A federal judge has ruled that a civil rights lawsuit filed by a Cameron County Sheriff’s Department sergeant against Sheriff Eric Garza can move forward.
Sgt. Rodrigo Almanza alleges that Garza and his Executive Chief Deputy Robert Gracia violated his right to free political speech after he supported incumbent Sheriff Omar Lucio in the 2020 sheriff’s race.
U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez Jr. on Nov. 8 denied a motion by Garza that requested the lawsuit against him be dismissed in his official capacity and in his individual capacity. Rodriguez also ruled that Gracia’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit be granted and denied in part.
In addition, Rodriguez granted Almanza’s request to file a first amended complaint.
Both Garza and Gracia had requested that the case against them be removed because they are entitled to qualified immunity and that the federal court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction.
Garza’s motion to dismiss stated that Almanza failed to identify facts or “authority which relief may be granted for any alleged violation of his First Amendment right to speech.”
Gracia’s motion to dismiss stated he is not a final policy maker at the sheriff’s department. Fernandez agreed, writing: “The Court cannot conclude that Chief Deputy Gracia had ultimate decision-making power on this issue so as to render him a final policy maker.”
Almanza states, in the lawsuit, that he was a public and vocal supporter of Lucio and that on his time off he participated in Lucio’s campaign by block walking, assisting in political events and showing positive support for Lucio on social media.
In the lawsuit, Almanza claims Garza and Gracia retaliated against him for supporting Lucio by taking the following actions:
>>Transferring him to the Transport Division from the prestigious Criminal Investigations Division, where he handled major crimes and also served as a liaison to the CCSO’s counterpart in the Republic of Mexico;
>>stripping him of all subordinates and supervisory duties;
>>assigning him to shift schedules and working conditions not given to the other CCSO supervisors;
>>having him report to a person not certified as a peace officer, and;
>>requiring him to perform menial and pointless tasks like distributing inmate meal carts and physically manning a perfectly operational gate.
According to the lawsuit, Almanza has been employed with the sheriff’s department for eight years. He was promoted to sergeant in December 2019. He had worked in the Criminal Investigations Division since 2015, according to the lawsuit.
On Jan. 4, 2021, Almanza was reassigned to the Jail Division’s Transport Division, where he worked the graveyard shift and was to report to a jailer, who would supervise him, according to the lawsuit.