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Trump Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Dismiss Firefighter’s Discrimination Claim: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

News and Analysis
Trump Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Dismiss Firefighter’s Discrimination Claim: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties.

Trump 5th circuit judge Kurt Engelhardt cast the deciding vote in September to affirm a lower court decision that dismissed and refused to permit amendment of a firefighter’s complaint that he was fired based on what he claimed was an unjustified sexual harassment claim against him. This was despite a dissent by a judge appointed by President George W. Bush explaining that he should have had the opportunity to amend his complaint and prove that he was improperly fired in violation of Title VII. The case is Mandujano v. City of Pharr.

Carlos Mandujano was a deputy fire chief in Pharr, Texas. In 2014, he was told that a sexual harassment complaint had been filed against him by a former city employee, which was investigated and then dismissed in the spring of 2015. Later that year, another such complaint was opened against him based on the “same subject matter.” He complained later to the city manager that two deputy chiefs were creating a “negative and hostile work environment” through continuing “statements and commentary” about the alleged harassment. In September, Mandujano was told by the fire chief that a sexual harassment finding would be made against him “even though there was no evidence to support such a finding” and indicated he would be fired soon. The city manager suggested at the end of the month that the investigation had been “cleared,” but Mandujano received nothing in writing and was skeptical. He felt he had no choice but to resign and did so in November.

Mandujano then filed a lawsuit against the city. Although his initial complaint was unclear, his claim was that he had been subjected to a hostile work environment based on sex in violation of Title VII because of the harassment investigations against him, and that he was constructively discharged as a result. The district court dismissed Mandujano’s complaint and also refused to allow him to amend it. He appealed.

The three judges on the 5th Circuit panel agreed that Madujano’s initial complaint was insufficient and that, in theory, he could have stated a valid Title VII claim. But the majority, including Engelhardt, agreed with the lower court’s decision not to allow Mandujano to amend his complaint, pointing out that the amended complaint specifically referred to the city manager’s statement at the end of September that the investigation had been “cleared” and that Mandujano thus had “no basis” to believe that he would soon be fired.

Bush appointee Jennifer Walker Elrod strongly dissented from that part of the majority’s opinion. As Judge Elrod pointed out, the amended complaint specifically contended that Mandujano had been subjected to “unjustified sexual harassment investigations based on his sex,” and that the fire chief told him that a finding would be made against him without any evidence and that “he would be fired soon.” Those allegations were enough, she went on, to demonstrate that his working conditions had become “so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign” and thus stated a valid claim for constructive discharge under Title VII. She concluded that the majority had taken out of context the city manager statement that the investigation had been “cleared” because nothing in the complaint suggested that Mandujano believed the statement, and on the contrary, the complaint demonstrated that Mandujano was skeptical, that he believed “the fix was in” because of the fire chief’s statements, and that the “thrust” of the amended complaint was clearly that he “was being unfairly targeted with sexual harassment investigations that forced him to resign.”

Elrod would have sent the case back to the lower court to give Mandujano a chance to prove his Title VII claim. But as a result of Engelhardt’s deciding vote, Mandujano will not even get that chance.