In Presidio County lawsuit, defense asks judge to throw out $2 million jury verdict

PRESIDIO COUNTY –– Just a month after a jury found that Presidio County and its treasurer, Frances Garcia, had violated former county employee Katie Sanchez’s First Amendment rights, the county’s defense is asking the presiding judge to throw out the jury’s ruling and side with the county. While the judge has yet to enter a judgement on the matter, this most recent court filing is a sign that the county and its defense team are not yet willing to give up on the case.

As The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, a federal jury found that Presidio County retaliated against Sanchez, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget, by eliminating her office months after she unsuccessfully ran for county treasurer against incumbent Garcia in March of 2018. The jury found that Sanchez is entitled to $2,000,000 in past, future and punitive damages –– the highest dollar amount suggested by Sanchez’s attorney.

In a civil trial such as this, the presiding judge, David Counts, has the authority to overrule the jury’s verdict if a reasonable jury could not have come to the same conclusion as the jury in the Presidio County trial.

One factor a judge weighs in such a situation is whether there was enough evidence to support the jury’s verdict in favor of Sanchez. The judge could also consider whether the jury properly interpreted and applied the law in the case.

In its appeal to reverse the jury’s verdict in favor of the county and Garcia, the defense team opened up with many of the same lines of argument as they did in the trial: “The decision to eliminate the Office of Management Budget (OMB) was a legislative, budgetary decision of the Presidio County Commissioners Court and there is not sufficient proof the commissioners court made its decision in retaliation for Plaintiff running for Treasurer against Frances Garcia.” In other words, there is insufficient evidence to establish that the county retaliated against Sanchez.

The defense team, who was provided as counsel to the county through the Texas Association of Counties, goes on to say that if the verdict is allowed to stand, it will open the doors to more lawsuits of this nature. “It will open the flood gates for every disaffected elected or appointed official to second guess and litigate in federal court the difficult budgetary decisions Commissioners Courts must make every year. The Court should disregard the verdict and enter judgment for Presidio County as a matter of law,” the defense wrote.

In a separate court filing, the county’s attorneys assert that Garcia is entitled to qualified immunity, which protects government officials from being personally liable for reasonable damages caused in the performance of their job. “There is no evidence that Garcia failed to act in an objectively reasonable manner with respect to the elimination of the OMB,” the defense writes. “In fact the only credible evidence provided to the jury was that Frances Garcia was merely doing her job as County Treasurer in providing information to Commissioner [Loretto] Vasquez about whether the County Treasurer’s office could take on some of the duties of the OMB if the department was eliminated.”

At the same time, Sanchez is asking for $252,395 in attorney’s fees for the 388 hours her attorney spent working on this case. As it stands, the county is covered for up to $2,000,000 through the Texas Association of Counties –– the same amount the jury ruled the county should pay out to Sanchez in the form of past, future and punitive damages. Any amount above that –– as in the quarter of a million requested from Sanchez’s attorney –– could push the county past its insurance limits, leaving the county on the hook for the rest, according to County Attorney Rod Ponton.

As The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, Ponton advised the commissioners in a meeting that in addition to possibly maxing out on its coverage policy, the county’s insurance premiums are “certainly” going to go up, which would fall on taxpayers who foot the insurance costs every year.

That said, Judge Counts still has to enter a judgement, either siding with or overturning the jury’s verdict in whole or in part. Moreover, if the judge does side with the jury, the county will most likely appeal the decision, bringing the case to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.