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

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Defendant-Appellant Michael Bacon appealed a district court’s decision to keep the supplement to his plea agreement filed under seal. In 2015, Bacon pleaded guilty to two counts of bank robbery and one count of robbing a credit union, pursuant to a written plea agreement. At his combined plea and sentencing hearing, the district court asked Bacon if he had signed the documents relating to his plea agreement. After responding that he had not, Bacon’s counsel explained that Bacon was “concerned about the [plea] supplement” and asked “for permission to file the plea agreement without the [plea] supplement. The district court responded that under Utah local rules, supplements were sealed in every case, “and we do that to protect the rare person who does cooperate.” Plea supplements describe the nature of the defendant’s cooperation with the government or lack thereof. Bacon ultimately refused to sign his plea supplement, explaining to the court that “[w]hen you go off to prison and you’ve got something sealed inside your paperwork and the yard gets the paperwork and they see you’ve got a sealed document, they think you cooperated, and they want to hurt you.” His counsel signed it on his behalf. At Bacon’s resentencing, the parties did not dispute that Bacon’s supervised release term should have been reduced to 36 months, however, a dispute emerged over the sealed plea supplement. Bacon addressed the court himself, regarding the sealed plea supplement, stating, “If I don’t wan’t [sic] to place my life in jeopardy, I don’t see how the federal government can force me to do that.” Bacon contended the district court erred by failing to consider the common law right of access to court documents and by failing to make case-specific findings regarding sealing on the record. The Tenth Circuit determined defendant was challenging the district court’s decision to keep a specific document under seal, not its authority to enact a local rule. “A presumption of openness must be overcome for a judicial record to remain under seal. The record demonstrates that the district court did not consider this presumption of access to judicial records.” Because the Court determined the district court failed to articulate a case-specific reason for its sealing decision, its decision was vacated and the matter remanded. View "United States v. Bacon" on Justia Law

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Under Colorado law, employers must pay all employees time-and-a-half wages for overtime hours, with certain exemptions. Employers need not pay overtime wages to “companions, casual babysitters, and domestic employees employed by households or family members to perform duties in private residences.” The question this case presented for the Tenth Circuit’s review was whether “companions” working for third-party employers (rather than for households or family members) fell within the companionship exemption. The Court determined they do. Accordingly, it reversed the district court’s judgment concluding otherwise. View "Jordan v. Maxim Healthcare Services" on Justia Law

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In 2013, a Wyoming court declared Andrew Johnson actually innocent of crimes for which he was then incarcerated. In 2017, after his release, Johnson brought suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against the City of Cheyenne, Wyoming, the Estate of Detective George Stanford (“the Estate”), and Officer Alan Spencer, alleging they were responsible for violations of his constitutional rights that contributed to his conviction. While incarcerated, however, Johnson had unsuccessfully brought similar suits against Cheyenne and Detective Stanford in 1991 (“1991 Action”) and against Officer Spencer in 1992 (“1992 Action”). The central question before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was what effect the judgments against Johnson in his 1991 and 1992 Actions had on his 2017 Action. Answering this question required the Court to resolve two primary issues: (1) in addition to filing the 2017 Action, Johnson moved the district court under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) for relief from the judgments in the 1991 and 1992 Actions, which Johnson contended the district court erred in denying; and (2) Cheyenne, the Estate and Officer Spencer each successfully moved to dismiss the 2017 Action because its claims were precluded by judgments in the 1991 and 1992 Actions, and Johnson likewise contended the court’s decision was made in error. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court erred by denying Rule 60(b)(6) relief, and so those orders were vacated for reconsideration under the correct legal rubric. Because of the Court’s remand of Johnson’s Rule 60(b)(6) motions did not actually grant such relief (Rule 60(b)(6) relief is discretionary), the Tenth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s dismissal of the 2017 Action. Specifically, the Tenth Circuit affirmed dismissal of claims against Cheyenne and the Estate because the judgment in the 1991 action was entitled to claim--reclusive effect. The Court reversed, however, dismissal of the claims against Officer Spencer because the judgment in 1992 was not on the merits, and thus, was not entitled to claim--reclusive effect. View "Johnson v. Spencer" on Justia Law

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Defendant Bruce Bradley appealed a federal district court’s order denying his motion to dismiss a suit brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 based on qualified immunity. Plaintiff Susan Ullery alleged Defendant violated, among other things, her Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by using excessive force against her in the form of sexual assault and abuse. Plaintiff was a former inmate at the Denver Women’s Correctional Center, which was a prison in the Colorado state prison system. Between early 2014 and April 2016, Plaintiff worked in the canteen services at the prison under the direction of Defendant, a corrections officer and supervisor of inmates who worked in the department. During this time, Defendant sexually harassed, abused, and assaulted Plaintiff. On appeal, Defendant did not challenge the district court’s determination that he violated a constitutional right. Rather, Defendant argued he was entitled to qualified immunity even if he violated the Constitution because Plaintiff’s asserted Eighth Amendment right to be free from sexual abuse was not clearly established at the time of the alleged violations. After review of the district court record, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the district court erred to the extent it held the contours of the asserted constitutional right were clearly established before August 11, 2015. But the Court further concluded any reasonable corrections officer in Defendant’s position since August 11, 2015, would have known the alleged conduct violated the Eighth Amendment based upon the clearly established weight of persuasive authority. “Because any actionable constitutional violations in this case would necessarily have occurred after this date, the law was clearly established for all relevant purposes; the district court therefore correctly denied Defendant qualified immunity.” View "Ullery v. Bradley" on Justia Law

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Stacey Janssen alleged Lawrence Memorial Hospital ("LMH") engaged in two healthcare schemes to fraudulently receive money from the United States. Janssen first contended LMH falsified patients’ arrival times in order to increase its Medicare reimbursement under certain pay-for-reporting and pay-for-performance programs the Government used to study and improve hospitals’ quality of care. Second, Janssen contended LMH falsely certified compliance with the Deficit Reduction Act in order to receive Medicare reimbursements to which it was otherwise not entitled. LMH moved for summary judgment below, arguing Janssen failed to show her allegations satisfied the Act’s materiality requirement - that the alleged falsehoods influenced the Government’s payment decision as required under the FCA. The district court granted LMH summary judgment on all of Janssen’s claims on this basis, and finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "United States ex rel. Janssen v. Lawrence Memorial Hospital" on Justia Law

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Thomas Alpern claimed the United States Forest Service improperly charges him a fee when he entered Maroon Valley to park and hike. He cited an provision of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (REA) he claimed prohibited charging a fee "solely for parking." He argued that this prohibition overrode another REA provision that allowed agencies to charge a fee when certain listed amenities were present, like picnic tables, security patrols, trash bins, and interpretive signs. The Tenth Circuit disagreed, finding section 6802(d)(1)(A) prohibited charging fees “[s]olely for parking . . . along roads or trailsides[,]” something Alpern did not do. The Court found Alpern parked in a developed parking lot featuring all the amenities listed in section 6802(f)(4), not along a road or trailside. So it affirmed the district court’s decision to reject Alpern’s as-applied challenge to the Maroon Valley fee program. View "Alpern v. Ferebee" on Justia Law

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Defendant Donald Blackbird attempted to sexually abuse his fifteen-year-old granddaughter. He pleaded guilty to the offense, and the district court sentenced him to sixty months’ imprisonment. At sentencing, the district court applied a sentence enhancement, which increased his base offense level because “the minor was in the custody, care, or supervisory control of the defendant” at the time of the attempted sexual abuse. Defendant appealed, arguing the government presented no evidence he had custody, care, or supervisory control of his granddaughter at the time of the attempted abuse. The Tenth Circuit concurred with this reasoning, finding that because the government failed to show that Defendant exercised “custody, care, or supervisory control” over the victim, it vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Blackbird" on Justia Law

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Petitioner George Ezell was a conductor for BNSF Railway Company. In 2014, the trainmaster directed Ezell to detach twenty ballast-loaded railcars from a train about to enter the Enid, Oklahoma train yard. To detach, Ezell had to climb railcar ladders to see which cars were more than half full of ballast. Ezell safely performed this method for five or six railcars, but while inspecting the next railcar, his left hand slipped from the flange after he had let go of the ladder rung with his right hand. He was unable to resecure a grip with either hand and fell several feet to the ground, fracturing his right leg, right ankle, and left foot. He sued BNSF under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) for failing to provide him with a reasonably safe place to work. BNSF moved for summary judgment, arguing that its railcar complied with the governing safety regulations and that Ezell had offered no evidence of BNSF’s negligence. “Ezell’s proffering what he believes are safer alternatives does not show negligence.” The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals determined the evidence established that to do their jobs railroad conductors need to climb the ladders, and that this was a reasonably safe activity. For that reason, the Court agreed with the district court’s dismissal of this case. View "Ezell v. BNSF Railway Company" on Justia Law

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Defendant Rodolfo Gonzalez-Fierro, a Mexican citizen, challenged his conviction for unlawfully re-entering the United States after a prior removal. That conviction was based in part on Gonzalez-Fierro’s prior expedited removal from the United States in 2009. Due process required that, before the United States can use a defendant’s prior removal to prove a 8 U.S.C. 1326(a) charge, “there must be some meaningful review” of the prior administrative removal proceeding. In light of that, Congress provided a mechanism in section 1326(d), for a defendant charged with a section 1326(a) offense to challenge the fundamental fairness of his prior unreviewed removal. But, pursuant to 8 U.S.C. 1225(b)(1)(D), the section 1326(d) mechanism applied only to prior formal removal orders, and not to prior expedited removal orders like Gonzalez-Fierro’s. "Expedited removals apply to undocumented aliens apprehended at or near the border soon after unlawfully entering the United States. Different from formal removals, expedited removals are streamlined - generally there is no hearing, no administrative appeal, and no judicial review before an expedited removal order is executed." Applying the Supreme Court’s reasoning in United States v. Mendoza-Lopez, 481 U.S. 828 (1987), the Tenth Circuit concluded section 1225(b)(1)(D) was unconstitutional because it deprives a defendant like Gonzalez-Fierro of due process. Without section 1225(b)(1)(D), the Court reviewed Gonzalez-Fierro's 2009 expedited removal order, and concluded he failed to establish that removal was fundamentally unfair. On that basis, the Court affirmed Gonzalez-Fierro's section 1326(a) conviction. View "United States v. Gonzalez-Fierro" on Justia Law

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A group of 122 detention officers who work or worked at Otero County Prison near Chaparral, New Mexico, alleged that their employer, Management & Training Corporation (MTC), failed to pay them for certain activities that they engaged in before they arrived at, when they arrived at, and after they left their posts within the prison. According to the officers, these activities constituted compensable work, so MTC’s failure to pay violated both the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, and the New Mexico Minimum Wage Act. The Tenth Circuit concurred that in the context presented, the officers' activities constituted compensable work. The Court rejected MTC's arguments that : (1) the time the officers devoted to these activities was de minimis; and (2) it need not pay the officers for these activities because it did not know the officers were engaging in them. Additionally, the Court concluded that the officers’ rounding claim survived summary judgment. As such, the district court's order awarding summary judgment to MTC, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Aguilar v. Management & Training" on Justia Law