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

Articles Posted in U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

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The plaintiffs in this case were David and Barbara Green, their three children, and the businesses they collectively owned and operated: Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Mardel, Inc. As owners and operators of both Hobby Lobby and Mardel, the Greens organized their businesses with express religious principles in mind. As was particularly relevant to this case, one aspect of the Greens’ religious principles was a belief that human life begins when sperm fertilizes an egg. In addition, the Greens believed it was immoral for them to facilitate any act that caused the death of a human embryo. Plaintiffs brought an action to challenge portions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) whereby employment-based group health plans covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) were required provide certain types of health services for women that implicated contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling (without cost-sharing by plan participants or beneficiaries) - all "abortifacients" that went against plaintiffs' religious beliefs. Plaintiffs filed suit to challenge the contraceptive-coverage requirement of the ACA under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and the Administrative Procedure Act. Plaintiffs simultaneously moved for a preliminary injunction on the basis of their RFRA and Free Exercise claims. The district court denied that motion. Plaintiffs appealed the denial of the injunction. After review by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court held that Hobby Lobby and Mardel were entitled to bring claims under RFRA, established a likelihood of success that their rights under statute were substantially burdened by the contraceptive-coverage requirement, and established an irreparable harm. However, the case was remanded back to the district court for further proceedings on two remaining factors governing the grant or denial of a preliminary injunction. View "Hobby Lobby Stores, et al v. Sebelius, et al" on Justia Law

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Lawrence Lucero pled guilty to three counts of receipt of child pornography and two counts of possession of child pornography. At sentencing, the district court increased Lucero's offense level by five based on section 2G2.2(b)(5) of the United States Sentencing Guidelines for having engaged in a pattern of activity involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of a minor. Lucero triggered this increase by admitting to sexually touching two young nieces in the 1960s and 1970s. He was sentenced to 78 months in prison (the lower limit of his Guidelines range) followed by 15 years supervised release. Lucero appealed his sentence as both procedurally and substantively unreasonable. Finding no abuse of the district court's discretion, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the sentence. View "United States v. Lucero" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Terry Thomas was charged in federal court with selling crack cocaine and maintaining a place to manufacture, distribute, or use a controlled substance. He went to trial 146 days after his arraignment. At the trial, an informant testified that she had bought crack cocaine three times from appellant. The jury found appellant guilty on: (1) three counts of possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute; and (2) two counts of using or maintaining a place for the manufacture or distribution of crack cocaine. The court convicted and sentenced appellant to five concurrent prison terms of 130 months. Appellant raised nine issues on appeal to the Tenth Circuit, raising alleged errors of evidence, trial procedure, constitutional violations and miscalculation of sentence. The Tenth Circuit reviewed all of appellant's claims, and affirmed all but his sentence: the Court remanded the case for recalculation of appellant's sentence. View "United States v. Thomas" on Justia Law

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After a suspicious death in a New Mexico prison cell, police identified Paul Smalls, the victim's cellmate, and two other men as the perpetrators. Their scheme was to smother the victim, and then claim he died of an asthma attack. At trial, the government pointed to "signature quality" evidence that Smalls had threatened his asthmatic ex-wife in a similar fashion five months before the murder. Smalls and the other men were found guilty of the murder. Smalls appealed his conviction, arguing that he received a fundamentally unfair trial because: (1) the district court erred in several of its evidentiary rulings, including allowing the testimony of his ex-wife about his prior statement; (2) the government committed prosecutorial misconduct; (3) the court abused its discretion in denying certain jury instructions; and (4) there was insufficient evidence to sustain his convictions. Finding no reversible errors, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "United States v. Small" on Justia Law

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Codefendants Michael Griggs and Charles Sharp appealed their convictions for mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Griggs also challenged a $500,000 fine that was imposed by the district court as part of his sentence. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "United States v. Sharp" on Justia Law

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Stanley Hill appealed conviction on several charges related to the robbery of a bank. During trial, Charles Jones, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), testified as an expert. And when the prosecutor asked about Stanley's repeated invocations of God in support of his truthfulness, Jones stated, "My training has shown me, and more[ ]so my experience in all these interviews, when people start bringing faith into validating [] their statements, that they're deceptive. Those are deceptive statements." Stanley did not contemporaneously object to the admission of this evidence. Nevertheless, the Tenth Circuit concluded the court plainly erred in admitting this testimony and, in the Court's opinion, in light of the relative weakness of the government's overall case, that it affected Stanley's substantial rights. The Court concluded that this appeal was one of the exceptional cases in which it exercised its discretion to notice the plain error because failing to do so would seriously undermine the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. View "United States v. Hill" on Justia Law

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The Internal Revenue Service issued four summonses to banks in the Eastern and Western Districts of Oklahoma for records involving nursing homes owned by Sam Jewell. Under federal law, the IRS had to notify Jewell at least 23 days before the examination date. Because the IRS waited too long to mail the notices, Jewell received the notices less than 23 days before the records were to be examined. Alleging inadequate notice, Jewell filed petitions to quash the summonses. The two courts split on how to interpret the notice requirement: the Western District of Oklahoma granted the government's summary judgment motion and denied Jewell's petition to quash, noting that he received the summonses in time to file his petition; the Eastern District of Oklahoma granted Jewell's petition to quash and denied the government's motion to dismiss, reasoning that the IRS failed to comply with the notice requirement. Jewell appealed the Western District's ruling, and the government appeals the Eastern District's. The Tenth Circuit held that the IRS could not obtain an order enforcing the summonses, affirming the ruling of the Eastern District of Oklahoma and reversing the ruling of the Western District of Oklahoma (with instructions to grant Jewell's petition to quash the two summonses). View "Jewell v. United States" on Justia Law

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Sixteen years ago Carolyn Bayless began to suffer from a mysterious illness. As her condition deteriorated, she sought to learn what caused (and how to treat) her illness. In 2008, convinced that she was the victim of exposure to nerve gas emitted by an Army testing facility, she filed a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act. When this lawsuit followed in 2009, the Army responded that she knew of her claim by at least 2005 and had waited too long to assert it. The district court agreed and granted summary judgment dismissing the case. Upon review, the Tenth Circuit concluded that under the "unusual circumstances presented here," the period of limitation did not accrue until February 2007. Therefore, the Court reversed. View "Bayless v. United States, et al" on Justia Law

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In 2005, a Kansas state court jury convicted Kenneth Frost of aggravated indecent liberties with a child in violation of Kansas state law. His attorney failed to obtain the child’s medical records, which could have been used to impeach the child’s mother and challenge the prosecution’s corroborative evidence. Frost moved for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel. After conducting hearings, the state trial court denied the motion and sentenced Frost to 204 months in prison. The Kansas Court of Appeals (KCOA) affirmed. Although it determined that Frost’s trial counsel provided deficient performance by failing to request the child’s medical records, the KCOA concluded counsel’s performance did not prejudice Frost. The Kansas Supreme Court denied discretionary review. Frost then sought a writ of habeas corpus in federal court, arguing: (1) his attorney’s failure to investigate the child’s medical records violated his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel; and (2) several other claims involving ineffective assistance and prosecutorial misconduct. The federal district court denied relief on the first ineffective assistance claim relating to the child’s medical records because of the deference owed to state court decisions on the merits under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The court dismissed Frost’s remaining claims as procedurally barred. It nonetheless issued Frost a Certificate of Appealability on “the [sole] issue [of] whether [Mr. Frost’s] trial counsel was unconstitutionally ineffective in failing to investigate the child’s medical records.” Frost appealed to the Tenth Circuit, arguing: (1) the district court incorrectly denied relief on the merits of his ineffective assistance claim; and (2) the Court should also grant relief on his procedurally barred claims. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of habeas relief on the first issue. As to his second issue, the Court denied a COA on all remaining claims. View "Frost v. McKune, et al" on Justia Law

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Salt Creek Road is an unimproved 12.3-mile road intertwined with the creek bed in Salt Creek Canyon. The state and county wanted to use their claimed right-of-way to prevent the United States from closing the Salt Creek Road to vehicle traffic. The road is the primary way for tourists to reach several scenic sites within the Canyonlands National Park, including Angel Arch. Without vehicle access, the only way to access Angel Arch is to make the nine-mile trek by foot. The state and county based their claim on Revised Statute (R.S.) 2477: "[T]he right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted." Congress enacted R.S. 2477 in 1866, and it remained in effect until 1976. Even then, however, Congress preserved the rights-of-way established under the statute. This Quiet Title Act case presented to the Tenth Circuit the issue of whether the district court erred in rejecting the claims of San Juan County and the State of Utah to Salt Creek Road. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "San Juan County, Utah v. United States " on Justia Law