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Velez-Velez v. P.R. Highway & Transportation Authority

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

July 29, 2015

SONIA I. VÉLEZ-VÉLEZ; PEDRO A. RODRÍGUEZ-CINTRÓ N; and CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP RODRÍGUEZ-VÉLEZ, Plaintiffs, Appellants,
v.
PUERTO RICO HIGHWAY AND TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY; RUBÉN HERNÁNDEZ-GREGORAT, in his individual and official capacity as Secretary of Transportation and Public Works and Director of the Highway and Transportation Authority; and BRENDA GOMILA-SANTIAGO, in her individual and official capacity as Executive Director of Human Resources, Defendants, Appellees

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

Juan M. Frontera-Suau, with whom Kenneth Colón and Frontera Suau Law Offices, PSC, were on brief, for appellants.

Yassmin González-Vélez, with whom Puerto Rico Legal Advocates, PSC, was on brief, for Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority, Rubé n Hernández-Gregorat, in his official capacity, and Brenda Gomila-Santiago, in her official capacity.

Michelle Camacho Nieves, with whom Margarita Mercado-Echegaray, Solicitor General, and Susana I. Peñagarícano-Brown, Assistant Solicitor General, Puerto Rico Department of Justice, were on brief, for Rubé n Hernández-Gregorat and Brenda Gomila-Santiago, in their individual capacities.

Before Torruella, Lynch, and Thompson, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

LYNCH, Circuit Judge.

The question presented is whether plaintiff Sonia Vélez-Vélez's political discrimination claim was timely brought within the one-year statute of limitations for such 42 U.S.C. § 1983 actions filed in Puerto Rico. We agree with the district court that the logic of the Supreme Court's decisions in Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250, 101 S.Ct. 498, 66 L.Ed.2d 431 (1980), and Chardon v. Fernandez, 454 U.S. 6, 102 S.Ct. 28, 70 L.Ed.2d 6 (1981) (per curiam), requires finding that the claim here was untimely. See Vélez-Vélez v. P.R. Highway & Transp. Auth., No. 11-2231, 2014 WL 104928 (D.P.R. Jan. 9, 2014). We affirm the entry of summary judgment for the defendants.

Vélez-Vélez's political belief discrimination termination claim is all too familiar after Puerto Rico elections. Vélez-Vélez, a Popular Democratic Party (" PDP" ) member, worked for the Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority (the " Transportation Authority" ) under a prior PDP administration, after being hired under that administration's interpretation of a set of policies. But, she lost her job after an election returned the opposing political party, the New Progressive Party (" NPP" ), to office. The new NPP administration undertook a review of whether the former administration's hiring policies in fact complied with Puerto Rico law. They determined that one such set of policies was contrary to Puerto Rico law and that the employment of those hired under the erroneous determinations must be terminated. This decision, Ruling No. 2010-01, was announced on January 19, 2010, almost two years before Vélez-Vélez brought suit.

Vélez-Vélez was in the group of employees who had been hired under the erroneous determinations. There is no evidence that the members of that group were not all terminated or that the new interpretation of the policies was not uniformly applied. Vélez-Vélez was individually informed bye letter, dated February 10, 2010, that she would be terminated under the new ruling. She received this letter on February 11, 2010, some twenty-two months before she brought suit.

Vélez-Vélez was told that she could have a hearing, which she did on June 7, 2010. At no time did she say an error had been made as to whether she was an employee under the policy regarding termination. On November 8, 2010, the Examining Officer recommended affirming the decision to terminate Vélez-Vélez's employment.

Her claim is that the clock did not begin to run until she was formally terminated after the hearing. But, the purpose of the hearing was not to revisit the re-interpretation of policy that her superiors had already made in Ruling No. 2010-01. Vélez-Vélez has never denied that Ruling No. 2010-01 did, in fact, nullify the Rulings on which her transfer was based. The statute of limitations began to run when she was informed of this relevant decision, and its undisputed effect on her position, by letter on February 11, 2010. To hold otherwise would be to pervert the holdings of Ricks and Chardon.

I.

In 2001, Vélez-Vélez was transferred from the Puerto Rico Labor Relations Board to the Transportation Authority to be the Director of Human Resources Transactions. Vélez-Vélez concedes that her transfer was based on Ruling No. 2001-13, issued on April 25, 2001, and Ruling No. 2001-24, issued on June 18, 2001, by the Secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Transportation and Public Works at that time, José Izquierdo Encarnación.[1]

In November of 2008, Luis Fortuño Burset won the general election in Puerto Rico as the NPP candidate for Governor. The result was a change in the administration from the PDP to the NPP. Two months later, Fortuño appointed Rubén Hernández-Gregorat to be the new Secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Transportation and Public Works, and the Executive Director of the Transportation Authority.

Herná ndez-Gregorat then appointed Luis Sánchez Casanova to be the Director of Human Resources at the Transportation Authority. When Sánchez Casanova left this position on May 31, 2009, Hernández-Gregorat appointed Brenda Gomila-Santiago. Vélez-Vélez alleges ...


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