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Jury award wasn't advisory, says appeal court


A federal District Court erred when it decided a $1.4 million jury award to a terminated employee was only advisory, and ordered she be reinstated to her former position instead, says an appeals court.

Hilda Gonzalez Garza was terminated from her position as an assistant county attorney for Starr County, Texas, without explanation in July 2013, two days after she informed her supervisor that she intended to run for election to the local school board, according to Tuesday’s ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in Hilda Gonzalez Garza v. Starr County, Texas; Victory Canales Jr.

Ms. Garza sued the county and her supervisor on charges including violation of her First Amendment and analogous state rights. A jury in federal District Court in McAllen, Texas in September 2013 awarded her $68,400 in back pay and $1.4 million in front, or compensatory, pay.

In response to a motion from the defendants the court held that the jury’s verdict was advisory rather than binding, and ruled that Ms. Garza should be reinstated in lieu of receiving the front pay. Ms. Garza appealed.

A three-judge appeals panel unanimously reversed the lower court’s ruling. Although defendants argue that the parties and court understood all along the verdict would be advisory, “No mention of an advisory verdict was made before the verdict was returned,” said the ruling.

”The more prudent course would have been for defendants to file a cross-appeal challenging the size of the verdict,” said the panel in remanding the case for further proceedings.

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