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

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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Plaintiff-appellant Francisco Serna sued a police officer and local police department that allegedly prevented him from transporting hemp plants on a flight from Colorado to Texas. In the complaint, he asserted a single claim under § 10114(b) of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the 2018 Farm Bill), a statute that authorized states to legalize hemp and regulate its production within their borders, but generally precluded states from interfering with the interstate transportation of hemp. The district court dismissed Serna’s complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), concluding that Serna failed to state a viable claim because § 10114(b) did not create a private cause of action to sue state officials who allegedly violate that provision. Serna appealed, arguing that § 10114(b) impliedly authorized a private cause of action and that even if it didn't, the district court should have allowed him to amend the complaint to add other potentially viable claims rather than dismissing the case altogether. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that contrary to Serna’s view, the language in § 10114(b) did not suggest that Congress intended to grant hemp farmers a right to freely transport their product from one jurisdiction to another, with no interference from state officials. Because courts could not read a private cause of action into a statute that lacked such rights-creating language, the Court held the district court properly dismissed Serna’s § 10114(b) claim. The Court also concluded the trial court properly declined to allow Serna to amend his complaint. View "Serna v. Denver Police Department, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Rebecca Brigham worked as a flight attendant for defendant Frontier Airlines. Brigham was a recovering alcoholic who wanted to avoid overnight layovers because they tempted her to drink. To minimize overnight layovers, Brigham asked Frontier: (1) to excuse her from the airline’s bidding system for flight schedules; or (2) to reassign her to the General Office. Frontier rejected both requests. Unable to bypass the bidding system or move to the General Office, Brigham missed too many assigned flights and Frontier fired her. The firing led Brigham to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court granted summary judgment to Frontier, finding that the airline's “duty to accommodate” didn't require the employer to “take steps inconsistent with” a collective bargaining agreement. Further, Frontier had no vacancy in the General Office. A position in the General Office was available only for employees injured on-the-job. Brigham had no on-the-job injury, so she wasn’t similarly situated to the flight attendants eligible for reassignment to the General Office. Finding that the district court correctly granted summary judgment to Frontier, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Brigham v. Frontier Airlines" on Justia Law

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Michelle Caddell died from cervical cancer while in custody as a pretrial detainee in the Tulsa County Jail. Yolanda Lucas, as special administrator of decedent Caddell’s estate, initiated this case under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 bringing claims of deliberate indifference in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments against Dr. Gary Myers and against Turn Key Health Clinics, LLC (“Turn Key”) and Sheriff Vic Regalado in his official capacity through municipal liability, violations of the Equal Protection clause against Turn Key and Sheriff Regalado, and negligence and wrongful death under Oklahoma state law against Dr. Myers and Turn Key. The three Defendants individually moved to dismiss all claims and the district court granted the motions. On appeal, Plaintiff challenged the district court’s determinations that she failed to plausibly allege: (1) deliberate indifference to serious medical needs against Dr. Myers; (2) municipal liability against Turn Key and Sheriff Regalado; and (3) violation of the Equal Protection clause against Turn Key and Sheriff Regalado. She also challenged the finding that Dr. Myers and Turn Key were entitled to immunity for the state law claims under the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act (“OGTCA”). The Tenth Circuit found it would need to determine the OGTCA's applicability to private corporations (and their employees) that contract with the state to provide medical services at the summary judgment stage if the factual record is sufficiently developed and the facts are uncontroverted. Accordingly, the Court reversed as premature the district court’s decision that Turn Key and Dr. Myers were immune under the OGTCA. The Court affirmed in all other respects. View "Lucas v. Turn Key Health Clinics, et al." on Justia Law

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Defendant United Parcel Service, Inc., engaged in an extensive back-and-forth to attempt to accommodate Plaintiff Susan Norwood. Yet Plaintiff still sued, alleging Defendant failed to immediately tell her that it approved a possible accommodation and formally offer it to her. The Tenth Circuit found the law imposed no burden on employers to immediately tell employees of approved possible accommodations or to formally offer them those accommodations, rather than informally asking if they would satisfy an employee. Besides challenging Defendant’s good faith during the interactive process, Plaintiff appealed the district court’s decision to exclude expert testimony and draw certain inferences in granting Defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Finding no error in the district court judgment entered in UPS' favor, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Norwood v. United Parcel Service" on Justia Law

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Appellant Jabari Johnson, who proceeded pro se at district court but had counsel on appeal, alleged in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint against three prison officers that the officers slammed him on his untreated fractured jaw, stepped on his untreated injured foot, caused him excruciating pain, and inflicted further injury on his jaw and foot to the point that he needed physical therapy and surgery. He also alleged that the incident caused him depression and anxiety. The district court ruled that Johnson failed to allege a sufficient physical injury under § 1997e(e) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) to claim mental or emotional damages and dismissed his individual-capacity claims against the officers with prejudice. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded Johnson's allegations satisfied § 1997e(e)’s physical-injury requirement. The Court affirmed the dismissal of Johnson's § 1983 complaint against one officer, but reversed dismissal against the two others. The case was thus remanded for further proceedings. View "Johnson v. Reyna, et al." on Justia Law

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In the fall of 2015, D.T. enrolled as a freshman at Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora, Colorado. During his time at Cherokee Trail, he suffered from depression and a general decline in academic performance. His mother regularly communicated with school officials regarding his well-being and coordinated in-school support. During the first semester of his junior year, D.T. was reported for making a school shooting threat. As a result, he was expelled from Cherokee Trail and the Cherry Creek School District (“the District”) initiated a special education assessment. In December 2017, the District concluded D.T. suffered from a Serious Emotional Disability and approved an individualized education program (“IEP”) to assist his learning. D.T. appealed a district court's judgment finding the District did not deny him access to a free and appropriate public education as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). D.T. asked the Tenth Circuit to conclude the District violated its obligation to identify, or “child find,” students with disabilities who required supplementary academic supports. The Tenth Circuit declined D.T.'s request, finding the District acted reasonably to preserve his access to the benefit of general education. "The District’s duty to assess and provide D.T. with special education services did not begin until his emotional dysfunction manifested in the school environment by way of his shooting threat." View "D.T. v. Cherry Creek School" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Tenth Circuit's review centered on whether 42 U.S.C. § 1983 clearly established Defendant Utah Highway Patrolman Blaine Robbins violated Heather Leyva’s Fourteenth and Fourth Amendment rights by pulling her over without reasonable suspicion to do so and by sending her flirtatious texts about the administration of a commercial towing relationship between her employer and the Utah Highway Patrol. Leyva served as the liaison between the Utah Highway Patrol (“UHP”) and West Coast Towing (“WCT”)—one of three towing companies in the Heavy Duty Towing Rotation (“HDTR”). Over time their professional relationship developed into a personal one. Defendant texted Leyva one night asking about work-related matters. In response to one question, Leyva told Defendant to “standby” because she was on the freeway. Defendant asked where and said he would pull her over. Defendant spotted her, turned on his lights, and initiated an apparent traffic stop. Leyva pulled over, not knowing Defendant was the driver of the patrol car, and got her identification ready. Defendant claimed he pulled Leyva over as “a joke between friends.” A month later, Leyva reported to her boss she felt Defendant was sexually harassing her. Her boss contacted UHP to report Leyva’s complaints of sexual harassment. As a result, UHP conducted an investigation. Relevant to the issues on appeal, the investigation found Defendant did not improperly administer the HDTR but concluded his conduct revealed his desire to further his personal relationship with Leyva. It also determined that Defendant lacked reasonable suspicion when he stopped Leyva. The district court found that Defendant did not violate clearly established law. Defendant did not dispute for purposes of this appeal that he violated Leyva’s constitutional rights. He argued only that the district court correctly determined the law was not clearly established for either alleged violation. Plaintiff alleged, and the district court found, that a jury could find Defendant violated Leyva’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court erred by granting summary judgment on Plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment claims insofar as they related to Defendant’s traffic stop of Leyva. But the Court agreed with the district court that Plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment rights arising in connection with the administration of HDTR, were not clearly established at the time of the violation. View "Shepherd v. Robbins" on Justia Law

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A police chase ended when the fleeing armed robber crashed into Plaintiff Thaer Mahdi’s tailor shop. Officers fired scores of bullets at the driver, and many hit the shop. The shop was badly damaged, and Mahdi was psychologically traumatized. Mahdi filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Salt Lake City Police Department (SLCPD); the Unified Police Department (UPD); and four officers of the Utah Highway Patrol (UHP)—Superintendent Michael Rapich, Sergeant Chris Shelby, and Troopers Jed Miller and Jon Thompson. Plaintiff alleged: (1) the responding officers used excessive force in violation of his right to substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment; and (2) that the officers’ unconstitutional use of force resulted from Superintendent Rapich’s failure to train and supervise his subordinates and from the defendant law-enforcement agencies’ policies and customs, including their failure to properly train or supervise their employees. Defendants moved to dismiss Mahdi’s first amended complaint for failure to state any claims. In response, Mahdi moved for leave to file a second amended complaint. The United States District Court for the District of Utah denied the motion as futile and granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss. The court held that Mahdi had not adequately alleged that any officers violated his constitutional right to substantive due process and that in the absence of any such violation the police agencies also could not be liable under § 1983. Mahdi appealed, challenging the dismissal of his claims and denial of his motion for leave to file his second amended complaint. Finding no reversible error in the district court's judgment, the Tenth Circuit affirmed dismissal of plaintiffs claims and denial of his motion. View "Mahdi v. Salt Lake Police Department, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-Appellee Floyd Bledsoe spent sixteen years in prison for the November 1999 murder of his fourteen-year-old sister-in-law Camille in Jefferson County, Kansas. In 2015, new DNA testing and a suicide note from Bledsoe’s brother Tom supported Bledsoe’s longstanding claim that Tom was the killer and Bledsoe was innocent. A state court subsequently vacated Bledsoe’s convictions and prosecutors dismissed all charges against him. In 2016, Bledsoe filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against ten named defendants, most of whom were Kansas law enforcement officers. Bledsoe alleged that Defendants conspired to fabricate evidence implicating him in the murder and intentionally suppressed evidence that would have proved his innocence, thereby causing him to be charged, tried, and convicted without even probable cause to believe he was guilty. At issue in this appeal was the district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) by Defendant-Appellants, all of whom were law enforcement officers employed by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office. In their motion, Appellants argued they were entitled to qualified immunity because Bledsoe: (1) failed to state claims adequately alleging that Appellants deprived Bledsoe of his constitutional rights; and/or (2) any constitutional violations Bledsoe did adequately allege against Appellants were not clearly established in 1999, when the events at issue occurred. The district court denied Appellants qualified immunity on most of Bledsoe’s claims. After review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court's judgment. The Court concluded that the Supreme Court’s decision in Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527 (1981) did not preclude Bledsoe’s substantive due process claims. Further, the Court found Bledsoe adequately alleged substantive due process and Fourth Amendment claims against each Appellant for evidence fabrication and for suppressing exculpatory evidence, a malicious prosecution claim, conspiracy claims, and a failure-to-intervene claim. Lastly, the Court concluded all the constitutional violations Bledsoe alleged except his failure-to-intervene claim were clearly established in 1999. The district court, therefore, correctly denied Appellants qualified immunity on all but the failure-to-intervene claim. View "Bledsoe v. Board Cty Comm. Jefferson KS, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Brandon Fresquez filed suit against his former employer, defendant BNSF Railway Company (BNSF), claiming that BNSF violated the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA) by terminating his employment in retaliation for him engaging in certain activities that were expressly protected under the FRSA. A jury found in favor of Fresquez on his claim of retaliation under the FRSA, and awarded him $800,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages. Following the trial, Fresquez moved for an award of back and front pay. The district court granted that motion in part and awarded Fresquez a total of $696,173. BNSF argued on appeal: (1) it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the merits of Fresquez’s claims; (2) alternatively, it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the issue of punitive damages. BNSF further argues that it was entitled to a new trial on the merits of Fresquez’s claims based on the district court’s admission of character and other prejudicial evidence; (3) it was entitled to a new trial on the issue of compensatory damages; and (4) the district court abused its discretion by awarding Fresquez ten years’ worth of front pay. Rejecting these arguments, the Tenth Circuit found no reversible error and affirmed judgment. View "Fresquez v. BNSF Railway" on Justia Law