Appeals Court Upholds Dismissal Of Suit By 29 District Employees For Political Retaliation

In Del Angel v. La Joya Independent School District, Dkt. No. 15-41099 (5th Cir. Nov. 29, 2017),  twenty-nine employees of La Joya Independent School District sued the school district, the seven members of the Board of Trustees, a Hidalgo County Commissioner, and one school administrator, asserting state tort and federal constitutional claims for employment political retaliation.  They alleged that they suffered adverse employment action because they did not support the political group to which all individual defendants belonged.  The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss and the employees appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the main issue was whether the employees’ suit stated sufficient facts to state viable claims for relief.  The suit alleged that Hidalgo County Commissioner, Joe Flores, controlled local politics and used his influence over the Board of Trustees and others to punish plaintiffs for the failure to support what they called “Team Liberty” in certain elections.  According to the suit, Team Liberty controls the school board and Team Liberty members use their positions to reward supporters and retaliate against those who do not support them.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the suit.  The court observed that the First Amendment forbids government officials to discharge or threaten to discharge public employees solely for not being supporters of the political party in power, unless party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the position involved.  This doctrine applies when an employment decision is based upon support of and loyalty to a particular candidate as distinguished from a political party.  A plaintiff asserting a First Amendment employment retaliation claim must show that (1) an adverse action was taken, (2) speech involving a matter of public concern was uttered, (3) the employee’s interest in speaking outweighs the employer’s interest in efficiency, and (4) the protected speech precipitated the adverse employment action.  Adverse actions can include discharges, demotions, refusals to hire, refusals to promote, and reprimands, as well as a transfer that is equivalent to a demotion.

In this case, the employees failed to state what actions Flores or any other defendant took that would show that the alleged adverse actions were taken for political reasons.  The general statement that the defendants intimidated the supporters of the rival political faction was not enough. The plaintiffs did not state sufficient facts to establish who took adverse action against them and how the adverse action could be attributed to any of the individual defendants.  The individual defendants were properly dismissed.

With respect to the school district, the employees had to allege facts showing that the execution of a school board policy or custom violated their constitutional rights.  Actual or constructive knowledge of the custom or policy must be attributable to the board of trustees, because under Texas law final policymaking authority in an independent school district rests with the district’s board of trustees.  According to the appeals court, the lawsuit failed to state sufficient facts to establish that the La Joya ISD Board of Trustees took any adverse action against the employees.

The Fifth Circuit also found no basis for the employees’ federal conspiracy claims.  To properly allege a conspiracy under federal law, facts must establish (1) a conspiracy involving two or more persons, (2) for the purpose of depriving, directly or indirectly, a person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws, and (3) an act in furtherance of the conspiracy, (4) which causes injury to a person or property, or a deprivation of any right or privilege of a citizen of the United States.  Additionally, there must be some allegation of race-based or class-based discriminatory animus.  According to the court, political groups are not a protected class able to assert a conspiracy claim and, consequently, the conspiracy claims were properly dismissed.

The state civil conspiracy claim, likewise, failed.  The employees did not state sufficient facts showing that any particular defendant conspired to use their influence as a member of the Board of Trustees to effectuate adverse employment actions against them.  State claims for tortious interference with employment relations were also properly dismissed because the employees did not state facts to establish what retaliatory action each of the defendants took against them. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the suit for its failure to state detailed facts to support the causes of action alleged.  The employees already had two chances to amend their suit in order to cure these deficiencies, but they failed to do so.

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