Judge recommends lower payout or new trial over damages in Sanchez’s case against Presidio County, treasurer

PRESIDIO COUNTY — U.S. Magistrate Judge David Fannin has recommended that Katie Sanchez, the former director of the county’s Office of Management and Budget, can either face a new trial to reconsider the payouts for compensatory and punitive damages, or accept a smaller damages package devised by Fannin. He also denied nearly all of the county and Garcia’s post-trial motions in the same document.

Earlier this summer, a jury found that Presidio County and its treasurer Frances Garcia had retaliated against Sanchez, a former county employee, after she ran for office against Garcia in 2018.

Initially, the jury had given a verdict that the county and Garcia should pay $1 million in compensatory damages and another $1 million in punitive damages, but in recommendations made this month by Fannin, the judge wrote he believed “the amounts awarded by the jury as to compensatory damages as well as to punitive damages are excessive.”

The court has the power to recommend a decrease in the jury’s verdict, offering Sanchez the choice between a lower “remittitur” amount or a new trial on the subject of damages. While Presidio County had not asked for a reconsideration, Fannin went ahead, lowering the compensatory damages amount from $1 million to $365,362.03, citing case precedents and calculations that include factors like emotional distress, inflation and economic harm.

He also dropped the punitive damages from $1 million down to $5,000. Fannin said that for Garcia, the jury award of punitive damages beyond $5,000 was “excessive in proportion to the evidence provided.”

In a motion to the courts, which Fannin had considered, Garcia had said that even if malice was proven, the damages assigned to her of $500,000 were “grossly excessive.

In his recommendations, Fannin wrote, “While ‘trickery and deceit are more reprehensible than negligence,’ Garcia’s actions in inciting the elimination of the OMB are poised somewhat near a midpoint of the two,” concluding that “Garcia’s conduct was moderately reprehensible.”

Sanchez’s attorney, John Wenke, said he was surprised by the recommendations, especially since the county had not requested that he consider the amount the jury awarded. “Obviously we respectfully disagree with the magistrate judge’s recommendation regarding remittitur,” Wenke said in an email with The Big Bend Sentinel this week. “We believe his recommendations to reduce the amount of damages awarded was improper.”

Wenke argued that the jury’s high award of $2 million reflected the evidence and testimony presented at trial and was intended to send a message to public officials. “I’m not sure what type of message is being sent if a $1 million dollar punitive damage award is reduced to $5,000,” the attorney said.

“Publicly elected officials retaliated against a single mom by eliminating her county job simply because she exercised her right to run for public office. You hear about government officials in foreign countries that retaliate against political opponents,” Wenke said. “That should not happen in America.”

Sanchez’s team will file objections to a portion of the magistrate’s recommendations for U.S. District Court Judge Counts’ consideration, and there will be a new hearing, unless Sanchez accepts the package.

Along with contesting the jury’s damages total, the county and Garcia made post-trial motions calling other parts of the case into question. In his recommendations this month, Fannin denied a long list of motions for judgement by the county and Garcia, siding with the jury’s findings in favor of Sanchez.

In legal code, courts will “uphold a jury verdict unless the facts and inferences point so strongly and so overwhelmingly in favor of one party that reasonable [jurors] could not arrive at any verdict to the contrary.” But if a rational jury couldn’t reach the verdict that was announced, the court can accept the county and Garcia’s renewed motion for judgement.

In those motions Fannin considered, Garcia argued that she did not have budget-making power when the county voted to eliminate the Office of Management and Budget which employed Sanchez. She claimed she could not be held liable personally for violating Sanchez’s constitutional rights since she didn’t have official decision-making power. 

Fannin however, determined that the jury was given sufficient evidence that Garcia not only had “known personal problems” with Sanchez, but “she specifically made several efforts to bring to the Commissioners Court’s attention the OMB and Plaintiff’s performance,” noting that most of the evidence in the trial came from Garcia herself.

He also pointed to case law that established those without final decision making power can still be liable for being a “link in the causal chain” of violating constitutional rights.

Fannin believed a reasonable jury would see evidence of Garcia’s discussions and relationships with commissioners ahead of the vote to eliminate the OMB and determine she was a link in the chain.

Fannin recommended that all of Garcia’s motions be denied.

The county also sought a motion for judgement as to whether Sanchez proved Presidio County had acted in a retaliatory manner, since they had a reason to abolish the OMB department to save money, which was non-retaliatory. 

Judge Fannin said Sanchez had brought evidence that County Attorney Rod Ponton had informed commissioners in a speech and a letter that their actions could be construed as retaliatory.

The county also claimed they can’t be liable unless the commissioners as a whole, not just some commissioners, “acted with unconstitutional motive.”

Fannin said the testimony by Judge Cinderela Guevara that she had developed “suspicions as to [Commissioner Loretto] Vasquez’s and [Commissioner Brenda] Bentley’s motivation,” made it so a jury could reasonably believe two of the four commissioners acted with animus. However, that didn’t meet a majority of the court, where four commissioners and the judge all have a vote.

Judge Fannin wrote in his recommendations that he believed the jury could have reasonably believed Aranda possessed a substantial retaliatory motive, because Ponton had warned commissioners ahead of the vote.

Overall, the judge denied nearly all of the motions, only making a recommendation that would change the status quo when it came to the punitive and compensatory damages.