Edinburg police union lawsuit to remain in federal court over First Amendment question

Edinburg City Hall on Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

A lawsuit filed against the city of Edinburg by one of the two police unions there will remain in federal court.

U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez issued the order Thursday, ruling that the lawsuit alleges a “substantial and disputed” First Amendment question, which is the federal court’s jurisdiction.

The Edinburg United Police Officers Association, or EUPOA, initially filed suit in the 93rd state District Court, alleging Chief Cesar Torres demoted several officers after becoming chief because they opposed a proposal to re-open an unexpired collective bargaining agreement so he could fill an assistant chief post from outside the Edinburg Police Department.

The litigation involves several officers, who held leadership positions in that union, alleging Torres reassigned them because of that opposition.

According to the officers, those reassignments included loss of pay and other favorable benefits and were an effort to chill their free speech as union members.

The city of Edinburg has denied all of the allegations and has asserted government immunity. Attorneys representing the city removed the lawsuit to federal court in late May.

The EUPOA opposed the removal and argued that the case should stay on the state level.

“The Court holds that Plaintiff alleged a substantial and disputed First Amendment question in its complaint, which confers federal question jurisdiction on this Court,” Alvarez wrote in the ruling. “The Court will exercise supplemental jurisdiction over any state law claims in this case. Plaintiff’s motion to remand is denied.”

The city’s other police union, the Edinburg Police Organization, opposes the lawsuit and said in a statement that the litigation threatens upcoming negotiations over the next contract.

“There are two (2) unions in Edinburg. Us (represented by the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas) and EUPOA (represented by the Texas Municipal Police Association),” the Edinburg Police Organization board of directors said in a statement posted on Facebook. “Our three (3) year contract with the city expires this year which means this year the bargaining union (EUPOA) should start negotiating with the city for (the) next contract, instead they chose to sue The City of Edinburg and Chief of Police.”

Carlos Romero, that union’s president, has said previously that he believes the lawsuit doesn’t reflect the wishes of the EUPOA’s members and is rooted in a vendetta a small group of people has against Torres.

The EUPOA’s attorney, David Willis, said previously that the lawsuit is about the arbitration that the city denied to the officers who filed grievances.

Willis said the lawsuit would go away if the city of Edinburg just sat down to the table for arbitration with the officers.

In its response to the lawsuit, the city says the allegations are not arbitral.