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Maldonado-Catala v. Municipality of Naranjito

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

November 21, 2017

MARIBEL MALDONADO-CÁTALA, Plaintiff, Appellant,
v.
MUNICIPALITY OF NARANJITO; ORLANDO ORTIZ-CHÉVRES, in his individual and official capacity as Mayor of Municipality of Naranjito; MARIALIS FIGUEROA-NEGRÓN, in her individual and official capacity as Director of the Human Resources Office of the Municipality of Naranjito; JOSÉ TOMÁS RODRÍGUEZ-ÉLEZ, in his official and individual capacity as Director of the Municipal Emergency Management Office; JOSÉ AMUARY FIGUEROA, in his official and individual capacity as Interim Chief of Field Operations for the Emergency Management Office; HIRAM BRISTOL-COLÓN, in his official and individual capacity as Former Director of the Municipal Emergency Management Office, Defendants, Appellees.

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Bruce J. McGiverin, Magistrate Judge]

          Luis A. Rodríguez Muñoz, with whom Landrón Vera, LLC, Eduardo A. Vera Ramírez, and Eileen Landrón Guardiola were on brief, for appellant.

          Efraim A. De Luna-Colon, with whom Gonzalez-Mendez Law Office and Vivian Ivette Gonzalez Mendez were on brief, for appellee Municipality of Naranjito and individual appellees in their official capacity.

          Luis R. Román-Negrón, Solicitor General, with whom Susana I. Peñagarícano-Brown, Assistant Solicitor General, was on brief, for individual appellees in their individual capacity.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Lipez and Thompson, Circuit Judges.

          LIPEZ, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Appellant Maribel Maldonado-Cátala ("Maldonado") claims that, over a period of years, she faced abusive treatment from colleagues and superiors in the Emergency Management Office ("EMO") of the Municipality of Naranjito. She brought this suit alleging violations of federal and Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws, asserting that the defendants' actions were based on gender, and were in retaliation for her complaint about a superior's sexual harassment. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants. On appeal, Maldonado challenges only the dismissal of her claims premised on a hostile work environment. Having carefully reviewed the record, we take a different path but ultimately agree with the district court's conclusion that these claims are not viable. Hence, we affirm its judgment.

         I. Background

         A. The Facts

         We present the facts in the light most favorable to appellant, consistent with record support. See Alfano v. Lynch, 847 F.3d 71, 74 (1st Cir. 2017).

         1. Maldonado's Employment and First Leave

         Maldonado began working in the EMO as an emergency medical technician in 2008, responding via ambulance when medical or other emergency assistance was needed. After suffering a work-related accident, Maldonado took leave from July 8, 2010 until April 3, 2012. In September 2010, while on leave, she accompanied a co-worker to meet with the Municipality's Director of Human Resources, Marialis Figueroa-Negrón ("Figueroa-Negrón" or the "HR director"), to discuss sexual harassment by the EMO director, Hiram Bristol-Colón ("Bristol"), against several female employees. During that meeting, Maldonado reported comments made to her not only by Bristol, but also by another EMO employee, José Amuary Figueroa-Nieves ("Figueroa-Nieves"), who made crude jokes about Maldonado's sexual orientation. Maldonado's co-worker, Jose Luis Hernandez Rivera ("Hernandez"), testified in his deposition that Figueroa-Nieves and at least one other EMO employee repeatedly used slurs, such as "machito" (roughly translated as "manly") to refer to Maldonado, and he described the situation as "like a battle" because she was being attacked "all the time."

         Shortly after the September 2010 meeting, the Municipality hired an attorney to investigate the complaint against Bristol, and Maldonado was one of the employees interviewed. By the end of October 2010, the attorney had issued a report finding that Bristol had engaged in misconduct and sexual harassment, and recommending his removal from his position. At the request of the mayor, Orlando Ortiz-Chévres, Bristol resigned from his trust position as EMO director. For the next several months, Ramón Vázquez Baez ("Vázquez"), the Municipal Police Commissioner, also served as interim EMO director.

         Following the Bristol investigation, Maldonado was the subject several times of derogatory comments posted on Facebook by one or more individuals, using pseudonyms, referring to her involvement in the matter. She highlights a Facebook message sent to her personally at 10:46 PM on November 1, 2010, in which she was called a "nasty lesbian, " "whore, " "snake, " and "dike." The message further stated: "I will see you fall you dirty lesbian and every one of you one by one what you did to that man the one from emergency management . . . remember that you have children that by the way the boy is gay and the girl is a lesbo . . . ."

         Understandably alarmed by this message, Maldonado filed a police report the next morning that prompted an investigation. Although the law enforcement inquiry indicated that the message was sent from within the Municipality, and possibly from the EMO or municipal police department, the police were unable to identify the sender within the applicable one-year limitations period for the misdemeanor that could have been charged based on the message. Hence, in late 2011, the department terminated its investigation. The primary police investigator, Officer Jackeline Candelaria Curbelo ("Candelaria"), turned over her file to Maldonado, reporting that "things had gotten complicated" and that "[t]hey used the municipality's computers and the internet to send you this message."[1]

         Meanwhile, Maldonado also had reported the messages shortly after she received them to Figueroa-Negrón, the HR director, who told her that she would pursue the matter within the department after the police investigation and said "when the time[] come[s] we will punish them." When Maldonado obtained the police file in late 2011, she offered the documents to the mayor, who initially expressed skepticism about investigating "a fake page, " but then instructed Maldonado to deliver the materials personally to Figueroa-Negrón when she returned from maternity leave in early 2012. In February 2012, Maldonado sent a letter to the mayor requesting an administrative investigation. Maldonado suspected Figueroa-Nieves, whom Vázquez, the Municipal Police Commissioner and EMO interim director in late 2010 and early 2011, had put in charge of the office's day-to-day operation while he handled police work. In that role, Figueroa-Nieves would have had access to the EMO computer identified as a possible source of the message. To Maldonado's knowledge, no internal investigation took place.

         2. Maldonado's Work Experience Post-Leave

         Maldonado returned to work in April 2012. Although the doctor for the State Insurance Fund told her that her back sprain was not fully healed at that point, and she should not yet return to work, he nonetheless gave her the required form when Maldonado explained that she had been denied an additional six-month leave and could not afford to lose her job.[2] The form reported that she would continue receiving treatment while working.

         Just before resuming her position, Maldonado met with Figueroa-Negrón and the EMO director appointed in February 2011, José Tomás Rodríguez Vélez ("Rodríguez"), to inform Rodríguez about the Facebook-related investigation involving EMO employees "so that he knew and understood and [could] try not to make us work the same schedules and so that he [could] be [on the] look out." They also discussed Maldonado's need to reactivate her professional licenses, which had lapsed while she was out, so she could be assigned paramedic duties. According to Maldonado, Rodríguez told her "that since my licenses were past due, that he needed a janitor for the office."

         Rodríguez and Figueroa-Negrón initially gave Maldonado two months to renew her licenses, but Maldonado testified that they "understood that it wasn't humanly possible to comply with all those requirements in two months." They told her there would be no problem if she "kept bringing them certifications" showing that she was moving toward fulfilling the licensing requirements.[3]For the first couple of months after her return, Maldonado was assigned exclusively to the EMO office answering phones.[4] She attributed that placement to "my condition and they saw that my licen[s]es were not up to date."

         Maldonado testified that, at the time she was assigned to phone duty, she was the only paramedic who lacked full licensing who was not allowed to work in the field. Although it had been common in the past for EMO employees to perform paramedic work without full licensing, an ongoing office restructuring process sought to bring all employees into compliance with the licensing requirements. Nonetheless, the other employees who had not yet fulfilled the requirements continued to go out on emergency calls. Maldonado further testified that male employees had received reimbursement for their licensing costs before her accident and leave, but she had been denied financial assistance when she requested it upon her return to work in 2012. She acknowledged that the reimbursement rules had changed in the interim, but she followed the new procedure and first sought approval from the EMO director, who denied her request.

         During her first few months back on the job, Maldonado received favorable reviews from her supervisor. On a day in mid-June, Maldonado was assigned to an ambulance for field duty because the paramedic originally designated for that assignment was absent. In her brief, she notes that "[t]his was done despite her physical limitations and previous injuries." Thereafter, Maldonado was assigned shifts both at the call center and driving ambulances. She testified that it was difficult for her to be "out on the street, . . . with the gurney and the things you have to do, so my back would get injured." In November 2012, she had another work-related accident that resulted in an ...


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