A lawsuit against the Rio Grande City school district and three of its members will move forward after a federal judge denied the district’s motion to dismiss the case.
U.S. District Judge Randy Crane ruled that the majority of the lawsuit brought by a former employee, Ricardo “Rick” Lopez, could move forward.
Lopez, a former truancy officer with the school district, filed a lawsuit against the school district and three of its school board members — Daniel J. Garcia, Eleazar Velasquez and Daria Babineaux — in their official and individual capacities.
In the lawsuit, Lopez argues that his termination from the district violated his rights to freedom of expression and due process, alleging that those board members decided not to renew his contract because he supported another political faction of the board.
While the bulk of the lawsuit survived the district’s motion to dismiss, Crane did dismiss two parts of the lawsuit.
Among the dismissed were the claims against the board members in their official capacities which the judge found were a duplication of the claims against the district.
The other part to be dismissed was Lopez’s request for punitive damages against the district to which the district cited precedent that stated that a federal court could award punitive damages against a Texas public school district.
Lopez, who began working for the district in 2003 as a special education teacher, was arrested in November 2017 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.
In the complaint, filed in federal court in February, Lopez claimed that Garcia, one of the school board members, pressured Lopez to approach the judge. He also claimed that Garcia generally abused his position on the board by allegedly telling Lopez that he couldn’t advance any further within the district without carrying out Garcia’ personal requests and the requests of his political allies on the board.
Following Lopez’s arrest, the school district placed him on paid administrative leave until October 2018, when he was notified that his contract would not be renewed.
Lopez’s attorney, Marcus C. Barrera, argued that his contract with the school district had auto-renewed because the district did not give him proper notice that his contract would not be renewed.
In March, attorneys for the district filed the motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that Lopez failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The district argued that Lopez lacked allegations of an official policy that adversely affected his employment or violated his constitutional rights and that he failed to identify unconstitutional actions taken by any of the board members.
The district also argued that Lopez did not identify a “property interest” protected by the due process clause. Even if he did, the district argued, his claims of violations to his due process rights fail if there are no allegations that he was unable to contest the non-renewal of his contract.
However, judge Crane noted that Lopez correctly pointed two a section of the Texas Education Code that requires the school district to notify an employee, no later than 10 days before the last day of school instruction, that their contract will not be renewed.
If a district does not do this, then that is taken as a decision to continue employing the teacher for the following year.
Lopez received notice from the district that his contract would not be renewed in October 2018, after the 2018-19 school year had already begun.
” … in which case the letter delivered to (Lopez) in October 2018 could only have served as a notice of nonrenewal of his employment for the following year,” Crane wrote. “Otherwise, it could only have related to the termination of his continued employment, in which he had a protected property interest by operation of Texas law.”
Regarding the district’s argument that Lopez did not try to contest the non-renewal of his contract, Crane wrote the district overlooks that Lopez characterized the notice, not as a proposal, but as effectively terminated him.
But regardless of whether he had the opportunity for a hearing to contest the non-renewal at that point but did not utilize it, Crane wrote, “his allegations that he had no opportunity to be heard prior to his termination states a claim for the deprivation of his procedural due process rights.”
With the case moving forward, attorneys for the school district are scheduled to take Lopez’s oral and videotaped deposition on Nov. 9
The next hearings in the case are scheduled for 2021.