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Lopez-Erquicia v. Weyne-Roig

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

January 25, 2017

ANA MARIA LOPEZ-ERQUICIA, Plaintiff, Appellee,


          Luis 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.

          Before Thompson, Kayatta, and Dyk, [*] Circuit Judges.

          KAYATTA, Circuit Judge.

         Ana 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.

         I. Background

         In 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).

         Under 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.

         In 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.

         On May 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.

         Soon 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.

         The 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).[1] 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.

         II. ...

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