A judge tossed out a portion of a civil rights lawsuit filed by community activist and mayoral candidate Israel Coronado during the first meeting of the two sides in federal court Friday.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa ruled Coronado cannot seek punitive damages from the city as part of his suit, which alleges the city and its agents violated Coronado’s First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights when Mercedes police arrested him last December.
But, as to whether Coronado can seek such punitive damages from Mercedes Mayor Henry Hinojosa and Police Chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez — who are named as defendants in their individual capacities — that decision will be left for trial.
“My somewhat view here is that I don’t know that you can have punitive damages against the city,” Hinojosa said during the brief initial conference, which was held telephonically.
“I will grant the motion to dismiss in part and then the court’s gonna rule that there can be no … punitive damages claims against the city itself. The rest of it is an open back issue as to whether there’s punitive damages against … Mayor Hinojosa and Mr. Chavez,” he added a moment later.
However, the judge declined to, at this point, make a ruling regarding the city’s request to also dismiss the portion of Coronado’s complaint alleging the defendants violated his 14th Amendment rights.
J. Arnold Aguilar, the attorney representing the city, mayor and police chief, argued Coronado is improperly using claims that his First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated in order to establish a foundation for a third claim that his 14th Amendment rights to due process were also violated.
Coronado’s attorney, Omar Ochoa, argued in turn that each of the three claims are distinct and separate, adding that the discovery process will bear out the assertion.
“That’s actually true, and there’s plenty of case law that says you can’t do that, but Mr. Coronado’s complaint doesn’t do that,” Ochoa said after the hearing.
“It asserts violations of his due process rights that are separate and apart from the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment violations,” he said.
Coronado was arrested Dec. 3, 2019, after leaving a city commission meeting to order a pizza for residents still waiting for the commission to return from closed session.
Police arrested him in the parking lot of the pizzeria, telling him he had an outstanding warrant for disrupting a public meeting.
It wasn’t until he was brought before a municipal judge for a bond hearing the next day that Coronado learned the meeting he was alleged to have disrupted had occurred three months prior — a Sept. 17 meeting that had descended into chaos and which resulted in the arrest of four residents.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez declined to pursue the charges against Coronado, citing a lack of evidence, and ultimately dismissed the case in May.
Coronado has long alleged his arrest, and those of the other four residents, is part of a lengthy history by the city and members of its commission to silence and intimidate its critics. “This was definitely a political attack,” Coronado said the day following his arrest.
“I have been very vocal against the mayor, mayor pro-tem, as well as the chief of police, where I have pointed out many of the deficiencies that keep happening left and right in our town,” he said.
During Friday’s hearing, Aguilar addressed another portion of the city’s motion to dismiss in which the city refuted Coronado’s allegations that the mayor, police chief and unnamed others participated in a conspiracy to harass and silence him.
In court, Aguilar said he had learned Coronado is no longer pursuing those allegations.
Afterward, however, Coronado’s attorney explained his client had never officially pursued such claims in the first place. Though the lawsuit makes mention of a conspiracy, Coronado never included such allegations in the causes of action that lay out his complaints, Ochoa said.
“A federal conspiracy is a claim that would have been separately pleaded from the civil rights violations,” Ochoa said.
“Mr. Coronado, in his complaint, never asserted an official conspiracy claim against the city. The basis of the claim has always been that the city, the mayor and the chief of police violated his constitutional rights,” he said.
Indeed, the causes of action listed in Coronado’s suit are twofold: retaliatory arrest for engaging in protected speech and false arrest.
Listed among the arguments under the claim his arrest was retaliatory, however, is the following: “Each of the individual defendants organized, conspired, or participated in the intentional scheme to punish and retaliate against Coronado for Coronado having exercised his rights of free speech, to petition the City of Mercedes for the redress of grievances, and to run for Mayor of Mercedes.”
Aguilar declined to comment on the case after the hearing, saying simply, “I think my pleadings set out, and my motions set out, what I think the law is on the case. We’ll have to wait and see what happens once the case gets developed a little further.”
Under the judge’s order, the two sides have until early January to exchange discovery materials.
“We are pleased that the lawsuit will continue in full, and we’re looking forward to being able to get more information from the city of Mercedes,” Ochoa said.