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Rodriguez-Vazquez v. Diaz-Colon

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

December 23, 2016

ERASMO RODRIGUEZ-VAZQUEZ, Interested Party, Appellant,
v.
ANIBAL SOLIVAN SOLIVAN; HECTOR TIRADO; DANIEL COLÓN; FRANCISCO BÁEZ-QUIÑONES; JESÚS FIGUEROA-CRUZ; JESÚS FIGUEROA DE JESÚS; JOSÉ FUENTES AGOSTINI; DISTRICT ATTORNEY GABRIEL REDONDO; DISTRICT ATTORNEY JOSÉ FIGUEROA-ZAYAS; DISTRICT ATTORNEY JOSÉ CAPÓ; JUAN JOSÉ TOLEDO-BAYOUTH; JOSÉ TOLEDO- AYOUTH; FERNANDO TOLEDO-BAYOUTH; PEDRO J. TOLEDO-BAYOUTH, Defendants, Appellees, JOSE LUIS DIAZ-COLON, on his own behalf and on behalf of his minor son J.L.D.R.; LINDA DELGADO, on behalf of her minor daughter D.M.D.D.; ZORAIDA COLÓN-CARTAGENA; PEDRO DÍAZ; PEDRO LUIS DÍAZ-COLÓN; YAHAIRA ENID DÍAZ-COLÓN; LOURDES DE JESÚS-VELÁZQUEZ, on her own and on behalf of her minor children J.L.S.D.; J.L.L.S.D. and L.S.D., on their own and as legal heirs of Leopoldo Sanabria-Díaz; ALBAELA DÍAZ-CARABALLO; LEONARDO SANABRIA-DÍAZ; JENNIFER PIRIS-JUSINO, on her own and on behalf of her minor daughter G.R.P.; LUCY GUZMÁN-BORRERO; CARMELO VELÁZQUEZ-COLÓN; CARMELO COLÓN-RIVERA; ORLANDO COLÓN-VELÁZQUEZ; ORLANDO RAMOS-FÉLIX; JOSEFA FÉLIX; JOSÉ ANTONIO FÉLIX; ELISEO RAMOS-FÉLIX; JUAN MARCOS MERCED-GÓMEZ; HÉCTOR MERCED-RODRÍGUEZ; MARÍA E. GÓMEZ-VELÁZQUEZ; LEOPOLDO SANABRIA-MORALES; MARIBEL ORTIZ-VÁZQUEZ, on behalf of minor, J.M.S.O.; ANA LUISA DÍAZ-RIVERA; YOLANDA ORTIZ-DÍAZ; EVELYN ORTIZ-DÍAZ; LUIS DANIEL ORTIZ-DÍAZ; DIGNO ORTIZ-DÍAZ; FRANCIS I. LÓPEZ-DÍAZ; CHELSEA LUZ MERCED, Plaintiffs, FNU CANDELARIA; UNKNOWN POLICE OFFICERS A TO J; DISTRICT ATTORNEY ULPIANO-CRESPO; ESTATE OF ULPIANO CRESPO, comprised of unknown individuals K through S; UNKNOWN DISTRICT ATTORNEYS T THROUGH Z; ZOÉ DÍAZ-COLÓN; CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP BÁEZ-DOE;CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP CAPÓ-DOE; CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP COLÓN-DOE; CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP DÍAZ-DOE; CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP FIGUEROA-DOE; CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP FUENTES-DOE; CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP REDONDO-DOE; CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP SOLIVAN-DOE; CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP TIRADO-DOE; CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP TOLEDO-DOE; JANE DOE; JOHN DOES, unknown District Attorneys, Police and Penal Officers, Defendants.

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Francisco A. Besosa, U.S. District Judge]

          Guillermo Ramos Luiña for appellant.

          Susana I. Peñagarícano-Brown, Assistant Solicitor General, Department of Justice for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, with whom Margarita L. Mercado-Echegaray, Solicitor General, Department of Justice for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, was on brief, for appellees.

          Before Torruella, Thompson, and Kayatta, Circuit Judges.

          KAYATTA, Circuit Judge.

         In settling a civil lawsuit against public officials, the parties in this case convinced the district court to issue a report that the parties and the district court have treated as a gag order barring the parties from disclosing the terms and conditions of the settlement. In short order, Erasmo Rodríguez-Vázquez ("Rodríguez"), a lawyer assisting one of the parties, made statements about the settlement to the local press. Unhappy with the press coverage of their secretive settlement, the public officials who were parties to the settlement obtained an order from the district court holding Rodríguez in contempt and referring him to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico's Supreme Judicial Court for disciplinary review. Finding no basis in the record to support the contention that Rodríguez violated any court order, we reverse.

         I.

         In 1999, several people were wrongfully convicted of murder based in large part on the allegedly false testimony of one key witness. See Díaz-Colón v. Fuentes-Agostini, 786 F.3d 144, 145 (1st Cir. 2015). After one of those people committed suicide in prison, the witness "came forward to recant her testimony, claiming that law enforcement personnel had coerced and bribed her into giving fabricated testimony." Id. The criminal defendants appealed to Puerto Rico's Supreme Judicial Court, their convictions were vacated, and the charges against them were dropped. Rodríguez was appointed to represent one group of the criminal defendants in that appeal; he successfully worked to obtain the reversal of their criminal convictions.

         The wrongfully convicted individuals and/or their heirs or assigns brought two suits, consolidated into this single case, against the police officers and prosecutors who had been involved in their prosecutions. Various defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis of absolute or qualified immunity, which the district court denied. On interlocutory appeal, we affirmed the district court's ruling as to all but one defendant, and we sent the case back to the district court in anticipation of trial. See id.

         At that juncture, the parties to the civil lawsuit reached a settlement following discussions mediated by a magistrate judge. At the parties' request, the magistrate judge memorialized the settlement--which had not yet been reduced to writing--in a "Fourth Settlement Conference Report." The aptly named "Report" did just that: it reported the terms and conditions of the parties' as-yet-unwritten agreement, including three terms relevant to this appeal: (1) "The settlement agreement shall not signify acceptance of liability regarding the facts alleged in the complaint"; (2) "The parties shall maintain in strict confidentiality all the terms and conditions of the settlement agreement"; and (3) "The court shall retain jurisdiction to enforce all the terms and conditions of the settlement agreement."

         The parties to this appeal, including Rodríguez, treat the Report as if it actually ordered compliance with the terms and conditions it reported. While that reading could be questioned, in the absence of any argument by anyone that the Report was not an order to comply with the terms of the reported settlement, we will assume the parties' shared understanding to be correct. The parties also all assume that the magistrate judge had the power to issue an order enjoining certain prospective conduct, but see 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), so we shall as well, given the parties' apparent unanimous consent, id. § 636(c). Finally, Rodríguez waives any argument that he was not subject to the assumed order.

         Four days after the magistrate judge entered the Report, a regional weekly newspaper called El Regional published an article titled, "The circle is closed."[1] The article stated that the plaintiffs achieved victory against the Puerto Rican government by way of settlement, but they were going to receive much less than the ten million dollars they initially sought. The precise amount the plaintiffs would be paid under the settlement was not stated "because of the court's confidentiality agreements, " but the paper noted that it would be a small fraction of their claimed damages and it might take several years for the amount to be paid out. The article then quoted Rodríguez as saying:

It was inconvenient for them (the government) to fight it because of the Circuit's (of Boston) decision and because of the implications made by both the federal and Circuit courts. . . . This case is a vindication of the plaintiffs' rights. It is never payment for the damages suffered, because that will not cover the loss of the lives of Manuel Ortiz and Leopoldo Sanabria; that has no price. Or the death of Hector Merced; that has no price, and the damage will never ...

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