Federal judge sets 2021 dates for RGC school district lawsuit

A wrongful termination case against the Rio Grande City school district was scheduled for a May 2021 trial during a hearing Wednesday in federal court.

U.S. District Judge Randy Crane said the year before trial would allow the parties enough time to conduct discovery in the case in which Ricardo “Rick” Lopez, a former truancy officer with the school district, argues that his termination was violated his free speech rights.

Lopez filed the lawsuit in February against board trustees Daniel J. Garcia, Eleazar Velasquez and Daria “Dr. B.” Babineaux, claiming his rights to freedom of expression and due process were violated.

He claims that Garcia abused his position on the school board to pressure Lopez “by telling him that he could not advance any further within the school district without carrying out his particular personal requests and the requests of his political allies on the school board,” according to Lopez’s complaint.

Lopez added that during the 2016 school board elections, he was pressured to support the Kids’ Choice political slate on which Garcia and the other two defendants were running.

In 2017, Lopez was arrested for attempting to bribe a judge who at the time was presiding over the case of Jose Luis Garcia Jr., a man who was charged but later acquitted in the death of 17-year-old Chayse Olivarez.

Lopez alleges that Garcia pressured him to approach the judge in the case to request a lower bond for Jose Luis Garcia Jr. and also pressured him to approach the family of Jose Luis Garcia Jr. “and put in a good word to them about him so that they would hire him, Daniel J. Garcia, to represent Jose Luis Garcia, Jr.,” according to the complaint.

Following his arrest, the school district placed Lopez on paid administrative leave until October 2018, when he was notified that his contract would not be renewed.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Lopez’s attorney, Marcus C. Barrera, argued that Lopez’s contract with the district had auto-renewed because the district did not give Lopez notice or non-renewal 10 days before it expired.

“We’re alleging that he didn’t get the proper notice,” Barrera said.

But the attorney for the school district, David Campbell, said the October 2018 letter Lopez received was just a notice of proposed non-renewal and that his contract didn’t expire until the end of the 2018-19 school year.

Campbell added that the notice included administrative remedies that were available to Lopez.

“Those weren’t requested by Mr. Lopez,” he said of the remedies. “So the end of the 2018-2019 school year is when the non-renewal went through.”

In a response to the school district’s motion to dismiss the case, Lopez alleges that he sent a letter to the superintendent requesting reinstatement but he did not receive a response.

“No hearing was ever afforded him to present his concerns over the nonrenewable/termination of his contract,” the response stated.

Crane has not ruled on the motion to dismiss but set tentative deadlines for next year.