Justia U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure

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Janna DeWitt appealed a district court’s order granting summary judgment to her former employer, Southwestern Bell Telephone Company (SWBTC) on her claims of disability discrimination and failure to accommodate her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and retaliation in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). In 2009 and early 2010, DeWitt used FMLA leave intermittently for health issues related to her diabetes. DeWitt only took FMLA leave when vacation days were not available because DeWitt believed that SWBTC “frowned upon” employees taking FMLA leave. DwWitt's employment was terminated in 2010 when she allegedly hung up on two customers during a low blood sugar episode. DeWitt explained that she did not remember taking the calls due to a severe drop in her blood sugar. After review, the Tenth Circuit concluded that SWBTC was entitled to summary judgment because: (1) it advanced a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for taking adverse employment action against DeWitt (i.e., DeWitt’s hanging up on customers while on a Last Chance Agreement); and (2) DeWitt failed to demonstrate that SWBTC’s stated reason for its disciplinary action was pretextual. Finding that DeWitt failed to otherwise meet her burden to overcome summary judgment, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "DeWitt v. Southwestern Bell Telephone" on Justia Law

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Between fiscal years 2006 and 2011, Congress prohibited the use of funds for inspection, thereby preventing commercial equine slaughter. In fiscal year 2012, Congress lifted the ban on funding and Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) received several applications for inspection. The agency issued grants of inspection to two commercial equine slaughter facilities: Valley Meat Company, LLC and Responsible Transportation, LLC. Front Range Equine Rescue, the Humane Society of the United States, and several other individuals and organizations (collectively, "Front Range") sued officials of the USDA, seeking a declaration that grants of inspection generally violated the National Environmental Policy Act and requesting that the court set aside the specific grants of inspection. Front Range also moved to enjoin the Federal Defendants from authorizing equine slaughter during the pendency of the claims. The district court granted Front Range's motion for a temporary restraining order (TRO), prohibiting the Federal Defendants from sending inspectors to the equine slaughterhouses of, or otherwise providing equine inspection services. The court additionally sua sponte enjoined Valley Meat and Responsible Transportation from engaging in commercial equine slaughter. Valley Meat opposed Front Range's motion, arguing that it should be restrained and Front Range should be required to post a bond because an injunction against the Federal Defendants effectively also enjoined its operations. The district court never ruled on Front Range's motion, but denied Front Range's request for a permanent injunction and dismissed the action. Front Range immediately appealed the decision to the Tenth Circuit. The Tenth Circuit temporarily enjoined the Federal Defendants from sending inspectors but did not enjoin Valley Meat or Responsible Transportation. Then, the Court dismissed the appeal as moot: (1) because Congress once again made it unlawful to engage in commercial equine slaughter for human consumption; and (2) while the appeal was pending, Valley Meat "decided to abandon all plans to slaughter equines and asked FSIS to withdraw its grant of inspection." The Tenth Circuit then vacated the district court's order denying a permanent injunction, "based on the underlying equitable principle that a party should not have to bear the consequences of an adverse ruling when frustrated by the vagaries of the circumstances." Valley Meat and Responsible Transportation moved to recover an injunction bond. A magistrate judge recommended that the motion be denied, and the district court adopted the magistrate's recommendation in full. Valley Meat appealed the denial of damages on the injunction bond. To this point, the Tenth Circuit affirmed, finding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying recovery against the injunction bond because there was never a ruling that Valley Meat was wrongfully enjoined. "This conclusion alone is enough to affirm the district court's decision." View "Front Range Equine Rescue v. Vilsack" on Justia Law

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Relator-Appellant Jack Grynberg appealed two district court orders awarding attorney fees. In 1995, Grynberg filed an action in federal district court for the District of Columbia alleging 70 companies in the natural gas industry violated the False Claims Act (FCA). Specifically, he accused the defendants of using techniques that under-measured the gas they extracted from federal and Indian lands under lease agreements. Sixty of the defendants filed motions to dismiss, which the district court granted. It held the defendants were improperly joined under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 20, and that Grynberg's complaint failed to satisfy the particularized pleading requirement of Rule 9(b). Three months after "Grynberg I's" dismissal, Grynberg began filing 73 separate lawsuits against more than 300 companies in the natural gas industry. The 73 complaints, which closely resembled one another, formed the basis of this case. In this, "Grynberg II," Grynberg moved to consolidate the cases as an Multi-District Litigation (MDL), and they were eventually consolidated in federal district court for the District of Wyoming. Between the dismissal in Grynberg I and filing the complaints in Grynberg II, Grynberg served Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") requests with the Minerals Management Service ("MMS"), seeking data on pipeline company-purchasers of natural gas. Grynberg created "Exhibit B's" to his complaints from that MMS data, which allegedly showed the defendants were mismeasuring gas. The inaccuracy of the Exhibit Bs did not surface until long after the complaints were filed and after the government conducted a time-consuming investigation. Without yet knowing the Exhibit Bs were inaccurate, the district court denied motions to dismiss for lack of particularity under Rule 9(b), which the court read as requiring a complaint to state the "time, place and contents of the false representation, [and] the identity of the party making the false statements." After surviving the motions to dismiss, Grynberg then faced the defendants' motions for summary judgment, which argued the complaints were based on publicly disclosed information and Grynberg was not an "original source" of the information. Following discovery, a special master recommended 40 of the 73 cases be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The district court went further by holding that all 73 cases were jurisdictionally barred. Following the dismissal of the claims and the Tenth Circuit's decision in the first appeal, the district court entered two orders awarding attorney fees: (1) under the FCA's fee-shifting provision; and (2) fees relating to the first appeal on the original-source question. Between the two orders, the court granted 35 defendant groups attorney fees totaling nearly $17 million. As to the remaining defendants in this appeal, around $5.5 million of attorney fees was awarded to the FCA Appellees for district court proceedings, and around $1 million of attorney fees was awarded to the Appellate-Fee Appellees for the first appeal. Grynberg appealed the award of fees under the FCA as to seven defendant groups. He appealed the award of fees to 13 other defendant groups. After review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the FCA fees, but reversed the appellate-related attorney fees. View "In re: Natural Gas Royalties Qui Tam Litigation" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff David Hansen filed suit against his former employer, Defendant SkyWest Airlines, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. sections 2000e–2000e–17, for sex-based hostile work environment, disparate treatment, quid pro quo harassment, coworker harassment, retaliation, and for intentional infliction of emotional distress under state law. The district court granted summary judgment for SkyWest with respect to all of his claims. After review, the Tenth Circuit reversed in part, affirmed in part and remanded. The Court found that viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Tenth Circuit found that reasonable persons could differ with respect to Plaintiff's claims for sexual harassment, retaliation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. View "Hansen v. Skywest Airlines" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellee Elizabeth Hammond sought to pursue a class action in New Mexico state court on behalf of everyone in the country who, like her, called to cancel their Stamps.com subscriptions after “discovering” that Stamps.com “was taking money from them” every month. Hammond alleged that this class included “hundreds or thousands of persons.” And while she didn't allege a total damages amount, she contended that she was entitled to $300 in statutory damages and that other members of the proposed class should “likely” receive damages of $31.98, representing two monthly subscription charges ($15.99 x 2), based on her estimate of how long customers could have reasonably failed to notice the monthly charges before calling to cancel. Hammond also sought punitive damages for herself and other class members. Stamps.com sought to remove the case to federal court, presenting uncontested declarations showing that in the last four years, at least 312,680 customers called to cancel their subscriptions. The company observed that, if each of these persons were to win the same $300 in damages Hammond sought for herself, the value of this case would exceed $93 million. And even if other class members could secure only $31.98 in damages, the company noted, the case’s potential value would still lie at almost $10 million. The district court found lack of jurisdiction, holding that Stamps.com failed to meet its burden of showing that over $5 million was "in controversy" because the company failed to disaggregate from the total number of customer cancellations those customers who “felt duped” by Stamps.com’s website disclosures. Disagreeing with the district court's decision it lacked jurisdiction, the Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Hammond v. Stamps.com" on Justia Law

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The complaint and referenced documents show that Quiznos fast-food franchise had borrowed heavily before its business sharply declined. From 2007 to 2011, Quiznos lost roughly 3,000 franchise restaurants and profitability plunged. With this plunge, Quiznos could no longer satisfy its loan covenants. As a result, Avenue Capital Management II, L.P., “Fortress” (a collective of investment entities) and others could foreclose on collateral, call in debt, or accelerate payments. To avoid a calamity, Quiznos restructured its debt. This securities-fraud matter arose out of the attempt to restructure that debt. Multiple investment funds purchased equity in Quiznos, and despite efforts, Avenue and Fortress sued former Quiznos managers and officers, claiming they had fraudulently misrepresented Quiznos’ financial condition. The district court dismissed the causes of action based on securities fraud based on a failure to state a valid claim. Finding no reversible error in that dismissal, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. View "Avenue Capital Management II, v. Schaden" on Justia Law

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While incarcerated at the Topeka Correctional Facility (TCF - an all-female state prison), Plaintiff-Appellant Tracy Keith was raped by a prison maintenance employee. Plaintiff filed a section 1983 suit alleging that prison officials, including Warden Richard Koerner, violated her Eighth Amendment rights by creating an environment in which sexual misconduct was likely to occur. The Warden defended primarily on qualified immunity grounds. The district court granted summary judgment to Warden Koerner on qualified immunity. Plaintiff appealed. After review, the Tenth Circuit found that a reasonable jury could have concluded that Warden Koerner created an atmosphere where “policies were honored only in the breach, and, as a result, he failed to take reasonable measures to ensure inmates were safe from the risk of sexual misconduct by TCF employees.” Because plaintiff possessed “a clearly established constitutional right” and presented evidence of a constitutional violation by Warden Koerner, the Tenth Circuit concluded summary judgment was inappropriate on qualified-immunity grounds. The Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Keith v. Koerner" on Justia Law

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Danijela and Aleksandar Mojsilovic appealed the dismissal of their damages claim under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). The Mojsilovics are Serbian scientists recruited and hired by the University of Oklahoma to serve as research assistants at the University’s Health Sciences Center. In that capacity, Aleksandar was hired to conduct DNA sequencing and tissue typing for research and clinical studies; Danijela was hired to make transfectants and tissue cultures. The Mojsilovics were retained by the University through the H-1B visa program, and they were supervised by Dr. William Hildebrand, the director of the medical research laboratory at the Health Sciences Center. Dr. Hildebrand also owned a biotechnology company called Pure Protein, which, through a contractual arrangement, shares the University’s facilities to perform similar work. According to the Mojsilovics, shortly after they were hired, Dr. Hildebrand demanded that they also work for Pure Protein. He allegedly required them to work longer hours than permitted by their visa applications, without pay, and threatened to have their visas revoked if they objected. Dr. Hildebrand became verbally abusive at times, and because he was authorized to make hiring and firing decisions, the Mojsilovics claimed they feared he would take action against their immigration status if they did not comply with his demands. The Mojsilovics eventually filed suit, naming the University, Dr. Hildebrand, and Pure Protein as defendants. With respect to claims against the University, the district court dismissed the Mojsilovic’s claims as barred by sovereign immunity. Finding no error in that decision, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Mojsilovic v. Board of Regents University of Oklahoma" on Justia Law

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In 2009, Luna County Deputy Sheriff Gabriel Maynes attempted to pull over plaintiff Anna Gutierrez for running a stop sign. Instead of pulling over, Gutierrez sped up, driving to an apartment complex where her mother, plaintiff Patsy Flores, lived. The deputy managed to taser Gutierrez as she exited her vehicle. When the deputy caught up with her, a scuffle ensued. Flores came out of her apartment and pleaded for the deputy to stop hitting her daughter, but she too was tasered. The State of New Mexico would later charge Gutierrez with several offenses, but those charges were dismissed. Because of the traffic stop and later scuffle, Gutierrez suffered multiple injuries, including two fractured ribs. Plaintiffs Gutierrez and Flores appealed a district court’s grant of summary judgment (based on qualified immunity) to Deputy Maynes on three of their 42 U.S.C. 1982 claims: excessive force, unlawful entry, and unlawful seizure. The district court concluded plaintiffs failed to meet their burden to overcome the qualified immunity defense. They appealed the district court’s judgment, but after careful consideration of the arguments the parties made at trial and on appeal, the Tenth Circuit agreed plaintiffs failed to meet their burden, and affirmed judgment in favor of the deputy. View "Gutierrez v. Luna County" on Justia Law

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Two years ago, Entek GRB, LLC appealed a district court decision holding that it could not cross Stull Ranches' surface estate to access minerals lying under other estates in the same unitized area. Stull defended the district court’s decision on two grounds: (1) the doctrine of issue preclusion mandated the result; and (2) the district court’s judgment was decided on the merits because nothing in the Mineral Leasing Act (MLA) permitted Entek the access it sought. In reviewing Entek's appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected both arguments and returned the matter to the district court. Eventually, the district court entered judgment in favor of Entek, and on the second appeal, Stull asked the Tenth Circuit to reconsider essentially the same issues raised in the first appeal. The Tenth Circuit remained unmoved and affirmed judgment in favor of Entek: "[U]nder this circuit’s law of the case doctrine, '[a] legal decision made at one stage of litigation, unchallenged in a subsequent appeal when the opportunity to do so existed, [generally] becomes the law of the case.'" View "Entek GRB v. Stull Ranches" on Justia Law