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

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure
by
This case arose from a sexual-misconduct investigation conducted by the University of Denver and the subsequent expulsion of John Doe after a classmate accused him of sexual assault. Doe sued the University and various school administrators (collectively, the University) alleging, among other things, that the University violated the sex discrimination prohibition of Title IX, because anti-male bias pervaded the sexual-misconduct investigation, resulting in a disciplinary decision against the weight of the evidence. The district court concluded Doe failed to present sufficient evidence that the University’s actions were motivated by bias against him because of his sex, and it therefore granted summary judgment to the University on Doe’s Title IX claim. Doe challenged that conclusion, alleging the district court applied the wrong legal standard in resolving his motion for summary judgment. Applying the “McDonnell Douglas” evidentiary standard to Doe’s claim, the Tenth Circuit concluded he provided sufficient evidence for a jury to decide whether the investigation into the allegations and subsequent disciplinary action discriminated against him because of his sex. View "Doe v. University of Denver" on Justia Law

by
A class of employees who participated in Banner Health, Inc.’s 401(k) defined contribution savings plan accused Banner and other plan fiduciaries of breaching duties owed under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). A district court agreed in part, concluding that Banner had breached its fiduciary duty to plan participants by failing to monitor its recordkeeping service agreement with Fidelity Management Trust Company: this failure to monitor resulted in years of overpayment to Fidelity and corresponding losses to plan participants. During the bench trial, the employees’ expert witness testified the plan participants had incurred over $19 million in losses stemming from the breach. But having determined the expert evidence on losses was not reliable, the court fashioned its own measure of damages for the breach. Also, despite finding that Banner breached its fiduciary duty, the district court entered judgment for Banner on several of the class’s other claims: the court found that Banner’s breach of duty did not warrant injunctive relief and that Banner had not engaged in a “prohibited transaction” with Fidelity as defined by ERISA. The class appealed, arguing the district court adopted an improper method for calculating damages and prejudgment interest, abused its discretion by denying injunctive relief, and erred in entering judgment for Banner on the prohibited transaction claim. Finding no abuse of discretion or other reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court in each instance. View "Ramos v. Banner Health" on Justia Law

by
After years of litigation, Plaintiff-Appellant Derma Pen, LLC (“Derma Pen”) was granted a permanent injunction against Stene Marshall and three related corporations that he had formed. Shortly thereafter, Derma Pen moved for a contempt order against Marshall, alleging that he had violated the injunction. Derma Pen also sought a contempt order against Marshall’s brother and sister- in-law, Joel and Sasha Marshall, and DP Derm, LLC, a corporation Joel and Sasha owned (collectively, the “Related Parties”). Movant-Appellant Derma Pen IP Holdings LLC (“DPIPH”), Derma Pen’s successor in interest, joined Derma Pen’s motion shortly before the contempt hearing. In its motion, Derma Pen asserted that the Related Parties had acted in concert with Marshall to violate the injunction. The Related Parties prevailed in the contempt proceeding and subsequently moved for attorney’s fees under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1117(a). The court granted the motion for fees, and Derma Pen and DPIPH appealed that award. The Tenth Circuit found that in its award of attorney’s fees to the Related Parties, the trial court relied upon a statutory provision in the Patent Act as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Octane Fitness, LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc., 572 U.S. 545 (2014). The issue presented for the Tenth Circuit’s review was whether the term “exceptional case” in the Patent Act differed in meaning from the same term used in the Lanham Act to a degree that required reversal. The Court concluded the exceptional case standard in the Lanham Act paralleled the standard in the Patent Act and affirmed. View "Derma Pen, LLC v. 4EverYoung Limited" on Justia Law

by
In the summer of 2016, a large fire, later known as the Dog Head Fire, engulfed Isleta Pueblo and United States Forest Service land in the Manzano Mountains of New Mexico. The fire resulted from forest-thinning work performed by Pueblo crewmembers under an agreement with the Forest Service. Insurance companies and several owners of destroyed property (collectively, “Appellants”) sued the government, alleging negligence under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”). The government moved to dismiss, arguing that the court lacked jurisdiction and, alternatively, for summary judgment on that same basis. The district court granted the government summary judgment, concluding: (1) the Pueblo crewmembers had acted as independent contractors of the government, and thus, the government wasn’t subject to FTCA liability based on the Pueblo crewmembers’ negligence; and (2) Appellants’ claims premised on the Forest Service employees’ own negligence, under the FTCA’s discretionary-function exception, were barred. On appeal, Appellants contended the district court erred in ruling that the FTCA jurisdictionally barred their claims. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Ohlsen v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Before the Tenth Circuit in this matter was a product liability case involving a rifle manufactured by Remington Arms Company, LLC. The rifle allegedly misfired (without anyone pulling the trigger) and injured Joann Harris. Harris and her husband sued Remington, attributing the injury to a defect in the rifle. In support, the Harrises proffered testimony by an expert witness who had explained how the rifle could have fired without anyone pulling the trigger. Remington argued the Harrises’ expert’s testimony was inadmissible because it conflicted with undisputed evidence. To counter this, the Harrises disclosed that their expert had changed his explanation. But by the time of this disclosure, discover had already closed. The district court excluded the expert testimony, and granted summary judgment to Remington. On appeal, the Harrises challenged the exclusion of the expert testimony and the award of summary judgment. The Tenth Circuit rejected both challenges, finding the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the expert testimony, and the Harrises didn’t argue in district court that they could survive summary judgment even without expert testimony. So the award of summary judgment to Remington was affirmed. View "Harris v. Remington Arms Company" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff-appellant Thomas Standish was injured when his right ski struck a six-and-a-half-foot stump covered with freshly fallen snow skiing in an ungroomed area at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. stump covered with freshly fallen snow. Standish and his wife brought a negligence lawsuit against Jackson Hole to recover for his injuries. Jackson Hole moved for summary judgment, contending the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act (WRSA) limited Jackson Hole’s liability because Standish’s injury was a result of an “inherent risk” of alpine skiing. The district court granted summary judgment, finding that a tree stump covered by fresh snow was an inherent risk of skiing for which the WRSA precluded liability. To this, the Tenth Circuit agreed and affirmed the district court’s conclusion. View "Standish v. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort" on Justia Law

by
Responding to a call to the sheriff’s office that the occupant was intoxicated and possibly suicidal, Deputy Kyle Wilson drove to the home of Shane Bridges. Within seconds of his arrival at the home, Wilson had fired 13 rounds from his semiautomatic handgun at Bridges, hitting him twice and killing him. The shooting led to claims by Plaintiff Janelle Bridges, special administrator of Shane. Bridges’ estate, against Deputy Wilson and the Board of County Commissioners of Mayes County. She sued Wilson under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for allegedly violating Mr. Bridges’ constitutional rights by using unreasonable force, and sued the Board under the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act (OGTCA) based on alleged negligence by Deputy Wilson. The district court granted the Board summary judgment on the ground that the OGTCA did not waive the Board’s immunity from suit because Wilson was acting “as a protector, not as a law enforcer.” The section 1983 claim against Wilson was then tried to a jury, which ruled in Wilson’s favor. At trial Plaintiff contended that when Wilson drove up, Mr. Bridges had briefly opened the door to his home to look outside and had never fired a weapon, but that Wilson began firing at him after he had closed the door and gone inside, where he was hit by shots that pierced the door. Wilson’s account was that Mr. Bridges began firing at him from the porch of the home after he had parked his vehicle, and that Wilson fired only in response to the shots from Mr. Bridges, who then retreated into his home and died. Plaintiff did not dispute the jury verdict on appeal to the Tenth Circuit, but she challenged the summary judgment entered in favor of the Board. After reviewing the briefs and the record, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment in favor of the Board on the ground suggested at oral argument (the Court did not address the immunity issue). “But on the evidence and theories of liability in this case, … a negligence claim under the OGTCA would be incompatible with the jury verdict. Plaintiff could prevail on the merits on each claim if, and only if, Mr. Bridges did not initiate the gun battle by firing at Deputy Wilson from his porch. By rendering a verdict in Wilson’s favor, the jury must have found that Mr. Bridges fired first.” View "Bridges v. Wilson" on Justia Law

by
As plaintiff-appellant Julie Huff was at the bank in early 2016, Cedric Norris entered, murdered the bank president, grabbed some money from tellers, and took Huff hostage, forcing her to drive the getaway vehicle. Police officers pursued the vehicle and were able to force it to crash. At first, Norris fired at the officers and fled in one direction while Huff fled away from him. She raised her arms and faced the officers. But they fired at her and she fell to the ground. Later, Norris came up behind her and used her body as a shield. Norris was killed in the shootout. Huff was shot at least 10 times. Huff later filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for violations of her civil rights, alleging, among other things, that Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Chris Reeves used excessive force against her, in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. She also sued McIntosh County Sheriff Kevin Ledbetter for failure to properly train his deputies. The district court granted summary judgment to both defendants. The court found Reeves did not violate Huff’s constitutional rights because he did not shoot her intentionally. And it dismissed the claim against the sheriff on the grounds that Huff could neither demonstrate a predicate constitutional violation by one of his deputies nor identify any specific training deficiency related to the alleged violation. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the Fourteenth Amendment claim against Reeves and the failure-to-train claim against Sheriff Ledbetter, but reversed and remanded on the Fourth Amendment claim against Reeves. The Tenth Circuit held Huff could not invoke Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process in the circumstances of this case, and she failed to point to any additional training of Ledbetter’s personnel that could have prevented the alleged constitutional violation. But the Court concluded that Huff has presented a genuine issue of material fact on whether Reeves shot her intentionally. “And because it is clearly established in this circuit that an officer may not employ deadly force against a person who poses no threat, Reeves is not entitled to qualified immunity at this stage of the proceedings.” View "Huff v. Reeves" on Justia Law

by
In 2015, consumers owning Samsung top-load washing machines experienced issues with the door detaching mid-cycle. Litigation ensued across the country, with the cases consolidated into the multidistrict litigation underlying this appeal. Class counsel and the defendants negotiated a Settlement Agreement that provided class members five forms of relief. The district court, over objector-appellant John Morgan’s objection, granted final class certification and final approval to the settlement. Essential to Morgan’s objections was the Settlement Agreement’s inclusion of a “kicker” agreement and a “clear-sailing” agreement relative to the award of attorneys’ fees and costs. Morgan argued that under the “clear-sailing” agreement, Samsung agreed not to contest any request by class counsel for attorneys’ fees and costs of up to $6.55 million. Attempting to resolve his objections, Morgan and Samsung sought to negotiate a side agreement providing for the possible distribution to the class of a portion of the difference between the $6.55 million maximum permissible attorneys’ fees and costs, and the actual amount awarded by the district court. Ratification of this side agreement, however, never occurred, with Morgan walking away based on a purported fear that class counsel might sue him and his counsel if he and Samsung finalized the side agreement. On appeal, Morgan argued: (1) the district court made clear errors of fact regarding settlement negotiations and the side agreement; (2) the district court abused its discretion by granting final approval to the Settlement Agreement where it included both a “kicker” and a “clear-sailing” agreement; and (3) the district court abused its discretion by granting final class certification and allowing class counsel to continue in its role after class counsel placed its interests ahead of the class’s interests. The Tenth Circuit held a district court must apply heightened scrutiny before approving a settlement that includes both a “kicker” agreement and a “clear-sailing” agreement. But its review of the record gave the Court confidence the district court did just that. And although the district court made one clear error in its fact-finding process, the Tenth Circuit concluded the error was harmless to its ultimate decisions regarding final class certification, final approval of the Settlement Agreement, and its award of attorneys’ fees and costs. View "In re: Samsung Top-Load" on Justia Law

by
Petitioner-Appellant Rio Hondo petitioned the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal to review a decision of the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board (“EAB”). Rio Hondo sought to vacate relaxed pollutant limitations in a 2017 permit issued by the EPA to an upstream waste water treatment plant. The waste water treatment plant served the Village of Ruidoso and City of Ruidoso Downs, and was an identified point source of pollutants into the Rio Ruidoso river. The Rio Ruidoso was classified under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) as marginally impaired for nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. The Rio Hondo river was downstream from the Rio Ruidoso river, and the Rio Hondo river flowed adjacent to the Rio Hondo ranch. Rio Hondo contended that reduced river water quality, including algae blooms, harmed its ability to make critical use of the river water. Rio Hondo contended two aspects of the EPA’s 2017 permit constitute impermissible backsliding under the CWA: (1) the permit does not include concentration-based limitations that prior permits included; and (2) the permit increased the mass-based limitation on nitrogen discharges. The 2017 permit relied on a 2016 Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) report prepared by the New Mexico Environment Department and adopted by the EPA. Rio Hondo previously challenged the 2016 TMDL in New Mexico state court and lost. The Tenth Circuit denied Rio Hondo's petition: Rio Hondo presented no new information which would cast doubt on the 2016 TMDL, and its challenge to the 2017 permit "boils down to a challenge of that underlying 2016 TMDL. The record demonstrates that the EPA reasonably relied on the 2016 TMDL in issuing the 2017 permit, did not abuse its discretion in creating the permit limits, and appropriately applied a statutory exception to the anti-backsliding provisions of the CWA." View "Rio Hondo Land v. EPA" on Justia Law