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Federal Judge Orders COSA to Lift Ban on Disgruntled Ex-employee

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Michael Cuellar

In federal court last week, City Attorney Michael Bernard and SAPD Chief William McManus defended the city’s seldom-used practice of banning citizens from City Hall and Municipal Plaza. As Jim Harrington with the Texas Civil Rights Project put it, the results “don’t exactly inspire confidence.” To recap, the case in question involves Michael Cuellar, a former fire department contract coordinator and one of two disgruntled ex-COSA employees who have received sweeping criminal trespass warnings banning them from City Hall and Municipal Plaza. Last year we profiled Cuellar and John Foddrill, the other ex-COSA employee, explaining that the ban, on its face, appears to be unconstitutional (see: Trollin’ Ain’t Easy, December 12, 2012).

Last week in federal court, attorneys with the TCRP, which sued the City on Cuellar’s behalf, argued for an injunction to lift the ban, saying it violates Cuellar’s constitutional right to petition government officials. After attorneys with both the TCRP and COSA grilled Cuellar, McManus, and Bernard, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez issued an order lifting the ban, saying the City failed to prove that Cuellar poses a threat.

In court, the City presented evidence that Cuellar clashed with co-workers before he was forced to resign in February 2012. The City filed affidavits from former co-workers claiming Cuellar exhibited “erratic, threatening, and harmful behavior.” One co-worker, shortly before his resignation, filed a Violence in the Workplace report alleging Cuellar had lost his temper and threatened that “certain coworkers ‘should be disposed of’” in a “serious, frightening tone.”

On the stand, Cuellar admitted there were problems with co-workers but denied he ever threatened anyone.

While it seems Cuellar was forced to resign because of the complaints, at no time during his employment was he placed on leave or punished, according to city records. Police were never called to the workplace, nor was an officer ever deployed to evaluate whether Cuellar was a threat before the City banned him from public buildings.

Soon after his firing, Cuellar began to file numerous open records requests in order to learn why he was forced out, he says. The City painted his efforts as a broad “harassment campaign,” and a sign that he was potentially threatening.

In court, Laurence Macon, the City’s attorney, highlighted the eccentric and unusual nature of a couple of Cuellar’s requests. In one, he asked for data showing when city officials entered or exited certain buildings. In another, he sought fingerprints and photographs of city officials, including the mayor.

On the stand, Bernard pushed the issue, calling it evidence of Cuellar’s threatening nature. Under heated questioning from Harrington, TCRP director and chief counsel, Bernard explained why he still wants Cuellar banned from City Hall.

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