Articles Posted in Civil Procedure

by
Plaintiff-Appellant Dennis Obduskey appealed a district court’s order granting Defendants-Appellees Wells Fargo and McCarthy and Holthus, LLP’s motions to dismiss numerous claims, including whether either party was liable as a “debt collector” under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). In 2014, Wells Fargo hired McCarthy and Holthus, LLP, a law firm, to pursue a non-judicial foreclosure on Obduskey’s home. Obduskey responded to a letter McCarthy sent him; rather than responding further, McCarthy initiated a foreclosure action. Obduskey then filed this action claiming (1) a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act; (2) a violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act; (3) defamation; (4) extreme and outrageous conduct - emotional distress; and (5) commencement of an unlawful collections action. Wells Fargo and McCarthy filed motions to dismiss, which the district court granted on all claims. Regarding the FDCPA claim, the district court held that Wells Fargo was not liable because it began servicing the loan prior to default. It also held that McCarthy was not a “debt collector” because “foreclosure proceedings are not a collection of a debt,” but it noted that “not all courts have agreed” on whether foreclosure proceedings are covered under the FDCPA. After review, the Tenth Circuit found that the FDCPA does not apply to non-judicial foreclosure proceedings in Colorado, and affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Obduskey’s claims. View "Obduskey v. Wells Fargo" on Justia Law

by
Defendant Texas Brine Company, LLC (Texas Brine) operated brine wells on land owned by Co-Defendant Occidental Chemical Corporation (Oxy) in Louisiana. In August 2012, a sinkhole appeared near one of these wells. After the sinkhole appeared, Texas Brine began clean-up efforts. In December 2012, Texas Brine retained Frontier International Group, LLC (Frontier), an Oklahoma-based consulting firm, for “emergency management, state and local government relations, community relations, litigation settlement strategy, and media communications.” Some time later, Texas Brine retained Brooks Altshuler, an attorney and Frontier’s owner, in his individual capacity to advise the company on response and remediation efforts and to negotiate with government agencies. Later, Texas Brine retained Frontier as a consulting expert for trial preparation. Litigation began soon after the sinkhole appeared, with multiple plaintiffs suing Texas Brine and Oxy in the Eastern District of Louisiana. To verify the work Frontier performed and the cost of such work, Oxy issued a subpoena duces tecum to nonparty Frontier, requesting production of eight categories of documents related to services Frontier provided Texas Brine. In response, Texas Brine filed a motion to quash the subpoena in the Western District of Oklahoma, the district where compliance was required. Proceeding under the uncontested assumption that Louisiana law applied, Texas Brine first claimed the attorney-client privilege protected the subpoenaed communications. In a written order, the trial court noted that Texas Brine failed to comply with Fed. R. Civ. P. 45(e)(2)(A), instead, relying on a “blanket claim of privilege.” In the context of Texas Brine’s claim of a blanket privilege did the court address whether Louisiana’s attorney-client privilege statute extended the privilege to a public relations firm and its agents. Without a privilege log before it, the court concluded that much of the work Frontier performed for Texas Brine did not constitute “legal advice” and, thus, was not protected by the attorney-client privilege. The court ultimately required Texas Brine to produce a privilege log for any communications that it believed were protected. Texas Brine appealed. Frontier complied with the district court’s order and has, at this point, produced around 20,000 documents and a privilege log regarding the confidentiality of the withheld documents. The Tenth Circuit determined that the trial court’s factual record was insufficient, and the court did not require the production of protected documents, Texas Brine’s appeal was not ripe for review. Accordingly, Frontier and Texas Brine’s appeals were dismissed for want of jurisdiction and lack of ripeness respectively. View "Texas Brine Co. v. Occidental Chem. Corp." on Justia Law

by
This appeal stems from a district court’s denial of qualified immunity to the former El Paso County Sheriff, Terry Maketa and undersheriff, Paula Presley. The claims were brought by three categories of subordinates: (1) Lieutenant Cheryl Peck; (2) Sergeant Robert Stone; and (3) Commanders Mitchell Lincoln, Rodney Gehrett, and Robert King. Lt. Peck, Sgt. Stone, and the three Commanders alleged retaliation for protected speech. The district court held that the subordinates’ allegations were sufficient to defeat qualified immunity at the motion-to-dismiss stage. The Tenth Circuit disagreed because the law was not clearly established that: (1) Lt. Peck’s speech fell outside of her duties as a public employee; (2) the investigations of Sgt. Stone and his children constituted adverse employment actions; and (3) the investigation of the Commanders, their placement on paid administrative leave, and their alleged humiliation constituted adverse employment actions. Therefore, Sheriff Maketa and Undersheriff Presley were entitled to qualified immunity and dismissal of the complaint. View "Lincoln v. Maketa" on Justia Law

by
This case involved an implied covenant to market gas. Energen owned and operated oil and gas wells in the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Its wells were subject to leases and other agreements (many of which were quite old) requiring it to pay a monthly royalty or overriding royalty on production to the Anderson Living Trust, the Pritchett Living Trust, the Neely-Robertson Revocable Family Trust (N-R Trust), and the Tatum Living Trust. Believing Energen was systematically underpaying royalties, the Trusts filed a putative class action complaint against it. The New Mexico Trusts claimed Energen was improperly deducting from their royalties their proportionate share of (1) the costs it incurs to place the gas produced from the wells in a marketable condition (postproduction costs) and (2) a privilege tax the State of New Mexico imposes on natural gas processors (the natural gas processors tax). They also alleged Energen had not timely paid royalties or interest thereon, as required by the New Mexico Oil and Gas Proceeds Payments Act. Both the New Mexico Trusts and the Tatum Trust further claimed Energen was wrongfully failing to pay royalty on the gas it used as fuel. The district judge dismissed the New Mexico Trusts’ marketable condition rule claim for failure to state a claim under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) and entered summary judgment in favor of Energen on the remaining claims. All of the Trusts appealed those judgments. For the most part, the Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court. The Tenth Circuit’s analysis differed from that of the district court relating to: (1) the fuel gas claims made by the N-R Trust and Tatum Trust; and (2) the New Mexico Trusts’ claim under the New Mexico Oil and Gas Proceeds Payments Act. As to the former, the N-R Trust’s overriding royalty agreement required royalty to be paid on all gas produced, including that gas used as fuel. And the Tatum Trust’s leases explicitly prohibited Energen from deducting post-production costs (Energen treats its use of the fuel gas as an in-kind postproduction cost). Moreover, the “free use” clauses and royalty provisions in the Tatum Trust’s leases limited the free use of gas to that occurring on the leased premises. Because use of the fuel gas occurred off the leased premises, Energen owed royalty on that gas. With regard to the latter, the district court was right in permitting Energen to hold funds owed to the N-R Trust in a suspense account until a title issue concerning a well was resolved in favor of that Trust. However, the district court did not address whether the N-R Trust was entitled to statutory interest on those funds. It was so entitled, yet the current record (at least in the Tenth Circuit’s analysis) did not show interest to have been paid on the funds. View "Anderson Living Trust v. Energen Resources" on Justia Law

by
During a ski lesson at Keystone Mountain Resort (“Keystone”), Doctor Teresa Brigance’s ski boot became wedged between the ground and the chairlift. She was unable to unload but the chairlift kept moving, which caused her femur to fracture. Brigance filed suit against Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (“VSRI”), raising claims of: (1) negligence, (2) negligence per se, (3) negligent supervision and training, (4) negligence (respondeat superior), (5) negligent hiring, and (6) violation of the Colorado Premises Liability Act (the “PLA”). The district court dismissed Brigance’s negligence and negligence per se claims at the motion-to-dismiss stage. After discovery, the district court granted VSRI’s motion for summary judgment on the remaining claims, concluding the waiver Brigance signed before participating in her ski lesson, as well as the waiver contained on the back of her lift ticket, were enforceable and barred her claims against VSRI. Finding no reversible error in the district court’s decision, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff-Appellant Rocky Mountain Wild appealed a district court’s determination of law that Defendant-Appellee U.S. Forest Service had no duty under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to disclose unseen documents in possession of third-party contractors. The question on appeal was whether the documents are “agency records” within the meaning of FOIA. The Tenth Circuit determined the documents were not created, obtained, or controlled by the Forest Service and thus were not “agency records” subject to FOIA. View "Rocky Mountain Wild v. United States Forest Service" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff Donald Gutteridge, Jr. appealed a district court order granting summary judgment to defendants Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, and several individuals on two claims arising from injuries suffered by D.C., a child who was then in Oklahoma’s foster-care system. The Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on Gutteridge’s 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim. Likewise, the Court agreed Gutteridge’s state-law tort claim was barred to the extent it arose from D.C.’s placement in two different foster homes. But to the extent Gutteridge’s state-law claim instead arose from the alleged failure to timely remove D.C. from one of those homes and the alleged failure to provide D.C. with timely medical care for injuries she suffered there, the placement exemption did not apply. View "Gutteridge v. Oklahoma" on Justia Law

by
Life Insurance Company of North America’s terminated plaintiff-appellant Carl Van Steen’s long-term disability benefits under Lockheed Martin’s ERISA Plan. Life Insurance Company of North America (LINA) appealed the district court’s finding that its decision to terminate Van Steen’s benefits was arbitrary and capricious. Van Steen, in turn, appealed the district court’s denial of his attorney’s fees request. Van Steen was physically assaulted during an altercation while walking his dog. The assault resulted in a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) that impacted Van Steen’s cognitive abilities that prevented him from returning to full time work; Van Steen was eventually allowed to return to part-time work on a daily basis roughly six weeks later. Even on a part-time schedule, Van Steen experienced cognitive fatigue and headaches that required him to frequently rest. Due to his inability to stay organized and keep track of deadlines after the assault, Van Steen received poor feedback on his job performance. Van Steen’s claim for partial long-term disability benefits was approved on March 30, 2012. Roughly a year later, LINA reviewed Van Steen’s file, contacted his doctors, and confirmed that Van Steen’s condition and restrictions were permanent as he was “not likely to improve.” Despite this prognosis, LINA sent Van Steen a letter one week later terminating his long-term disability benefits, explaining that “the medical documentation on file does not continue to support the current restrictions and limitations to preclude you from resuming a full-time work schedule.” Having exhausted his administrative appeals under the Plan, Van Steen next sought relief before the district court. The district court reversed LINA’s decision to terminate Van Steen’s partial long-term disability benefits on the grounds that it was arbitrary and capricious, but denied Van Steen’s request for attorney’s fees. The Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court’s reversal of LINA’s decision to terminate Van Steen’s coverage. The Court also found that Van Steen was not eligible for attorney fees: “Van Steen’s arguments fail to convince us that the district court’s decision was based on a clear error of judgment or exceeded the bounds of permissible choice.” View "Van Steen v. Life Insurance Company N.A." on Justia Law

by
A jury rejected an employment-discrimination claim against JetStream Ground Services, Inc. filed by several Muslim women and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who alleged that JetStream discriminated against the women on religious grounds by refusing to hire them because they wore hijabs. Plaintiffs’ sole argument on appeal was that the district court abused its discretion by refusing to impose a sanction on JetStream (either excluding evidence or instructing the jury that it must draw an adverse inference) because it disposed of records contrary to a federal regulation purportedly requiring their preservation. The Tenth Circuit found no abuse of discretion: plaintiffs’ argument that the exclusion sanction should have been applied was waived in their opening statement at trial. And the district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to give an adverse-inference instruction after Plaintiffs conceded that destruction of the records was not in bad faith. View "EEOC v. JetStream Ground Services" on Justia Law

by
Brandon Barrick brought an action under the False Claims Act on behalf of the United States, alleging his former employer Parker-Migliorini International (PMI) illegally smuggled beef into Japan and China. At the time of the scheme, China banned all imports of U.S. beef, and Japan imposed heightened standards, under which certain types of U.S. beef would have been banned. Barrick alleged PMI cheated the government out of the inspection fees that would have been paid if PMI had complied with federal law. In Barrick’s view, an “obligation” to pay the government arose when the USDA was informed that meat was being exported to a country with inspection standards higher than those in the United States. Thus, the government should have been paid for the inspections that would have occurred if PMI had accurately reported the destination countries. The Tenth Circuit disagreed with Barrick's reasoning: "[a]n established duty is one owed at the time the improper conduct occurred, not a duty dependent on a future discretionary act." Here, the obligation would not have arisen absent a third-party meat supplier’s independent wrongful conduct. This was because the meat supplier supplied the destination country to the USDA, thus controlling the type of inspection performed. But PMI did not use meat suppliers who were eligible to export beef to Japan. So, for an obligation to arise, the supplier would have had to report an accurate - and illegal - destination country to the USDA, even though the supplier was not eligible to export to that country. This conduct does not create an established duty under the Act. Because the Court did not find Barrick could adequately plead the existence of such an “obligation” by PMI as the Act required, it affirmed the district court’s denial of Barrick’s motion for leave to amend. View "United States ex rel. Barrick v. Parker-Migliorini Int'l" on Justia Law