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Federal Judge Hilda Tagle Dismisses Law Suit Against Former Harlingen City Manager Craig Lonon By Former Municipal Judge Rebekah R. Syck

The law suit was dismissed on December 8, 2009.

Craig Lonon was sued by former municipal judge Rebekah R. Syck for city ethics violations.

Judge sick was retaliated by the city manager because She refused to arraign former city commissioner Jesse Robles during special evening off hours schedule.

The former commissioner had been arrested on misdemeanor arrest warrants.

Mayor Chris Boswell allegedly requested the special treatment for the former city commissioner.

The normal arraignment hours are normally performed the morning of the following day.

Rebekah said She was very disappointed by the judges action and plans to appeal the ruling.

She referred all other questions to her attorney Ed Stapleton of Brownsville.

Stapleton could not be reached over the weekend.

See some background below on the controversial city manager who was fired recently and a copy of the law suit.

Defendant City of Harlingen acted negligently in the hiring and retention of Defendant Craig Lonon. Even a cursory review of Defendant Craig Lonon’s background would have revealed that he had been involved in ethical violations that resulted in loss of his previous employments. 

21. First, in the fall of 2004, at the City of Conroe, while City Manager in Conroe, Defendant Craig Lonon was involved in bidding improprieties for the Conroe Police Stage and Heritage Park Amphitheater construction. Failure to timely and fully disclose financial matters to the elected officials resulted in nearly a $1 million dollar deficit in city funds. The new mayor ran and was elected on a promise to fire Craig Lonon. 

22. Second, on August 1, 2005, the Cedar Park city council voted unanimously to fire Craig Lonon because he withheld information vital to an impending bond election and paid a $73,000 invoice without asking the council. Lonon hid information on a ballot budget proposal that cost the city over $500,000. The $73,000 payment to a project partner was paid contrary to the representations that had been made to the city attorney. 

23. Hiring of Craig Lonon by the City of Harlingen insured further ethical violations and Judge Rebekah Syck was the target.

See the full law suit below:

HARLINGEN CITY MANAGER CRAIG LONON SUED FOR CITY ETHICS VIOLATIONS

REBEKAH R. SYCK
PLAINTIFF
V.
CRAIG LONON, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN
HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS CITY
MANAGER FOR THE CITY OF
HARLINGEN AND THE CITY OF
HARLINGEN,
DEFENDANTS

PLAINTIFF REBEKAH R. SYCK’S
COMPLAINT FOR DAMAGES AND INJUNCTIVE RELIEF

JURISDICTION

1. The court has jurisdiction over the federal law claims action pursuant to 28 USC 1331 (federal question) and 1343 (civil rights). Petitioner brings this action pursuant to 42 USC 1983 and 1988 and the United States Constitution, Amendments I, (free speech in reporting illegal actions), V (due process and wrongful taking) and XIV (equal protection, applying 5th Amendment to the States) and the Texas Constitution, Article 1, Sections 8 (free speech) and 19 (taking without due course of law of the land).

VENUE

2. Venue over Plaintiff’s claims in the Southern District of Texas is proper because the events giving rise to the claim occurred in this district.

GENERAL ALLEGATIONS

3. CRAIG LONON is an individual residing in Harlingen, Texas and employed as city manager for the City of Harlingen. He is sued in his individual and official capacities. Defendant Lonon may be served by certified mail, return receipt requested at 118 E Tyler, Harlingen, Texas 78551.

4. CITY OF HARLINGEN is a proper defendant and a “person” under the 14th Amendment and 42 USC Sections 1983 and 1988. Plaintiff will seek damages and injunctive and declaratory relief against CITY OF HARLINGEN for negligent hiring of Defendant Lonon and violation of property and liberty rights of Plaintiff Syck under the 5th and 14th Amendment and pursuant to the Court’s pendent jurisdiction for violation of comparable provisions of the Texas Constitution, Article 1, Section 19 and Texas Tort law, including the “Sabine Pilot” doctrine and negligent hiring. Defendant City of Harlingen may be served by serving the City Secretary, Sylvia R. Trevino, certified mail, return receipt requested at 118 E Tyler, Harlingen, Texas 78551.

FACTS

5. Plaintiff Syck first contracted with the City of Harlingen April 26, 2006 and began service with the City on May 1, 2006 for a two-year contract. The contract provided for a base pay and left the option for potential raises during the term of the service.

6. On May 21, 2007, Defendant Lonon attempted to force the Plaintiff Syck to act unethically under the terms of the City of Harlingen Ethics ordinance. When Syck refused to acquiesce in the demands, Defendant Lonon threatened to prevent her from getting raises or reappointment for another term in retaliation.

7. Defendant City of Harlingen on May 21, 2007 had a policy of scheduling
arraignments and initial appearances every morning at approximately 10:00 am to 11:00 am after the Harlingen Police Department completes the paperwork on probable cause statements and complaints and warrants for Class C violations. Bonds are set and there are between ten and twenty appearances before the city magistrates to set bonds for people in city jail, each morning, seven days a week. This schedule has been Defendant City of Harlingen’s policy for several years.

8. Judge Syck was specifically contracted to work a twenty-hour week and in the mornings. She has insisted upon adhering to the Ethics Ordinance that was adopted July 27, 2008 that provides in Section 3.01 Prohibition Against Granting Special Consideration: “No City Official shall grant any special consideration, treatment, or advantage to any citizen, individual, business organization, or group beyond that which is normally available to every other citizen, individual, business organization or group.”

9. Municipal Judges are specifically included under Section 2.02 as being subject to this provision. The interpretation that has been applied by the Harlingen City Attorney and by practice in the courts is that it is inappropriate to provide magistrate services out of the scheduled hours unless there is a medical or psychological emergency or a clerical error requires correction.

10. When necessary, Judge Syck has been available outside the morning hours for
appearances for setting of bonds for people accused of an offense at the hospital or after hours when a medical issue arises. She has been available as well on one occasion at 3:00 am to sign a search warrant when exigent circumstances existed. Since Judge Syck was appointed, the municipal court has doubled its scheduled court hours, while bearing the increased volume in initial appearances due to the unavailability of the justice courts for those matters. Differently put, Judge Syck has never objected to working outside of her contracted hours if she could do so and be in compliance with the Ethics Ordinance.

11. After the Ethics Ordinance was adopted, training was provided to Plaintiff Syck and other city employees. She was instructed in the application and understood clearly that it would be a violation of this ordinance for her to give preferential treatment for an after hours arraignment to someone because that person was politically connected. City Attorney Brendan Hall in fact reinforced this interpretation in a meeting with Judge Garcia soon after both judges’ appointments in April 2006.

12. Defendant City of Harlingen has emphasized the importance of ethics to Plaintiff Syck since before her appointment in April 2006. During her interview prior to her appointment, Plaintiff Syck was asked for her response if a City Commissioner were to ask her to dismiss a ticket. She responded it would be an improper ex parte communication to even discuss the matter.

13. On May 21, 2007 an incident covered by the Ethics Ordinance arose. A Harlingen resident who currently serves on the Harlingen Community Improvement Board, Harlingen’s Downtown Board of Directors, Leadership Harlingen and who had previously served as a Harlingen City Commissioner in the early 1990’s was arrested on charges involving three Class C misdemeanor warrants.

14. At the time of this arrest, the City of Harlingen had no preset bonds on Class C warrants. The City had instituted a policy of warrant roundup and this person was arrested during the roundup.

15. At that time, the City had also not yet set the policy of having Harlingen police officers immediately bring each defendant arrested during the warrant round-up to be arraigned during regular municipal court hours.

16. Immediately following the politically connected defendant’s arrest, Plaintiff Syck’s clerk Jessica Iracheta received a call asking her to tell Plaintiff Syck to see the defendant. Plaintiff Syck, in keeping with the Ethics Ordinance requirements, relayed through her clerk that she would not be able to see the Defendant that day. She was already completing the paperwork that the Harlingen Police Department had delivered that morning for the day’s hearings.

17. The defendant had been arrested late Sunday morning and did not appear for an initial hearing until the following morning, as was the customary schedule of Defendant City of Harlingen.

18. Soon afterward, Defendant Lonon summoned Judge Syck and Judge Garcia to his office and told them the situation with the politically connected municipal defendant would not happen again and he expected them to respond when he ordered a VIP to be specially treated with an early hearing on detention. When the judges pointed out they had acted in accordance with city policy under the schedule, Defendant Lonon said, “It’s harder for some people to be in jail than others.” Lonon gave the example of a person from Treasure Hills who might perhaps need to receive a hearing earlier because he would suffer more by a night in jail than another person might. Plaintiff Syck responded, “Of course, you understand we cannot treat anyone differently from anyone else.” He said, “I’m not asking you to do anything wrong.” When the judges refused to yield, he said, “You do what you have to in regard to magistrations and I’ll do what I have to in regard to evaluations.” The clear threat was that the failure of the judges to
comply would impact raises and reappointment.

19. Since that date, in fact, neither raises nor evaluations were given to Plaintiff Syck for her job performance. Moreover, on February 26, 2008, Defendant Lonon requested a delay in hiring of a City Marshall until after May 1, 2008 indicating that the current Municipal Judges would not then be involved in the hiring process.

20. Defendant City of Harlingen acted negligently in the hiring and retention of Defendant Lonon. Even a cursory review of Defendant Lonon’s background would have revealed that he had been involved in ethical violations that resulted in loss of his previous employments.

21. First, in the fall of 2004, at the City of Conroe, while City Manager in Conroe, Defendant Lonon was involved in bidding improprieties for the Conroe Police Stage and Heritage Park Amphitheater construction. Failure to timely and fully disclose financial matters to the elected officials resulted in nearly a $1 million dollar deficit in city funds. The new mayor ran and was elected on a promise to fire Lonon.

22. Second, on August 1, 2005, the Cedar Park city council voted unanimously to fire Lonon because he withheld information vital to an impending bond election and paid a $73,000 invoice without asking the council. Lonon hid information on a ballot budget proposal that cost the city over $500,000. The $73,000 payment to a project partner was paid contrary to the representations that had been made to the city attorney.

23. Hiring of Lonon insured further ethical violations and Judge Syck was the target.

ALLEGATIONS
CAUSE OF ACTION FOR DUE PROCESS
AND DUE COURSE OF LAW VIOLATIONS

24. As described in the facts above, Defendants violated Plaintiffs Fifth and
Fourteenth Amendment Rights to Due Process. The liberty and property rights created by the employment contract and the Harlingen personnel policy manual are violated by these actions. The personnel policy manual does provide for at will employment. However, even though the City could arguably refuse to renew the contract of the judges for no reason, it is a violation to refuse to renew for following the Ethics Ordinance. If in fact Defendant Lonon had followed the policy of progressive discipline provided in the Employee Warning, Written Reprimand and Grievance Policy to resolve disputes, Judge Syck would have been exonerated because she
followed policy. In fact, violation of this policy by City Manager Lonon constitutes a criminal Class C violation of this ordinance.

CAUSE OF ACTION VIOLATION OF FREE SPEECH

25. As described in the facts above, Defendants have deprived Plaintiff of her right to free speech in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Art. 1, Section 8 of the Texas Constitution. In particular, as described in paragraph 18 above, upon reporting Defendant Lonon that his actions were a violation of law he retaliated in a way that ultimately resulted in her termination. Declining to re-appoint is the same as a firing for First Amendment purposes. The lack of a reasonable expectation of continued employment is not sufficient to justify a dismissal for unconstitutional purposes. Warnock v. Pecos County, 116 F.3d 776, footnote 1 (5th Cir. 1997). In weighing the value of Judge Syck’s speech against the City’s interest in efficiency three factors are considered:
“(1) Whether the speech was likely to generate controversy and disruption; (2) Whether the speech impeded the general operation of the department; and (3) whether the speech affected the working relationships necessary to the proper functioning of…” the governmental entity. Id. at 780, citing Davis v. Ector County, 40 F.3d 777, 783 (5th Cir. 1994)

CAUSE OF ACTION FOR TAKING WITHOUT JUST COMPENSATION AND
DEPRIVATION OF LIBERTY RIGHTS
PURSUANT TO 42 USC SECTION 1983 AND MONELL

26. As described in the facts above, Defendants have acted under of color of
state law to deprive Plaintiff of her liberty and property rights and just
compensation under 42 USC Section 1983. Defendant CITY OF HARLINGEN
is a “person” under Monell v. Department of Soc. Svcs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978) and subject to violations of acting under color of law to deprive plaintiff of her liberty and property right and for a taking without just compensation.

CAUSE OF ACTION UNDER THE SABINE PILOT DOCTRINE
FOR DISCHARGE OF AN EMPLOYEE FOR REFUSING TO PERFORM AN
ILLEGAL ACT

27. Defendants have discharged plaintiff for refusing to perform an illegal act. As described in the facts above, Sabine Pilot v. Hauck, 687 S.W.2d 733 (Tex.1985) provides a cause of action in Texas for termination of an employee who was discharged for failure to perform an illegal act. The facts of this case specifically meet this requirement. Plaintiff Syck was ordered to commit a Class C misdemeanor by violation of the Harlingen City Ordinance No. 06-39, Section 3.01: “No City Official shall grant any special consideration, treatment, or advantage to any citizen, individual…beyond that which is normally available to every other citizen, individual….” When the employer engages in a series of actions insisting upon the performance of illegal acts, these should be treated as a continuation of the original refusal to perform an illegal act. Hawthorne v. Star Enterprise, 45 S.W. 3d 757 (Tex. Civ. App.—Texarkana 2001).

CAUSE OF ACTION UNDER TEXAS
TORTIOUS INTERFERENCE WITH CONTRACT

28. As described above, Defendant Lonon’s actions constituted tortious
interference with the contract Plaintiff Syck had with the City of Harlingen. In this case the following elements are met: 1. Existence of a contract subject to interference. 2. Willful and intentional interference. 3. Interference that proximately caused damage. 4. Actual damage or loss. ACS Investors, Inc. v. McLaughlin, 943 S.W.2d 426, 430 (Tex. 1997).

CAUSE OF ACTION UNDER TEXAS
NEGLIGENT HIRING AND RETENTION

29. Defendant City of Harlingen negligently hired and retained Defendant
Lonon which act proximately caused damages to Plaintiff. Texas recognizes
theories of recovery for negligent hiring and negligent employment that are akin to the doctrine of negligent entrustment of an automobile. Deerings West Nursing Center v. Scott, 787 S.W.2d 494 (Tex. App.—El Paso 1990, writ denied). The basis of responsibility under the doctrine of negligent hiring is the master’s own negligence in hiring or retaining an incompetent servant whom the master knows, or by the exercise of reasonable care should have known, was incompetent or unfit. Arrington’s Estate v. Fields, 578 S.W.2d 173, 178 (Tex. Civ. App.—Tyler 1979, writ ref’d. n.r.e.).

DAMAGES

30. The acts of defendants were the proximate cause of damages to plaintiff
including loss of past and future wages and earning capacity, damage to
reputation, emotional pain, and mental anguish. Moreover, the actions of the defendants were so egregious that exemplary and punitive damages are justified as having been caused by the intentional and reckless acts of the defendants. Plaintiff prays for relief as follows: a. Damages for past and future lost wages, damages to reputation and emotional pain and mental anguish. Actual loss of salary in the amount of at least $30,000 per year plus retirement benefits.
b. Punitive damages.
c. Injunctive relief, temporary and permanent against Defendants.
d. Attorney’s fees, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988.
e. Costs of suit.

Respectfully Submitted,
/S/ Ed Stapleton
Ed Stapleton
Texas State Bar Number: 19058400
So. District Bar Number: 1501
622 East Saint Charles Street
Brownsville, Texas 78520
Telephone: (956) 554-0683
Fax: (940) 687-9012

Attorney for Plaintiff
REBEKAH SYCK

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