June 24, 2017

Archives for January 18, 2016

Metro Volunteer Lawyers Announces Philip Lietaer as New Director

LietaerThe Denver Bar Association is pleased to announce Philip Lietaer as the new director of Metro Volunteer Lawyers. He assumed his new responsibilities upon outgoing Executive Director Dianne Van Voorhees’s departure from the organization on January 7, 2016, after an eight-year record of laudable leadership.

Lietaer, a native of Canada, holds a J.D. from Western New England University School of Law and a B.A. from the University of Western Ontario. In 2013, he moved to Colorado with his wife, Jessica, who is a federal attorney, and their two dogs. They are now the proud parents of a baby girl, Adelaide Quinn Lietaer.

Prior to joining MVL in 2013, Lietaer worked at a number of other public interest organizations, including Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, South Brooklyn Legal Services, the Massachusetts Justice Project and the Vail Center for Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. He also worked for the immigration law firm of Goldstein & Lee, P.C. in New York City. “Working at these organizations has, in part, given me an understanding of different strategies implemented at various legal services organizations and what it takes to successfully run and manage a program like MVL,” said Lieater.

Lietaer embarked on his career at Metro Volunteer Lawyers as a Rovira Scholar Fellow. In early 2014, he went on to become the Family Law Court Program Coordinator. For Lietaer, MVL is more than a job: It is a passion infused with responsibility. As he commented, “Seeing our clients treated in a professional manner by a compassionate and capable legal professional, often providing a moment of dignity, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this type of work.”

Lietaer looks forward to building upon MVL’s ability to provide quality help to a large number of people in need. “Philip knows that he has big shoes to fill (at least figuratively), and he is definitely up to the task,” said MVL Board Chair Candace Whitaker.

Tenth Circuit: Denial of Qualified Immunity Appropriate Where Victim Not Threatening Officers

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Tenorio v. Pitzer on Tuesday, October 6, 2015.

Hilda Valdez called 911 to report that her sister-in-law’s husband, Russell Tenorio, had a knife to his throat and was intoxicated. Officers Moore, Hernandez, and Liccione of the Albuquerque Police Department were dispatched to the call, and Officer Pitzer also responded. The 911 operator relayed to the officers that Tenorio had a knife to his own throat but no one was injured, he had broken some windows, he had been violent in the past (this was incorrect but was relayed to the officers), was waving the knife around, takes medication for seizures, and several other people were around. When the officers arrived, they met Ms. Valdez on the front lawn. Ms. Valdez was panicked and frightened. The officers entered the house without announcing themselves. Officer Pitzer was in front with his handgun drawn, and announced that he was “going lethal.” Officer Moore was behind Pitzer with his Taser, Officer Liccione was third and also had his gun drawn, and Officer Hernandez had a shotgun with bean bags but stayed behind to talk to Ms. Valdez.

When the officers entered the house, they asked Mrs. Tenorio to step out of the way and hustled her outside. On her way out, she said, “Russell, put that down.” She was followed by Tenorio, who had a blank stare and was holding a kitchen knife loosely by his side. Officer Pitzer shouted at Tenorio to drop the weapon, and two or three seconds later Pitzer shot Tenorio, Moore tased him, and he fell to the ground. Tenorio was hospitalized for months for the life-threatening injuries he suffered that night, and later brought 42 U.S.C. § 1983 excessive force claims against Pitzer, other officers, and the City of Albuquerque. Pitzer moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, but the district court denied his motion, concluding the evidence could show Pitzer violated clearly established law under two theories: (1) Pitzer lacked probable cause to believe that Tenorio presented a serious risk of harm to himself or others when he shot Tenorio, and (2) Pitzer and his fellow officers recklessly created the situation that resulted in use of deadly force. Pitzer appealed the denial of his summary judgment motion.

The Tenth Circuit found interlocutory jurisdiction by accepting the facts as agreed to by the parties and using the court’s construction of the evidence in the light most favorable to Tenorio. The Tenth Circuit evaluated Pitzer’s claim for qualified immunity based on a standard of objective reasonableness as judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene. The district court weighed four factors in denying Pitzer’s motion, including (1) whether the officers ordered the victim to drop his weapon, (2) whether the victim made hostile motions with the weapon toward the officers, (3) the distance between the officers and the victim, and (4) the manifest intentions of the victim. The court concluded the first factor was neutral because although the officers ordered Tenorio to drop his knife, they did not give him sufficient time to comply, the second factor weighed against probable cause because Tenorio was holding a small knife loosely by his thigh, the third factor weighed against probable cause because Tenorio was not within striking distance when he was shot, and the fourth factor weighed against probable cause because the only person Tenorio was said to have threatened was himself. The Tenth Circuit accepted the district court’s findings concerning the evidence and agreed that it sufficed to bar summary judgment against Tenorio’s claims.

The Tenth Circuit evaluated circuit precedent and determined that its prior holdings on probable cause supported the district court’s denial. Because Tenorio was not charging the officers, was not holding the weapon in a threatening gesture, was not speaking or moving aggressively, and was not within striking distance of the officers, it was unreasonable under circuit precedent for Officer Pitzer to use lethal force.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of qualified immunity, noting that a contrary judgment may be permissible after a jury trial. Judge Phillips wrote a scathing dissent. He would have granted qualified immunity based on the fact that Tenorio had a weapon and was in the same small room as the officers.

Tenth Circuit: Independent Review Process Breaks Causal Chain Between Discrimination Allegations and Termination

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Thomas v. Berry Plastics Corp. on Friday, September 25, 2015.

Karry Thomas, who is African-American, worked for Berry Plastics Corp. in its Kansas facility from 2003 to 2010. Over the course of his employment, eight different Berry supervisors initiated at least 13 different disciplinary actions against him, ranging in severity from verbal coaching and written warning to suspensions and final warnings. In May 2009, Jason Morton became Thomas’s group leader. Morton had limited disciplinary authority and was unable to independently issue high levels of discipline such as suspensions or final warnings.

After conferring with his supervisor, Morton suspended Thomas in July 2010 for a print quality issue. Because of this suspension and a prior suspension issued by a different supervisor two months earlier, Watson, the printing manager who oversaw the entire Kansas operation, issued a Last Chance Agreement to Thomas, providing that he would be subject to disciplinary action for future attendance or rules violations. Morton was not involved in the decision to place Thomas on a Last Chance Agreement. A few weeks later, Morton gave Thomas a Final Warning, acting pursuant to direction from Watson and Human Resources, based on failure to pack product correctly on July 27. Thomas alleged that he did not fail to pack the product properly and stated he felt he was “getting discrimination because of race.” Morton investigated and determined the packing problem was not Thomas’s fault. He rescinded the Final Warning.

Later, Morton submitted a report to Watson that faulted Thomas for a print quality issue on September 10. Watson reviewed the incident and did not consult Morton before deciding to terminate Thomas. Before Human Resources could approve Watson’s termination decision, Morton issued a written warning to Thomas based on a different incident where he failed to complete paperwork. Shortly thereafter, Berry officially terminated Thomas’s employment.

Thomas appealed his termination through Berry’s Termination Review Process two days later, and two independent Berry managers affirmed Watson’s termination decision. Thomas thereafter filed suit for wrongful discharge, alleging he was terminated in retaliation for opposing race discrimination in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Thomas invoked the cat’s paw theory of recovery, arguing it was Morton who possessed the retaliatory animus that infected Watson’s termination decision because of Thomas’s opposition to racial discrimination that he expressed at the Final Warning meeting with Morton. The district court ultimately granted summary judgment to Berry, and Thomas appealed.

On appeal, Thomas argued the district court erroneously granted summary judgment to Berry because he presented sufficient circumstantial evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude the stated reason for his termination was pretextual. The Tenth Circuit disagreed, finding the district court correctly granted summary judgment for two reasons. The Tenth Circuit first applied the McDonnell Douglas framework to determine whether Thomas’s termination was pretextual and found Thomas failed to meet his burden to show pretext.

Thomas argued that a reasonable jury could infer Morton possessed retaliatory animus because of two pieces of circumstantial evidence. First, Thomas argued that Morton’s report regarding the September 10 print quality issue was dishonest because it failed to include that Thomas had properly inspected the equipment before going on break. However, Thomas did not argue that Berry would not hold a print technician responsible for errors that occurred while the print technician was on break, and the Tenth Circuit noted that record evidence suggested the opposite. The Tenth Circuit found that Morton’s omission on the September 10 report was inconsequential and did not reflect retaliatory animus. Next, Thomas argued that Morton’s report on the September 10 issue was inconsistent with his rescission of the July 27 incident. The Tenth Circuit again disagreed, noting that there is no inference of retaliatory animus in including more information in a rescission than in the original report, and also finding that both the rescission and the September 10 incident occurred after Thomas expressed concern about race discrimination, negating an inference that the timing of the September 10 report supported retaliation.

Although the Tenth Circuit found it could affirm on the lack of evidence alone, it also addressed causation, finding Thomas could not show that Morton’s retaliatory animus was a “but-for” cause of termination. Because Thomas’s termination was independently affirmed by Berry’s Termination Review Panel, the causal chain between Morton’s alleged animus and the retaliatory action was broken. The Tenth Circuit held that, even if it assumed retaliatory animus, Thomas could not show that the animus was a “but-for” cause of his termination.

The district court’s grant of summary judgment was affirmed.

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 1/15/2016

On Friday, January 15, 2016, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued no published opinion and four unpublished opinions.

Ngiendo v. Sedgwick Claims Management Services

United States v. Deloera-Escalera

United States v. McGuire

Nails v. Slusher

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions. However, published opinions are summarized and provided by Legal Connection.