FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF
PUERTO RICO [Hon. Gustavo A. Gelpí, Jr., U.S.
N. Blanco-Matos for appellant.
Claudio Aliff-Ortiz, with whom Eliezer Aldarondo-Ortiz,
Sheila Torres-Delgado, Eliezer A. Aldarondo-López,
David R. Rodríguez-Burns, and Aldarondo &
López-Bras were on brief, for appellee.
Thompson, Kayatta, and Dyk, [*] Circuit Judges.
KAYATTA, Circuit Judge.
María López-Erquicia ("López")
claims that Puerto Rico's Insurance Commissioner,
Ángela Weyne-Roig ("Weyne"), eliminated
López's job as a director within the Office of the
Insurance Commissioner ("OIC") on account of
López's political affiliation. Weyne now seeks
interlocutory review of the district court's rejection of
her argument that her qualified immunity defense entitled her
to summary judgment on López's federal damages
claim. Finding that a reasonable official in Weyne's
position could have understood the First Amendment not to
protect López against politically motivated removal
from her job, we reverse.
denying Weyne's motion for summary judgment, the district
court properly viewed the record in the light most favorable
to López, and assumed the facts to be as supported by
López's competent evidence. Neither party claims
any error in that regard. We therefore take the facts
"as given, " filling any gaps by similarly viewing
the record "in the light most favorable to
[López]." Johnson v.
Jones, 515 U.S. 304, 319 (1995).
Puerto Rico law, "career" employees may only be
terminated for cause, whereas "trust" or
"confidential" employees "can be selected and
removed at will." See P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 3,
§§ 1462e, 1465; see also id. § 1462c.
In 2004, after working as an attorney at the OIC for a number
of years, López was promoted to the career position of
Director of the Anti-Fraud Special Investigations
("AFSI") Division. In January 2009, she was
appointed by then-Insurance Commissioner Ramón
Cruz-Colón ("Cruz") to the trust position of
Auxiliary Commissioner of Legal Affairs. Several months
later, López received an additional trust appointment
to the position of Chief Deputy Commissioner, thereby
elevating her to second-in-command of the agency. Both Cruz
and López were affiliated with the New Progressive
Party, as was the Governor of Puerto Rico at the time.
November 2012, Puerto Rico elected the gubernatorial
candidate of the Popular Democratic Party. The Governor-elect
subsequently announced that he would be nominating Weyne to
serve as his Insurance Commissioner. In January 2013,
López was reinstated to her previous career position
as AFSI Director. Around the same time, Weyne assumed her
position as Insurance Commissioner. Shortly thereafter, Weyne
summoned López to her office to inform her that
"things would be changing." López responded
by pointing out that her AFSI Director position was a career
position, and that she intended to continue serving in the
position "with excellence." Nevertheless,
López alleges that over the course of the next several
months, she was subject to various forms of politically
motivated harassment and disparate treatment.
29, 2013, Weyne informed López that Weyne was
eliminating the AFSI Division and transferring
López's employees to the Market Conduct Division.
Because the division of which she was the director ceased to
exist, López was reclassified as a Principal Attorney
and assigned to the Legal Affairs Division. Although
López retained the same salary and fringe benefits,
her duties and the nature of her work changed substantially.
thereafter, López filed this lawsuit against Weyne,
the OIC, and certain unknown OIC staff members (collectively,
the "Defendants"), alleging that the job
reassignment and alleged harassment violated the First and
Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, various
provisions of Article II of the Puerto Rico Constitution, and
various provisions of Puerto Rico law. Under 42 U.S.C. §
1983, López sought damages from Weyne personally for
the alleged violations of federal law.
district court granted the Defendants' motion for summary
judgment as to López's due process claims, but
denied it as to her remaining claims, including her federal
political discrimination claims for damages, declaratory
relief, and injunctive relief. In so doing, the court
rejected Weyne's principal argument that any rational
jury would have to conclude that López simply lost her
job as a collateral effect of a broader reorganization of the
agency. The district court also rejected an alternative
defense raised by Weyne: that even if the reorganization
could be interpreted as an action directed at López
because of her political affiliation, Weyne was entitled to
qualified immunity on the § 1983 damages claim because a
reasonable official could have thought that
López's position fell within the exception to the
First Amendment's bar on political removals recognized in
Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347
(1976), and Branti v. Finkel, 445
U.S. 507 (1980). That denial of the qualified immunity
defense was immediately appealable for the purpose of
allowing review of the district court's assessment of the
law as applied to the assumed facts. See Cady
v. Walsh, 753 F.3d 348, 358-59 (1st Cir.
2014). After Weyne promptly sought such review, we granted
Weyne's request for a stay of the proceedings below and
denied López's request for summary disposition. We
now turn to the substance of the appeal.