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

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This case arises from a regulatory dispute involving a hydroelectric project. The project aimed to boost a municipality’s water supply. To obtain more water, the municipality proposed to raise a local dam and expand a nearby reservoir. But implementation of the proposal would require amendment of the municipality’s license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted a discharge permit to the municipality. A group of conservation organizations challenged the Corps’ decision by petitioning in federal district court. While the petition was pending, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission allowed amendment of the municipality’s license to raise the dam and expand the reservoir. The Commission’s amendment of the municipality’s license triggered a jurisdictional question: if federal courts of appeals had exclusive jurisdiction over petitions challenging decisions made by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, did this jurisdiction extend to challenges against the Corps’ issuance of a permit to allow discharges required for the modification of a hydroelectric project licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission? The district court answered yes, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. The conservation organizations were challenging the Corps’ issuance of a permit, not the Commission’s amendment of a license. So the statute didn’t limit jurisdiction to the court of appeals. View "Save The Colorado, et al. v. Spellmon, et al." on Justia Law

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Michael Winrow pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, which at the time of his plea. carried a maximum sentence of ten years. However, the Armed Career Criminal Act provided for a minimum term of 15 years when a defendant had three prior convictions for a “violent felony or a serious drug offense,” The district court sentenced Winrow to 188 months, concluding that he was subject to the ACCA’s enhancement because he had three qualifying predicates. Winrow argued on appeal the district court erred sentencing him: two of those convictions were for aggravated assault and battery under Okla. Stat. tit 21, § 646 (2011), and aggravated assault and battery, as Oklahoma defined it, was not categorically a violent felony, so his convictions under § 646 should not have counted as predicates. To this the Tenth Circuit agreed, remanded the case for the sentence to be vacated, and that he be resentenced without eh ACCA enhancement. View "United States v. Winrow" on Justia Law

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Cecil Bristow suffered from a chronic lung disease, COPD, and attributed it to coal-mine dust from years of working in coal mines. An administrative law judge and the Benefits Review Board agreed with Bristow and awarded him benefits. Bristow's most recent employer, Energy West Mining Company, petitioned the Tenth Circuit for judicial review of the Board's decision, and the Tenth Circuit denied the petition, finding the Board did not err in upholding the administrative law judge's award of benefits. View "Energy West v. Bristow" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant Abasi Baker appealed a district court’s denial of his second or successive motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, challenging his convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). In March 2011, Baker was charged with numerous federal crimes in a multi-count indictment, including seven counts of Hobbs Act robbery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951; seven counts of using a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence (i.e., the Hobbs Act robberies), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c); and seven counts of being a convicted felon in possession of a handgun, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). After the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals authorized this motion based on the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019), and the district court denied it, the Tenth Circuit granted Baker a certificate of appealability (“COA”) on whether United States v. Melgar-Cabrera, 892 F.3d 1053 (10th Cir. 2018) was wrongly decided because Hobbs Act robbery would not qualify as a crime of violence either categorically under § 924(c)(3)(A) or under § 924(c)(3)(B) after Davis. Rather than directly address this issue, however, Baker, in his supplemental opening brief, requests that the Tenth Circuit exercise discretion to “expand” the COA to cover whether Baker was entitled to § 2255 relief because: (1) Hobbs Act robbery, when accomplished through threats to injure any property—tangible or intangible—was not a crime of violence under § 924(c)(3)(A); and (2) the Tenth Circuit's decision in United States v. Melgar-Cabrera, where the Court held Hobbs Act robbery categorically qualified as a crime of violence under § 924(c)(3)(A), did not bar his argument because it was inapposite. Moreover, during the pendency of this appeal, the Supreme Court decided United States v. Taylor, 142 S. Ct. 2015 (2022), holding that attempted Hobbs Act Robbery was not a crime of violence. After review, the Tenth Circuit denied Baker’s request to expand the COA and dismissed that portion of this matter, and remanded the case to allow the district court to determine in the first instance whether it was lawful and otherwise appropriate to permit Baker to amend his § 2255 motion to make a Taylor-like argument as to Count 11. View "United States v. Baker" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Jeannie Parker fielded calls for United Airliines, booking flight reservations. Parker took FMLA leave because she had a vision disorder and her father had cancer. About five months after approving the leave, Parker’s supervisor suspected Parker was avoiding new calls by telling customers that she would get additional information, putting the customers on hold, and chatting with coworkers about personal matters while the customers waited. The supervisor characterized Parker’s conduct as “call avoidance.” This suspicion led to a meeting between the supervisor, Parker, and a union representative. Following the meeting, United suspended Parker while investigating her performance. During this investigation, the supervisor reviewed more of Parker’s phone calls with customers and recommended that United fire Parker. United’s policies prohibited the supervisor from firing Parker; United had to select a manager to conduct a meeting and allow participation by Parker, her supervisor, and a union representative. All of them could present arguments and evidence, and the manager would decide whether to fire Parker. At the second meeting, the union representative asked United to apply its progressive discipline policy rather than terminate Parker's employment, to which United declined. Policy allowed Parker to appeal by filing a grievance; if she were to submit a grievance, another manager would conduct the appeal, wherein Parker could again be represented by the union, and present additional arguments. Parker filed a grievance but declined to participate, relying on her union representative. The union representative admitted in the conference call that Parker had “no excuse for the demonstrated behavior of call avoidance except for being under extreme mental duress.” With this admission, the union representative asked United to give Parker another chance. The senior manager declined and concluded that United hadn’t acted improperly in firing Parker. The issue this case presented for the Tenth Circuit's review centered on whether United's termination was made in retaliation for Parker's taking FMLA leave. Specifically, whether FMLA's prohibition against retaliation applied when the employee obtained consideration by independent decisionmakers. "Retaliation entails a causal link between an employee’s use of FMLA leave and the firing. That causal link is broken when an independent decisionmaker conducts her own investigation and decides to fire the employee." The Tenth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment to United. View "Parker v. United Airlines" on Justia Law

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Officer Denton Scherman of the Edmond, Oklahoma Police Department shot an unarmed assailant, Isaiah Lewis, four times. Lewis died as a result of his wounds. Plaintiffs, the representatives of Lewis’s estate, brought this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging Defendant Scherman used excessive force against the decedent in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Scherman appealed the district court’s decision denying his motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. After review, the Tenth Circuit reversed, finding its jurisdiction was limited because at this intermediate stage of the litigation, and controlling precedent generally precluded the Court from reviewing a district court’s factual findings if those findings have (as they did here) at least minimal support in the record. In such case, “[t]hose facts explicitly found by the district court, combined with those that it likely assumed, . . . form the universe of facts upon which we base our legal review of whether [a] defendant[] [is] entitled to qualified immunity.” The Tenth Circuit's review was de novo; Defendant Scherman did not dispute the facts recited by the district court, when viewed in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs, sufficed to show a violation of the decedent’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force. What Scherman did dispute was the district court’s holding that the law was clearly established at the time of the incident such “that every reasonable [officer] would have understood” Scherman’s actions, given the facts knowable to him, violated decedent’s constitutional right. The Tenth Circuit concluded Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of showing the law was clearly established such “that every reasonable [officer] would have understood” that the force Scherman used against Lewis was excessive under the facts presented at trial. The judgment of the district court denying Defendant Scherman qualified immunity is reversed and this case is remanded for entry of judgment in his favor. View "Lewis, et al. v. City of Edmond, et al." on Justia Law

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Petitioner-appellant Delila Pacheco was convicted in Oklahoma of first-degree child-abuse murder. She petitioned for relief to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, filing an application under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. While her application was pending, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Murphy v. Royal, 875 F.3d 896 (10th Cir. 2017), holding that a large portion of the State of Oklahoma was “Indian country” for purposes of the Major Crimes Act, which provided for exclusive federal jurisdiction over certain enumerated crimes committed by Indians in “Indian country.” Pacheco, an Indian found to have committed a serious crime at a location since determined to be on an Indian reservation, sought to amend her application to assert a claim that the state courts lacked jurisdiction over the offense. The district court denied the request to amend on the ground that the new claim was time-barred. The Tenth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability (COA) on this issue. Pacheco argued on appeal: (1) that the time bar to her jurisdictional claim should be excused under the actual-innocence exception; and, alternatively, (2) that the statute of limitations reset when the Supreme Court declared the underlying law in McGirt v. Oklahoma, 140 S. Ct. 2452 (2020), rendering timely her request to amend. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court, finding Pacheco’s jurisdictional argument did not show actual innocence, and McGirt did not announce a new constitutional right. View "Pacheco v. El Habti" on Justia Law

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Integrity Advance, LLC operated as a nationwide payday lender offering short-term consumer loans at high interest rates. In 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“Bureau”) brought an administrative enforcement action against Integrity and its CEO, James Carnes (collectively, “Petitioners”). The Notice of Charges alleged violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (“CFPA”), the Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”), and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (“EFTA”). Between 2018 and 2021, the Supreme Court issued four decisions that bore on the Bureau’s enforcement activity in this case. The series of decisions led to intermittent delays and restarts in the Bureau’s case against Petitioners. Ultimately, the Director mostly affirmed the recommendations of the ALJ. Petitioners appealed the Director’s final order to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals under 12 U.S.C. § 5563(b)(4), asking that the Court vacate the order, or at least remand for a new hearing. Petitioners argued the Director’s order didn’t give them the full benefit of the Supreme Court’s rulings. The Tenth Circuit rejected Petitioners’ various challenges and affirmed the Director’s order. View "Integrity Advance, et al. v. CFPB" on Justia Law

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Kelly Sorenson, acting as a qui tam relator, brought suit on behalf of the United States against his former employer, Wadsworth Brothers Construction Company (“Wadsworth”), under the provisions of the False Claims Act (“FCA”). Sorenson alleged Wadsworth, a contractor working on a federally funded transportation project, falsely certified its compliance with the prevailing-wage requirements of the Davis-Bacon Act. The district court granted Wadsworth’s Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) motion as to presenting a false claim, making a false record to obtain payment on a false claim, and an allegation of a conspiracy to defraud. The district court concluded Sorenson’s complaint failed to satisfy the demanding materiality standard set out by the Supreme Court in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Escobar, 579 U.S. 176 (2016). Thereafter, the district court granted summary judgment to Wadsworth on Sorenson’s Claim 5, a retaliation claim based on the whistleblower provisions of 31 U.S.C. § 3730(h). The district court concluded Sorenson failed to put Wadsworth on notice his protected activities were related to purported violations of the FCA and, in addition, failed to demonstrate Wadsworth’s actions were retaliatory. Sorenson appealed the dismissal of the first three claims and the grant of summary judgment to Wadsworth on Claim 5. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal. View "Sorenson v. Wadsworth Brothers Construct" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Gregory Williams appealed after he pled guilty to possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He claimed: (1) his sentence was procedurally unreasonable because the district court incorrectly calculated his base offense level under the advisory Sentencing Guidelines and the district court clearly erred in its drug-quantity calculation by holding him accountable for alleged packages of methamphetamine on which the government presented no evidence; and (2) the district court imposed an illegal sentence by erroneously applying the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) enhancement: his prior Oklahoma convictions for distributing a controlled dangerous substance were not categorically “serious drug offenses” under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(A)(ii) because his state offenses applied to hemp, and hemp was not a federally controlled substance at the time of his federal offense. The Tenth Circuit agreed with defendant on both issues, vacated the judgment and remanded fr resentencing. View "United States v. Williams" on Justia Law