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Nick Castillo

$150,000 settlement now off the table

Donna lawsuit: political retaliation?

By G. Romero Wendorf

DONNA – Did Donna ISD’s board majority retaliate against district employees after the November 2014 school board election? If a settlement isn’t reached soon, that’s just what a federal jury is going to have to decide probably some time next March.

Which lawsuit? There seem to be so many in Donna these days. This is the one filed in federal court against Donna ISD and trustees Albert Sandoval, Tomasa Ramos, Nick Castillo, Eloy Infante and Elpidio Yanez for allegedly retaliating against district employees following last November’s election. The plaintiffs, six in all, who have collectively worked for Donna ISD for 110 years, claim that the defendants retaliated against them shortly after the November 2014 election by demoting them and cutting their pay.

The plaintiffs and their time working for Donna ISD include: Jose V. Campos, 41 years; Martha Orozco, 28 years; Francisco A. Cuellar, 3 years; Arturo Castillo Sr., 13 years; Javier Garza, 14 years; and Linda Garza, more than 11 years.

According to the lawsuit, all the plaintiffs had received high annual work-performance reviews and had never had any adverse employment action taken against them, nor had they been written up for any job-related misconduct.

Board trustee arrests

This lawsuit comes on top of the fact that both Board Trustees Infante and Yanez were arrested last month and charged by the feds with extortion. Allegedly, they tried to bribe the law firm the school district uses to collect its past-due property taxes, Perdue Brandon Field Collins & Mott LLP. The alleged bribery/extortion ploy – pay us $10,000 each or we’ll cost you the account and hire another firm.

The four-count indictment against Infante and Yanez claims they also hit up Perdue for some tickets to a Spurs basketball game.

For that relatively small largesse, both men are facing a maximum sentence of 35 years in the federal slammer if convicted.

A third man was also charged, Juan Adrian Guerrero, who works for the city of Donna. The indictment claims he sometimes worked as the go-between, picking up the money from Perdue and delivering it to Infante and Yanez. The indictment claims that as soon as the extortion attempt was presented to Perdue, one of its attorneys notifed the feds. From there, one may surmise that the audio and surveillance taping began, helping to collect evidence against the three defendants.

Infante has resigned from the school board, but for all intents and purposes remains a board member until the board either replaces him by appointment or a special election is called. Yanez has yet to resign, but as a condition of his bond, he must report to the federal magistrate any and all business he votes on during board meetings.

Since their respective arrests, however, neither has shown up to a Donna ISD board meeting. It’s been a month or more since the board has been able to gather a quorum, putting some things on the back burner, such as the future of the school’s superintendent Jesus Rene Reyna, who has been on paid administrative leave since last summer. It’s pretty clear the board majority, now in splinters, wanted to terminate his employment completely, but was never able to do so. With the way things are now, that endeavor looks like it’s going to be harder to accomplish anytime soon since a quorum has been hard to come by. Last week, for the second school board meeting in a row, only three board trustees showed up to the meeting, failing to count a quorum: Albert Sandoval, “Tammy” Ramos and Nick Castillo.

Lawsuit claims

The lawsuit, filed by local Attorney Gustavo Acevedo and co-Attorney Juan “Sonny” Palacios, includes these allegations:

• In November of 2014, Donna ISD conducted school board elections, which resulted in the seating of a new school board political majority. During the election campaign, the members who were elected and those current board members with whom they are aligned made numerous statements regarding their intent to terminate, demote and reassign employees, specifically naming the Plaintiffs.

• Upon being sworn in, the new political majority, hereinafter referred to as the Sandoval faction, comprised of Defendants Albert Sandoval, Tomasa Ramos, Nick Castillo, Eloy Infante and Elpidio Yanez, set about on a campaign to reward those employees who were related to the new board majority and those who had openly supported their faction.  They also set about retaliating against those employees who had not supported their faction. 

• As part of the retaliation by the Sandoval faction, in order to make room for the political patronage that was necessary to reward their relatives and campaign workers, the Board members directed the superintendent, Jesus Rene Reyna, to reassign and demote employees such as Plaintiffs who, during the campaign, were in open opposition to the Sandoval faction. 

• On or about December 16, 2014, two days before the Christmas break, each of the Plaintiffs received a letter from the Superintendent notifying them of their demotion and a cut in their pay that would be forthcoming effective July 1, 2015.

• The notices gave no reasons for their demotions and pay-cuts nor were the Plaintiffs given any meaningful opportunity to be heard prior to the adverse employment action taken against them.  None of the new positions to which Plaintiffs were reassigned and demoted to were advertised in accordance with Donna ISD board policy. In addition to the list given to the Superintendent regarding who needed to be promoted, demoted and transferred, the Superintendent was given a memo from the Defendants advising him of who to replace the Plaintiffs with.

• Jose Campos was employed under a certifed administrator’s contract and had worked for the district for 41 years. He openly did not support the new political majority. He attended numerous functions in support of the opponents of the new political majority and had political signs in support of the opposition in front of his house.  He was demoted from the district-wide position of Director of Safety and Risk Management, a position he had held for 20 years, to an assistant principal at a middle school.  His salary was decreased by $16,948.68 per year and his number of employment days was reduced from 226 to 207 days.  Further, Mr. Campos, on information and belief, has been discriminated against on the basis of his age.  Mr. Campos was replaced by an employee named Angelica De Los Rios aged 37 who was the sister of one of the candidates who ran on the Sandoval slate. Because of this demotion, Mr. Campos was forced to retire.  Had this adverse employment action not been taken against him, he would still be working for the district and would have continued to do so as long as his health would allow.

• Martha Orozco, who did not support the new political majority, was demoted from Secretary for Child Nutrition Department at the time earning $17.91 per hour to a clerk position paying only $15.17/ hour.  She was also informed that the number of her working days per year would be reduced from 226 to 207 days.  She sponsored several political events at her house and during the election period, she assisted individuals in getting to the polls and openly made her views known regarding her opposition to the Sandoval faction.

• Francisco “Frank” Cuellar is an ex-member of the DISD board of trustees who openly opposed the new majority during the November 2014 campaign. He attended numerous campaign rallies and functions in support of the opposition to the current majority.  He also held campaign functions at his house.  After the new majority assumed control, he was notifed while he was on Texas Workers’ Compensation Disability that he was being demoted from Maintenance Coordinator/Project Manager to simply Project Manager. His pay was cut $8,000 per year.  He confronted the Superintendent, Rene Reyna, for an explanation for the adverse employment action.  Mr. Reyna informed him that the new board majority, the Sandoval faction, had directed him to take the adverse action against him.

• Arturo Castillo, an ex-Donna ISD board member, was employed under a non-certifed professional employee contract.  He openly opposed the current majority during the elections. He attended numerous functions in support of the unsuccessful slate, he had yard signs and he stood at the polling site with the unsuccessful slate to show his support for them. Because of his exercise of his protected First Amendment rights, he was reassigned and demoted from Director of Transportation, a position he had held for 8 years to the position of Accounting Supervisor at Child Nutrition. His loss of salary was $5,666 per year. Plaintiff Castillo confronted the Superintendent regarding the adverse action against him and the Superintendent informed him that the Defendants had directed him to do so.

• Javier Garza, the current City of Donna Municipal Judge, was employed under a non-certifed professional contract. He openly opposed the new board majority. He attended numerous political functions in support of the opposition slate to the Sandoval faction.  He had political signs on his yard and he held functions at his house. During the elections, he stood with the candidates at the polls and he assisted voters in getting to the polls. Because of his political activities, he was demoted from Director of Warehouse and Fixed Assets to Supervisor. The reduction in pay is $8.000 per year.  After he received the demotion letter, Plaintiff Garza confronted the Superintendent regarding the adverse action against him and the Superintendent informed him that the Defendants had directed him to do so.  

• Linda Garza is employed under a certifed administrator’s contract. She openly opposed the current political majority. She attended numerous political functions in support of the faction which opposed the current political majority and she openly campaigned for the opponents of the current majority. She was demoted from the district-wide position of Staff Development Coordinator to the campus position of Strategist at the 3-D Academy. She has worked for Donna ISD for 10 years and her pay was cut $1,928.45 per year.

• On January 26, 2015, in order to further punish the Plaintiffs for not supporting the new board majority, all the Plaintiffs, except Jose Campos and Linda Garza, were notifed by letter from the superintendent, that pursuant to School Board action, their salaries would be decreased retro-actively to January 5, 2015.  The notice specifically stated that the retro-active taking of wages was done pursuant to specific board directive.

• The timing of the first letter notifying Plaintiffs of their demotions and cuts in pay 2 days before the Christmas break was intended to inflict the maximum amount of pain and mental anguish right before the Holidays since the first letter said that the cuts in pay would not occur until July of 2015, 6 ½ months later. The letters were meant not only to punish the Plaintiffs but to send a message to the entire Donna community of the consequences of failing to support the Sandoval faction.

• The January 26, 2015 letter notifying various Plaintiffs that the cuts in pay would be retroactive to January 5, 2015 was an unbridled attempt to immediately make life unbearable for the Plaintiffs (who all need their previous monthly pay) and create a situation where the Plaintiffs would be compelled to seek employment elsewhere and thereby create immediate job vacancies, which could be filled by the Sandoval faction’s political allies.

• All the adverse retaliatory employment actions taken by the superintendent, Jesus Rene Reyna, against the plaintiffs were at the direction of the Sandoval faction.  Again, each of the individual defendants were personally involved in the retaliation against the plaintiffs by virtue of their association with each other in the Sandoval faction.

According to the plaintiffs’ attorney, “Gus” Acevedo, because the board trustees allegedly acted outside of the scope of the normal authority granted to them as trustees, they are being held personably liable in the lawsuit and will not be indemnifed. Meaning, if the plaintiffs win their case in federal court, each of the trustees will be personally responsible for any dollar settlement the jury might award in punitive damages.

“Last summer,” said Acevedo, “during mediation, the plaintiffs were willing to settle for a total of $150,000, or $30,000 each, and no attorneys’ fees. Now, since so much time has elapsed, any settlement would have to be worth much more than that, approximately three times that original amount, and would include a demand for attorneys fees.” 

Jury selection is scheduled to begin March 1. If the case makes it to trial, said Acevedo, attorneys’ fees for trial work typically range somewhere in the $150,000 range.

Donna ISD’s insurance carrier has been in charge of the defense since the lawsuit was first filed in federal court last February. Because the summer settlement offer was rejected, the presumption is: the defendants deny any and all allegations.

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