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

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Coby Lee Paugh died from complications related to alcohol withdrawal while being held in pretrial detention at Uintah County Jail in Vernal, Utah. His estate sued Uintah County and several of its jail officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of Paugh’s constitutional rights. The County and its jail officials moved for summary judgment, with the jail officials asserting qualified immunity. The district court granted qualified immunity for one but not all defendants. It also denied the County’s motion for summary judgment. The Individual Defendants and the County filed an interlocutory appeal, challenging the district court’s denial of qualified immunity, and the County asked the Tenth Circuit to exercise pendent appellate jurisdiction and reverse the court’s denial of its motion for summary judgment. We hold that the Individual Defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity. After review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the Individual Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and did not consider the County’s appeal, because it lacked jurisdiction to do so. View "Paugh, et al. v. Uintah County, et al." on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Larry Johnson was convicted by a jury for possessing a firearm and possessing crack cocaine with the intent to distribute. He sought to overturn his firearms convictions, arguing the trial court erred in instructing the jury on constructive possession. The Tenth Circuit found no plain error, finding that had the jury been given the proper instruction, it would have concluded nonetheless Johnson had both actual and constructive possession of the firearm: after police pulled Johnson over for a traffic violation, they saw a black pistol on the driver's seat where he had been sitting. "Johnson had been exerting physical control over the firearm by sitting on it." Further, the Court found Johnson was in constructive possession of the firearm based on physical contact; the fact the firearm was loaded; his previous statement admitting to possessing a firearm to aid in drug trafficking; and his simultaneous possession of drugs for distribution. View "United States v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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Defendant Pluralsight was a software company offering a cloud-based technology skills platform. Defendant Aaron Skonnard was Pluralsight’s Chief Executive Officer; defendant James Budge was the Chief Financial Officer. Plaintiffs purchased Pluralsight stock between January 16, 2019, and July 31, 2019. Beginning on January 16, 2019, Skonnard and Budge allegedly made materially false and misleading statements about the size and productivity of Pluralsight’s sales force, which Plaintiffs claim artificially inflated Pluralsight’s stock price, including during a secondary public offering (“SPO”) in March 2019. Pluralsight announced disappointing second-quarter earnings on July 31, 2019. Defendants attributed the low earnings to a shortage of sales representatives earlier in the year—but this explanation contradicted representations Pluralsight made in the first quarter of 2019 about the size of its sales force. Lead Plaintiffs Indiana Public Retirement System (“INPRS”) and Public School Teachers’ Pension and Retirement Fund of Chicago (“CTPF”) brought claims on behalf of a putative class of Pluralsight stock holders under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”), and the Securities Act of 1933 (“Securities Act”) in federal district court in Utah. Defendants moved to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), contending Plaintiffs failed to adequately allege: (1) any materially false or misleading statements or omissions; and (2) that Defendants acted with the requisite scienter. The district court found one statement (of eighteen alleged) was materially false or misleading but dismissed Plaintiffs’ Exchange Act claims because the complaint failed to allege a strong inference of scienter. The district court dismissed Plaintiffs’ Securities Act claims because none of the statements in Pluralsight’s SPO documents were materially false or misleading. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court erred in dismissing Plaintffs’ Exhcange Act claims. “Although the district court correctly determined that Plaintiffs sufficiently alleged only one materially false or misleading statement, the district court’s scienter determination was erroneous.” The Court also concluded the district court relied on erroneous reasoning to dismiss the alleged violation of Item 303 of SEC Regulation S–K, so the case was remanded for further consideration. The judgment was affirmed in all other respects. View "Indiana Public Retirement, et al. v. Pluralsight, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant La’Tonya Ford worked at Jackson National Life Insurance (“Jackson”) for about four years. During her time there, Ford allegedly suffered sex- and race-based discrimination; faced retaliation for complaining about her treatment; endured a hostile work environment; and was constructively discharged. After she left Jackson for another job, Ford sued the company for (1) discrimination; (2) retaliation; (3) hostile work environment; and (4) constructive discharge. Jackson moved for summary judgment; the district court granted Jackson’s motion and dismissed all of Ford’s claims. Ford now appeals, urging us to reverse the court on each claim. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her discrimination claim. But it reversed in part the dismissal of her retaliation claim; her hostile-work-environment claim; and her constructive-discharge claim. View "Ford v. Jackson National Life, et al." on Justia Law

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Consolidated cases arose from a 2015 Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) civil enforcement action against Roger Bliss, who ran a Ponzi scheme through his investment entities (collectively, “the Bliss Enterprise”). Bliss was ordered to repay millions of dollars to the victims of his fraudulent scheme, and the district court appointed Plaintiff-Appellee Tammy Georgelas as Receiver to investigate the Bliss Enterprise’s books and seek to recover its property. Defendant-Appellant David Hill was employed by the Bliss Enterprise from 2011 to 2015, providing administrative and ministerial services to the company. He received salary payments from the Bliss Enterprise both directly and through Defendant-Appellant Desert Hill Ventures, Inc. (“Desert Hill”), of which Hill was president. After the district court ordered Bliss to disgorge funds from his scheme, the Receiver brought these actions against Hill and Desert Hill. The Receiver asserted that the Bliss Enterprise estates were entitled to recover the $347,000 in wages paid to Defendants, in addition to $113,878 spent by the Bliss Enterprise on renovations to Hill’s house, under Utah’s Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act (“UFTA”). The district court granted summary judgment to the Receiver, finding that the wages received by Defendants from the Bliss Enterprise and the funds paid by the Bliss Enterprise for the renovations were recoverable by the estates under the UFTA. Defendants appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing the district court erred in denying their affirmative defense under Utah Code Ann. § 25-6-9(1) and in finding that the renovations were made for Hill’s benefit, as required under Utah Code Ann. § 25-6-9(2)(a). The Court agreed with Defendants and, accordingly, reversed the district court’s summary judgment order and remanded for further proceedings. View "Georgelas v. Desert Hill Ventures" on Justia Law

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Kelly Day appealed the district court’s dismissal of the diversity action she filed against SkyWest Airlines for personal injuries she allegedly sustained when a SkyWest flight attendant carelessly struck her with a beverage cart. The district court granted SkyWest’s motion to dismiss the action as preempted under the Airline Deregulation Act (“ADA”), which preempted state laws “related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier.” The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concurred with sister circuits that personal-injury claims arising out of an airline employee’s failure to exercise due care were not “related to” a deregulated price, route, or service. Therefore, the Court reversed the district court’s dismissal of Day’s action and remanded for further proceedings. View "Day v. SkyWest Airlines" on Justia Law

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In August 2019, Defendant-Appellant Francis Woody was tried and convicted of one count of aggravated sexual abuse, and two counts of abusive sexual contact. The district court sentenced him to life imprisonment on each count to run concurrently. Woody appealed his convictions, asserting that the district court should have suppressed his statements to federal agents because the agents violated his constitutional rights and, separately, should have excluded certain testimony as inadmissible hearsay. Woody also challenged his life sentence as substantively unreasonable. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals found no merit in these arguments and thus affirmed Woody’s convictions and sentence. View "United States v. Woody" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Henri Piette was convicted by jury in Oklahoma of kidnapping and traveling with intent to engage in sexual relations with a juvenile. The district court sentenced Piette to life imprisonment on the former conviction, and 360 months’ imprisonment on the latter. He sought to have his convictions overturned or his sentence reversed. After review, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err by admitting evidence of Piette’s uncharged acts of molestation, and that statutes extending the unexpired charging period for the traveling-with-intent charge did not have an impermissible retroactive effect. However, the Court concluded the district court plainly erred by misallocating the burden of proof once Piette disputed the timing of the kidnapping by arguing that the victim, Rosalynn McGinnis, consented. The Court reversed Piette’s kidnapping conviction because the Tenth Circuit found there was a difference between what happened here—Piette failing to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that McGinnis ever consented—and what the Constitution required: the government proving beyond a reasonable doubt that she never consented at a time that would cause a statute of limitations problem. Finally, the Court rejected Piette’s argument that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to self-representation at sentencing. View "United States v. Piette" on Justia Law

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Defendant Martavious Gross was convicted for crimes relating to a road rage drive-by shooting. Defendant sat in the passenger seat of a car driving on an Oklahoma highway when A.A. cut the car off, allegedly almost hitting it. The car sped up to pull beside A.A.’s car so that Defendant could yell at and flip off A.A. The car caught up to A.A. again, and this time Defendant fired a gun at A.A.’s vehicle. The car took off afterward, and Defendant gave the gun to his brother to hide in the trunk. A.A. then followed the car to collect its description and license-plate number, along with a description of Defendant, to report to the police. The sentencing court varied upward from the Guidelines range and sentenced Defendant to the statutory maximum. He appealed, challenging the sentence’s procedural and substantive reasonableness. But the waiver in his plea agreement prohibited procedural appeals. “Defendant tried to take a detour around his appeal waiver” by suggesting the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals evaluate how the court calculated the Guidelines range as part of its substantive analysis. But a defendant cannot transform procedural arguments into a substantive challenge to avoid an appeal waiver’s plain language. For this reason, the Court enforced the waiver and dismised his appeal insofar as Defendant’s arguments bore solely upon the procedural reasonableness of his sentence. View "United States v. Gross" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Joshua Price Jr. appealed the district court’s dismissal of his motion for a sentence reduction pursuant to the First Step Act of 2018. The parties agreed that Price was eligible for a sentence modification because he was convicted of a covered offense: distribution of cocaine base under 21 U.S.C. § 841. But the parties disagreed about whether Price had standing to request a First Step Act sentence modification. Tenth Circuit precedent held that if the length of a prisoner’s sentence was determined by a concurrent non-covered offense, and that sentence exceeded the length of the covered offense, then the prisoner did not have constitutional standing for a sentence modification. The question presented here was whether the district court could modify Price’s sentence in light of the First Step Act. To this the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the district court has discretion to reduce Price’s overall sentence. Since Price’s sentence was entirely driven by the drug offenses, the Court held he was eligible for a sentence modification. "And nothing prevents the district court from reviewing the murder cross reference in considering his sentence under the now-advisory Sentencing Guidelines. Since no statutory mandatory minimum applies for the murder cross reference, during sentence modification the court is entitled to apply the traditional sentencing factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)." View "United States v. Price" on Justia Law