Recent Federal Fifth Circuit Cases of Interest to Cities

Note: Included cases are from July 11, 2023, through August 10, 2023.

USERRA: Garcia-Ascanio v. Spring Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 22-20363, 74 F.4th 305 (5th Cir. July 17, 2023). This case stems from allegations of violations of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) based on alleged constructive discharge.

Garcia was employed as an Assistant Principal at Spring ISD. During his tenure at Spring ISD, he also served in the Army Reserve and took leave to fulfill his military duties.  Following complaints about him by parents, Spring ISD’s management personnel met with Garcia to discuss his performance and at the meeting asked Garcia about how he would manage his work responsibilities with his military responsibilities and that he needed to have a plan for ensuring his military duties did not negatively affect his co-workers. Soon after, Garcia was reassigned to oversee another grade level of students, but his job responsibilities stayed the same.  Following further complaints from parents, Garcia was written up related to his professionalism.  Thereafter, he was investigated on how he handled student discipline and was placed on “home duty.” Soon thereafter, the Spring ISD Board voted not renew his contract at the end of the school year. 

Garcia sued, alleging violations of his rights under USSERA.   A jury found that Garcia’s military status and his engaging in USERRA-protected activity was a motivating factor in his constructive discharge (Jury Questions 1-3), but also found that Spring ISD would have constructively discharged him even if it had not taken his military services and protected activity into account (Jury Questions 4 and 5).  Garcia moved to have the court disregard Jury Questions 4 and 5 arguing for the first time that the jury should not have been asked those questions because Spring ISD’s affirmative defense was not available in a constructive discharge context.  The court entered judgement for Spring ISD based on the jury’s answers to Questions 4 and 5, and Garcia appealed, alleging that  the “mixed motive defense”—meaning the employer’s affirmative defense that it would have taken the same action in the absence of an employee’s military status or protected activity—is “inapplicable” in a constructive discharge case because “there is an inherent disconnect between [the] mixed-motive defense and constructive discharge.”

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling, finding that the text of USERRA clearly provides employers with a mixed-motive defense and provides no carve-out for constructive discharge claims.

Employment: January v. City of Huntsville, No. 22-20380, 2023 WL 4698905 (5th Cir. July 24, 2023). This case stems from a claim of disability discrimination based on alleged failure to reinstate or promote January, a former city firefighter.

Ten years ago, January, a City of Huntsville firefighter, had gall bladder surgery and thereafter suffered complications from the surgery. The city and its fire department accommodated him for his need for medication and treatment of the complications.  Not long after the surgery, he was caught asking his fellow employee for leftover prescription painkillers. He was placed on probation. Two years later, he submitted and then rescinded a letter of resignation. The fire department took him back but passed him over for open officer positions and declined to reinstate him to a trainer position he’d previously held. He met with city officials and accused the city of discriminating against him on the basis of his age and disability by not selecting him as an officer and removing him as a trainer.  He also made it clear that he was considering suing the city and was going to complain to the EEOC.

A month later he got into an alleged altercation with a city employee who suspected him of being intoxicated. He was repeatedly asked to take a drug test, and when he declined, he was placed on administrative leave. Following an investigation, his employment with the city was terminated.  January sued claiming discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and retaliation under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The court, over January’s request for a continuance, granted summary judgement for the city on all claims.  January appealed his denied continuance and the city’s summary judgement.

The court of appeals held that: (1) the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying January’s motion for continuance; (2) the six-week time period between January’s protected activity and the city’s decision to fire him was sufficient to demonstrate causal connection required to support his retaliation claims; and (3) the decision to fire January for intoxication was not pretext for retaliation.

Small Cell Nodes: Crown Castle Fiber, L.L.C. v. City of Pasadena, Tex., No. 22-20454, 2023 WL 4994300 (5th Cir. Aug. 4, 2023). The issue in this case is whether the city’s small cell node regulations are preempted by federal law.

Castle Crown entered into a contract with T-Mobile to provide network “nodes” and “fiber” to transport T-Mobile’s voice and data signals through these nodes and fiber networks in the City of Pasadena. To build out a small cell network, Crown Castle must install the physical infrastructure, and alleges that it must have access to public rights-of-way to accomplish that task, which requires a permit from the city. The city adopted a design manual to comply with state law that requires new support poles for a network be spaced at least 300 feet from existing utility poles or other node support poles and prohibiting a network provider from installing above ground on an existing pole a network node and related equipment in a public right of way in a residential area. 

Crown Castle applied for a permit, and the city rejected its applications because they violated the spacing requirement.  Additionally, Crown Castle alleged that placing the required radio equipment underground in Pasadena is technologically impossible because of concerns with overheating and Pasadena’s regular flooding.  Crown Castle sued for declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging that the minimum spacing restrictions violated, and was preempted by, both the federal Telecommunications Act (FTA) and Texas law.

The court of appeals held that: (1) the FTA preemption claim presented a federal question; (2) Castle Crown was a “telecommunications provider” under FTA; (3) the action was ripe for adjudication; (4) the FTA preempted spacing and undergrounding requirements in the city’s small cell node regulations; (5) the FTA’s safe harbor provision was inapplicable; and (6) Caste Crown was entitled to a permanent injunction.