A federal lawsuit claims that a 14-year secretary was illegally fired last year because her boss, a Republican judge on the state’s highest criminal court, disapproved of her Facebook posts disparaging President Donald Trump and other GOP politicians.
Olga Zuniga argued that her Facebook activity, which included support for Democrats, was done in her role as a private citizen, that she had no public role with the Court of Criminal Appeals, and that the firing violated her free-speech rights.
Zuniga sued her former boss, Judge Kevin Yeary, for whom she worked after his election to the court in 2014 until he fired her last October after searching for her Facebook profile and finding comments on “politicians and political issues that were different than his,” the lawsuit said.
Zuniga also sued the Austin-based appeals court, a nine-judge body that has the final say on criminal law matters in Texas.
“The Constitution of the United States limits the power of government to control and intrude on the lives of American citizens,” said the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Austin federal court. “Instead, Yeary and the court violated the First Amendment of the Constitution and ended the career of a public servant for exercising her right to free speech.”
Yeary was not available to discuss the lawsuit Wednesday morning, his office said.
In addition, Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, said no comments were possible because court personnel had not yet received the lawsuit.
Zuniga’s lawyer, Robert Schmidt, said his client was devastated by the firing and sued only after receiving no response to a letter sent to the court seeking to resolve the dispute privately.
“She’s not a wealthy woman. She’s doing what she can now to make ends meet,” Schmidt said. “This is financially really hard for her and emotionally really hard for her. Her career meant a lot to her, and it’s embarrassing and painful to be fired in this way.”
According to the lawsuit, Yeary called Zuniga into his chambers to “counsel” her about inappropriate Facebook posts shortly after Trump was elected president in 2016, and he did the same thing several times in 2017.
The final straw came after immigration-related posts in September that were critical of Trump, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s comments on “sanctuary cities” and Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to withhold criminal justice funding from Travis County over immigration-related jail policies, the lawsuit said.
When he fired Zuniga from her job as executive assistant-secretary, Yeary discussed her Facebook posts and also said she failed to record an early departure from work on her September time sheet, a claim she denies, according to the lawsuit.
In a statement to the Texas Workforce Commission in an attempt to deny unemployment benefits to Zuniga, the lawsuit claims, Yeary said many of her Facebook posts contained vulgar and inappropriate language and “had a distinct political edge and which indicated what appeared to be clear political biases.”
The commission, Schmidt said, denied jobless benefits to Zuniga, who had also worked as a legal secretary in the Texas attorney general’s office for about 14 years before beginning her job at the appeals court in 2003.
The lawsuit, which claims Yeary gave Zuniga positive feedback on her job performance before spotting her Facebook posts, seeks unspecified lost wages and benefits, compensatory damages, a monetary award for emotional distress and reinstatement of her job.
“As American citizens, we have the right to speak out on politics and matters of public concern, and when the state starts punishing its employees for doing that, I think it’s a very serious problem,” Schmidt said. “I also think it’s a problem when it’s a court — which is required to uphold the Constitution — that does that kind of censoring.”
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