No Immunity For Officials Who Retaliated Against Police Capt’s Free Speech

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled that a trio of Wood County, TX, officials must answer charges they conspired to retaliate against a police captain because he exercised his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

The three-judge panel ruled 2-1 to deny qualified immunity to the defendants, local Judge Jeff Fletcher, Sheriff Tom Castloo and former District Attorney James Wheeler.

Quitman Police Department Captain Terry Bevill has charged the trio with conspiring to have him fired and arrested for agreeing to a lawyer’s request to sign an affidavit for a friend

Bevill signed the affidavit in his personal capacity to support a venue transfer for the criminal trial of former Wood County Jail Administrator David McGee. Bevill said McGee would not get a fair trial in the county for facilitating the escape of an inmate and tampering with government documents because of the close personal relationship between Castloo, Wheeler and Fletcher.

The affidavit described Belvill “[a]s a longtime resident and law enforcement officer” who was “familiar with the local players and political climate.”

Castloo, Wheeler and Fletcher subsequently demanded Quitman Mayor David Dobbs fire Bevill, allegedly threatening to refuse to take future cases and to deny support for the police department. After pressure from Dobbs, Police Chief Kelly Cole fired Belvill on the grounds he violated a policy that bars police from interfering with courts.

Meanwhile, McGee’s case was not transferred and a jury found him guilty.

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Federal Appeals Court Chills Whistleblowing in the Judiciary

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit based in Louisiana has issued a decision that promises to chill future whistleblower complaints of judicial corruption in state and federal courts.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court on Jan. 14 dismissed a lawsuit filed by a staff attorney who complained  about alleged corruption by then Chief Justice Rogelio Valdez of the Texas Thirteenth District Court of Appeals and then was blackballed by Valdez in 2014 apparent in retaliation for his complaint.

The decision notes Bruce M. Anderson was required to swear an oath to report judicial misconduct when he was hired as a briefing attorney for a judge on the Texas state appellate court.

He complained in 2012 that Valdez doublebilled (at least ten times) travel expenses to both Valdez’ political campaign and the court’s local fund.

At the time, Anderson worked for Justice Rose Vela of the Thirteenth Court who, along with another Justice, Gregory Perkes, unsuccessfully sought an audit of a court fund controlled by Valdez. (Vela and Perkes also had a professional obligation to report Valdez’ alleged misconduct under the Texas Code  on Judicial Conduct but they did not do so.)

As of about two weeks ago, Valdez is no longer on the Texas court. He chose not to run for reelection and his term expired  on December 31, 2018.

After Vela’s term expired in 2013, both she and Anderson left the court. He provided additional information about Valdez’ alleged corruption  to the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office in his capacity as a private citizen.

In 2014, Justice Perkes offered Anderson a position as senior staff attorney. When Valdez found out about this, he told Perkes that hiring Anderson was a “bad idea”  because, among other things, Anderson had a bad attitude. According to the 5th Circuit: “After Valdez told Perkes in May 2014 that he and the other justices did not approve of Anderson’s hiring, Perkes rescinded Anderson’s offer.”

The facts point to an open and shut case of retaliation against a whistleblower.

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Settlement is Mother’s Day Gift to Working Mothers

On the heels of Mother’s Day,  a Texas woman has won an important victory for all nursing mothers in the workplace.

Donnicia Vetters  accepted an out of court settlement of $15,000  on the eve of a trial in her lawsuit alleging pregnancy discrimination by her former employer, Houston Funding II, LLC, a Houston, TX,  debt collection agency.  After giving birth in 2012, Vetters inquired whether  she would be able to pump breast milk when she returned to her job.  Her boss allegedly responded by telling her that her position had been “filled.”

If that wasn’t outrageous enough,  U.S.  District Judge Lynn N. Hughes of Houston summarily  dismissed Vetters’ lawsuit against Houston Funding on the grounds that “lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.” He said that “firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.” Judge Hughes, who is male, suggested that “pregnancy-related conditions” end on the day that a mother gives birth.

Fortunately, Judge Hughes’ opinion was unanimously reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which held that firing a woman because she is expressing milk is unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978).  Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to protect working women against discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition.

Ms. Vetters was represented in the case by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In  EEOC v. Houston Funding II, LLC, the Fifth Circuit noted the biological fact that lactation is a physiological condition distinct to women who have undergone a pregnancy.  Accordingly, the court said, firing a woman because she is expressing milk is unlawful sex discrimination, since men as a matter of biology could not be fired for such a reason. The case was remanded back to the lower court for a trial on the merits.

Instead of showing some decency, acknowledging fault and apologizing to Ms. Vetters, an attorney for Houston Funding was quoted as blaming the EEOC for forcing it to pay up.

The monetary settlement won’t put Ms. Vetters’ baby through college, and won’t compensate for the loss of a job in a difficult economy, but it is a great victory for all working mothers to know that they can’t be fired simply because they choose to nurture their infants with breast milk.