November 18, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Complaint Not Moot when Injury Can Be Redressed By Favorable Judicial Decision

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in EEOC v. CollegeAmerica Denver, Inc. on Tuesday, September 5, 2017.

This case arises out of a dispute between CollegeAmerica Denver., Inc. (Company) and a former employee, Ms. Potts. The Company and Potts resolved a dispute by entering into a settlement agreement, but the Company came to believe that Potts breached the settlement agreement, leading the Company to sue Potts in state court. The suit sparked the interest of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which believed that the Company’s interpretation and enforcement of the settlement agreement was unlawful and interfered with the statutory rights of Potts. Based on this belief, the EEOC sued the Company in federal court.

The district court dismissed the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim as moot, however, the EEOC is appealing the dismissal in light of the Company’s new theory against Potts: that she breached the settlement agreement by reporting adverse information to the EEOC without notifying the Company. The EEOC believes that by presenting this new theory, the Company was continuing to interfere with Potts’s and the EEOC’s statutory rights. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed this appeal and holds that the claim is not moot.

In deciding if a case is moot, the Tenth Circuit assesses whether a favorable judicial decision would have some effect in the real world. In other words, if a plaintiff no longer suffers an actual injury that can be redressed by a favorable judicial decision, the claim is moot.

A special rule applies when the defendant voluntarily stops the challenged conduct. When the conduct stops, the claim will be deemed moot only if two conditions exist: (1) it is absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur; and (2) interim relief or events have completely and irrevocably eradicated the effects of the alleged violation. The court held that the first condition was not met, as the Company continued to stand by its new theory of how Potts had breached the settlement agreement. Therefore, mootness due to voluntary cessation is not applicable here.

The Tenth Circuit further disagreed with the Company’s argument that the case was moot because the outcome would not affect anything in the real world. The court found that if the EEOC prevailed on the merits and obtained an injunction, the Company could not present its new theory in the state-court suit against Potts. The inability to present this theory would constitute an effect in the real world, preventing dismissal based on mootness.

The Tenth Circuit further rejected the Company’s newly raised argument that the EEOC sought overly-broad, unauthorized injunctive and declaratory relief, finding that a federal court should not dismiss a meritorious constitutional claim because the complaint seeks one remedy rather than another plainly appropriate one.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

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