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

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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Defendant-Appellee Southwest Airlines graded its new hires based on two overarching categories of criteria: Attitude and Aptitude. By all accounts, Plaintiff-appellant Krista Edmonds-Radford had the necessary Attitude for her position as a Southwest Customer Service Agent. Unfortunately, she failed to exhibit the necessary Aptitude, and Southwest terminated her for failing to meet expectations. That termination led to this disability-based lawsuit, in which Edmonds-Radford sued Southwest for disparate treatment, failure to accommodate, and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Southwest on all claims, and Edmonds-Radford appealed. After review, the Tenth Circuit determined: (1) Edmonds-Radford failed to establish her prima facie case or that Southwest’s proffered reason for her termination was pretextual; (2) Edmonds-Radford failed to present evidence she requested any accommodations in connection with her disability (in any event, Southwest provided all requested accommodations); and (3) because there was no proof she made any disability-based accommodation requests, Edmonds-Radford's retaliation claim based on such requests was doomed. "But even if Edmonds-Radford had made disability-based accommodation requests, her retaliation claim would still fail in light of our conclusions that Edmonds-Radford failed to establish that her disability was a determining factor in her termination, or that Southwest’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the termination was pretextual. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Southwest on all claims. View "Edmonds-Radford v. Southwest Airlines" on Justia Law

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After Albuquerque Police Officers Demsich and Melvin entered plaintiff-appellant Bradley Soza’s front porch with guns drawn, handcuffed him, and patted him down as part of a burglary investigation, Soza sued the Officers under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging the Officers violated his clearly established Fourth Amendment rights when they seized him without probable cause and entered the curtilage of his home without a warrant. The Officers moved for summary judgment, asserting qualified immunity, which the district court granted. Because the law regarding the constitutionality of the Officers’ actions was not clearly established, the Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that the Officers were entitled to qualified immunity. View "Soza v. Demsich, et al." on Justia Law

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This appeal stemmed from Alfred Brown’s lawsuit under the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. secs. 701–796l, against his former employer, the Defense Health Agency. In April 2010, the Agency hired Brown as a healthcare fraud specialist (HCFS) assigned to the Program Integrity Office (PIO) in Aurora, Colorado. Shortly after joining the Agency, Brown told his supervisors that he had been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder and other panic and anxiety disorders related to his military service. When Brown’s symptoms worsened in September 2011, he was hospitalized and received in-patient treatment for one week. The Agency approved Brown’s request for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The district court granted summary judgment for the Agency, determining that there were no triable issues on Brown’s claims that the Agency failed to accommodate his mental-health disabilities and discriminated against him based on those disabilities. Brown appealed, challenging the district court’s rulings that: (1) his requests for telework, weekend work, and a supervisor reassignment were not reasonable accommodations; and (2) he failed to establish material elements of his various discrimination claims. The Tenth Circuit found no reversible error: (1) granting Brown’s telework and weekend-work requests would have eliminated essential functions of his job, making those requests unreasonable as a matter of law; (2) Brown did not allege the limited circumstances in which the Agency would need to consider reassigning him despite the fact that he performed the essential functions of his position with other accommodations; (3) the Court declined Brown’s invitation to expand those limited circumstances to include reassignments that allow an employee to live a “normal life;” and (4) Brown did not allege a prima facie case of retaliation, disparate treatment, or constructive discharge. Summary judgment for the Agency was affirmed. View "Brown v. Austin, et al." on Justia Law

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Dr. Rachel Tudor sued her former employer, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, under Title VII, claiming discrimination on the basis of sex, retaliation, and a hostile work environment after Southeastern denied her tenure, denied her the opportunity to reapply for tenure, and ultimately terminated her from the university. A jury found in favor of Dr. Tudor on her discrimination and retaliation claims and awarded her damages. The district court then applied the Title VII statutory cap to reduce the jury’s award, denied Dr. Tudor reinstatement, and awarded front pay. Both Dr. Tudor and the University appealed: Southeastern challenged certain evidentiary rulings and the jury verdict; Dr. Tudor challenged several of the court’s post-verdict rulings, the district court’s denial of reinstatement, the calculation of front pay, and the application of the statutory damages cap. After review, the Tenth Circuit rejected Southeastern’s challenges. Regarding Dr. Tudor’s appeal however, the Court held that there was error both in denying reinstatement and in calculating front pay, although there was no error in applying the Title VII damages cap. Affirming in part and reversing in part, the Court remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings. View "Tudor, et al. v. Southeastern OK St. University, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff John Hayes prosecuted his employment discrimination case to a favorable verdict and judgment. During trial, two instances of misconduct prompted Defendant SkyWest Airlines, Inc. to request a mistrial. But it was Defendant’s own misconduct. Thus, the district court tried to remedy the misconduct and preserve the integrity of the proceedings, but did not grant Defendant’s request. After the trial, exercising its equitable powers, the district court granted Plaintiff’s request for a front pay award. Following final judgment, Defendant moved for a new trial based, in part, on the district court’s handling of the misconduct incidents and on newly discovered evidence. The district court denied that motion. Defendant appealed, asking the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse and remand for a new trial or, at the very least, to vacate (or reduce) the front pay award. Finding the district court did not abuse its discretion or authority in this case, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the front pay award. View "Hayes v. Skywest Airlines" on Justia Law

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At the time this appeal was initiated, Jason Brooks was a Colorado-state inmate serving a lengthy prison sentence for securities fraud. Brooks had an extreme and incurable case of ulcerative colitis: even when his disease was well treated, Brooks suffered from frequent, unpredictable fecal incontinence. This case involved the Colorado Department of Corrections’s (“CDOC”) efforts, or lack thereof, to deal with the impact of Brooks’s condition on his ability to access the prison cafeteria. Specifically, the issues presented centered on whether the district court erred when it concluded: (1) Brooks’s Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) claim for damages failed because the CDOC’s offer to provide Brooks with adult diapers was a reasonable accommodation of Brooks’s disability; and (2) Brooks’s Eighth Amendment claim against ADA Inmate Coordinator Julie Russell failed because the decision not to access the cafeteria with the use of adult diapers was Brooks’s alone. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals determined the district court erred in its treatment of Brooks’s ADA claim for damages. "A reasonable juror could conclude the offer of adult diapers was not a reasonable accommodation of Brooks’s disability. Thus, at least as to the question of the reasonableness of the proposed accommodation, the district court erred in granting CDOC summary judgment on Brooks’s ADA claim for damages." On the other hand, the Court concluded the district court correctly granted summary judgment in favor of Russell on Brooks’s Eighth Amendment claim: "the record is devoid of sufficient evidence for a jury to find Russell acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind—deliberate indifference to Brooks’s ability to access food—when she declined Brooks’s request for a movement pass." Accordingly, the Court dismissed in part, reversed in part, and remanded this matter to the district court for further proceedings. View "Brooks v. CDOC, et al." on Justia Law

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Kendall Morgan, a former deputy sheriff for LeFlore County, conducted a traffic stop of plaintiff-appellee Chad Osterhout. During the traffic stop, Morgan struck Osterhout in the face and kicked him twice in the ribs. According to Morgan, Osterhout was trying to flee; Osterhout maintained he remained still with his hands raised. Osterhout sued Morgan and the Board of County Commissioners of LeFlore County, Oklahoma. The jury attributed liability to Morgan and the Board, awarding Osterhout $3 million in compensatory damages against both defendants, and $1 million in punitive damages against Morgan. Morgan moved for a new trial or remittitur of damages. The district court remitted the compensatory damages to $2 million, but denied the motion for a new trial. Both defendants appealed. The Board and Mr. Morgan argue that the district court abused its discretion by using a verdict form with a single total for compensatory damages. And the Board argued: (1) the district court erred in denying summary judgment because the notice had been defective and Morgan’s alleged force would have fallen outside the scope of his employment; (2) the jury acted inconsistently by assessing punitive damages and finding that Morgan had acted within the scope of his employment; (3) the verdict against the Board conflicted with the clear weight of the evidence; and (4) the award of compensatory damages was grossly excessive. Morgan argued: (5) the district court should have granted a new trial based on opposing counsel’s misconduct; (6) the compensatory damages were grossly excessive and unsupported by the evidence; and (7) the punitive damages were grossly excessive. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the trial court judgment. View "Osterhout v. Board of County Commissioners, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Tajuddin Ashaheed arrived at the Colorado Department of Corrections (“CDOC”) Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center (the “Center”) to serve a short sentence for parole violations. The Center’s policies required inmates to shave their beards at intake but exempted those like Ashaheed who wore beards due to their religion. Ashaheed alleged that he repeatedly invoked this exemption, but Sergeant Thomas Currington, motivated by anti-Muslim animus, forced him to shave his beard. Ashaheed sued Currington under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging claims for violations of the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause and Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause. Currington moved to dismiss both claims based on qualified immunity and for failure to state a claim. The court granted the motion and dismissed the case with prejudice. Finding that Ashaheed alleged facts from which a reasonable jury could infer Currington acted from anti-Muslim animus, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Ashaheed v. Currington" on Justia Law

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Mark Janny was released from jail on parole in early 2015. His parole officer, John Gamez, directed Janny to establish his residence of record at the Rescue Mission in Fort Collins, Colorado, and to abide by its “house rules.” After arriving at the Mission, Janny learned he had been enrolled in “Steps to Success,” a Christian transitional program involving mandatory prayer, bible study, and church attendance. When Janny objected, citing his atheist beliefs, he alleged both Officer Gamez and Jim Carmack, the Mission’s director, repeatedly told him he could choose between participating in the Christian programming or returning to jail. Less than a week later, Carmack expelled Janny from the Mission for skipping worship services, leading to Janny’s arrest on a parole violation and the revocation of his parole. Janny brought a 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit against Gamez, Carmack, and the Mission’s assistant director, Tom Konstanty, alleging violations of his First Amendment religious freedom rights under both the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses. The district court granted summary judgment to all three defendants, finding Janny had failed to: (1) adduce evidence of an Establishment Clause violation by Gamez; (2) show Gamez violated any clearly established right under the Free Exercise Clause; or (3) raise a triable issue regarding whether Carmack and Konstanty were state actors, as required to establish their liability under either clause. After review, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s order as to Gamez and Carmack, and affirmed as to Konstanty. The Court found the evidence created a genuine dispute of material fact regarding his claims under both the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses. "And because the basic right to be free from state-sponsored religious coercion was clearly established under both clauses at the time of the events, Officer Gamez is not entitled to qualified immunity on either claim." Furthermore, the Court held the evidence was sufficient for a jury to find Carmack was a state actor, as required to impose section 1983 liability on private parties. However, because no facts linked Konstanty to Gamez, the evidence was legally insufficient for a jury finding that Konstanty acted under color of state law. View "Janny v. Gamez, et al." on Justia Law

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Defendants James Hald, Monterial Wesley, and Walter Sands appealed the denials of their district-court motions for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A). They were among many prisoners who sought to be released from prison confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each claimed that his underlying health conditions and mounting infections at his correctional facility satisfied the statute’s “extraordinary and compelling reasons” requirement for early release. Before granting a sentence reduction, the district court had to consider whether the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) supported the reduction. The Tenth Circuit found each of the Defendants was denied relief by the United States District Court for the District of Kansas based on the court’s discretionary analysis of the section 3553(a) factors. The principal issue for the Tenth Circuit's review was whether, as argued by Hald and Sands, a district court was permitted to deny relief based on its assessment of the 3553(a) factors without first making a determination on the existence of “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” To this, the Tenth Circuit rejected the argument, holding that district courts were free to deny relief on the basis of any one of section 3582(c)(1)(A)’s requirements without considering the others. The Court also rejected the other arguments raised by Sands and Wesley. Accordingly, the denial of all three motions for compassionate release was affirmed. View "United States v. Hald, et al." on Justia Law