though it would not affect his immediate salary. And he learned from talking with PBA Regional Director Javier Soto-Cardona, a PDP activist, that he would have new duties: supervising lower-ranked personnel than he had before and handling plumbing and refrigeration issues, not electrical matters like he was used to (Soto-Padro has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering), though he concedes that plumbing and refrigeration are critical aspects of PBA operations. So Soto-Padro balked at the switch, writing Hernandez-Umpierre that he considered it a "demotion" since it would lower his "pay scale" and lessen his "functions." Martinez-Calderon responded, telling Soto-Padro that he would "continue" as Field Operations Supervisor. But eight months later, Hernandez-Umpierre fired off another letter to Soto-Padro, this time saying that he had been doing the duties of a Technical Services Supervisor for the past "few months" or so anyway and that the PBA was reclassifying his position to Technical Services Supervisor.

Soto-Padro was hardly the only PBA staffer affected by the reshuffling. And though executed by PBA personnel affiliated with the PDP, the reorganization impacted workers in both political camps, as we shall see shortly.

THE LAWSUIT

Invoking federal civil-rights statutes, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, and 1988, as well as the federal declaratory-judgment act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201, Soto-Padro sued everyone in sight: the PBA, Soto-Cardona, Hernandez-Umpierre, Acevedo-Rivera, Martinez-Calderon, Barreto-Martinez, Girona-Marquez, and Davila-Sanchez. According to Soto-Padro, the defendants had demoted him because he was affiliated with the wrong political party (the NPP rather than the PDP), violating his First-Amendment and due-process rights. His complaint included supplemental local-law claims too. He sued the individual defendants in both their official and personal capacities. And he asked for an amalgam of relief. For openers, he requested a mix of injunctive and declaratory relief. Paraphrasing his complaint, he writes in his brief that he asked the court to declare his reclassification to Technical Services Supervisor "null and void" and to order the PBA to place him in the Field-Operations-Manager position.*fn2 He also asked the court for damages and attorney fees, among other things.*fn3

We step back for a moment to gain some perspective. A claim for relief under section 1983 requires a showing of two elements - first, that the plaintiff was deprived of either a federal constitutional or statutory right, and, second, that the deprivation was carried out by a defendant acting under color of state law.*fn4 See, e.g., Barrios-Velazquez v. Asociacion de Empleados del Estado Libre Asociado de P.R., 84 F.3d 487, 491 (1st Cir. 1996). And section 1988 allows a "prevailing party" in a section 1983 action "reasonable" attorney fees. 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Section 1985 permits suits against those who conspire to deprive others "of the equal protection of the laws, or of the equal privileges and immunities under the law . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3). The elements of a section 1985 claim are straightforward: (1) "a conspiracy," (2) "a conspiratorial purpose to deprive the plaintiff of the equal protection of the laws," (3) "an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy," and, lastly, (4) either (a) an "injury to person or property" or (b) "a deprivation of a constitutionally protected right." Perez-Sanchez v. Pub. Bldg. Auth., 531 F.3d 104, 107 (1st Cir. 2008). A section 1985 claim "requires 'some racial, or perhaps otherwise class-based, invidiously discriminatory animus behind the conspirators' action,'" id. (quoting Griffin v. ...


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