March 18, 2018

Tenth Circuit: Nursing Home Liable for Abuse to Resident

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Racher v. Westlake Nursing Home Limited Partnership on Thursday, September 28, 2017.

Mrs. Mayberry was abused by two certified nursing assistants while in Quail Creek Nursing Home, which is owned by Westlake. This case was filed against Westlake under Oklahoma law for negligence, negligence per se, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. At trial, the jury found for plaintiffs, Westlake appeals.

The two nursing assistants involved, Kaseke and Gakunga, worked at Quail Creek and were Mayberry’s caretakers. Both assistants had numerous write-ups in their personnel files for infractions and refusal to complete assigned duties, including sleeping on the job, which was grounds for immediate termination; however, neither were terminated for that infraction.

One of Mayberry’s daughters testified that the family began to notice bruising on Mayberry’s hands and arms soon after moving Mayberry to Quail Creek. These concerns went unexplained by Quail Creek. Although it was difficult for Mayberry to communicate due to dementia, Mayberry began to cry out to the family for help and that someone was hurting her mouth. To monitor Mayberry, the family placed a hidden camera in her room. The videos show Gakunga slapping Mayberry, forcibly stuffing Mayberry’s mouth with wadded up gloves, and performing compressions on Mayberry’s chest to force her to empty her bladder. Kaseke is seen watching this take place. Both assistants are seen roughly lifting Mayberry from her wheelchair and pushing her to lay down. Mayberry’s family brought the videos to Quail Creek’s attention. Both assistants were arrested. Mayberry died three months after the abuse was discovered.

Plaintiffs brought suit against Quail Creek due to the abuse that occurred and was perpetrated by Quail Creek employees, and on the grounds that Quail Creek is directly negligent in failing to investigate and report the incidents of abuse. At trial, the jury found that Westlake, the owner of Quail Creek, was liable on theories of negligence and negligence per se, that Westlake acted with reckless disregard for the rights of others, and that plaintiffs were entitled to compensatory damages in the sum of $1.2 million.

Westlake raised four issues on appeal: (1) whether the district court erred by failing to reduce compensatory damages to the statutory cap of $350,000; (2) whether the district court erred by failing to reduce the allegedly excessive compensatory damage award of $1.2 million or, in the alternative, to grant a new trial; (3) whether the district court erred by allowing allegedly improper closing argument regarding punitive damages during the first phase of the trial; and (4) whether the district court erred by admitting evidence of an unrelated incident subject to a limiting instruction.

As for the first issue, Oklahoma law caps noneconomic damages at $350,000 unless special findings are made. The district court concluded that the requirements for lifting the cap were satisfied in this case. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court decision. Because Westlake failed to raise the statutory damage cap at any point before the trial was completed, the Tenth Circuit held that Westlake waived the defense.

Next, Westlake argued that the compensatory damages awarded by the jury were excessive and that the district court erred by declining to either reduce the award or grant a new trial. The district court denied this motion because it concluded that there was substantial evidence in the record to support the jury’s award. Oklahoma recognizes a broad jury discretion in determining the amount of damages to award. The Tenth Circuit considered the entire trial record and viewed the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs in concluding that the damages awarded were not excessive. The Circuit found that the jury could have reasonably concluded that Mayberry was abused on a daily basis and that the abuse caused emotional distress that was significant enough to have contributed to her death.

Westlake then argued that the district court erred by allowing counsel for plaintiffs to make arguments that invited an award based on consideration of deterrent and punitive rather than compensatory factors. Although the Tenth Circuit agreed that portions of the argument were improper at the time they were presented, Westlake failed to show that the argument led the jury to return a verdict based on passion or prejudice rather than the evidence presented at trial. The Tenth Circuit noted that not all errors require reversal. In this case, the Circuit found that the jury was not prejudiced by the poorly timed statements regarding the award of punitive damages. The jury was clearly instructed as to the correct procedure and the size of the awards, when considered in the context of the evidence presented at trial. The Tenth Circuit declined to warrant a new trial based on these circumstances.

Lastly, Westlake argued that the district court erred by admitting evidence of another incident subject to a limiting instruction. Prior to trial, Westlake had filed to exclude any evidence that Kaseke caused any physical or mental harm to any residents at Quail Creek on April 4th. This evidence at issue included two more instances of abuse, where two nursing students testified that Gakunga struck Mayberry on the forehead and put her into a cold shower, and Kaseke sprayed an unnamed resident in the face with cold water so violently that the resident’s dentures fell out. The district court denied Westlake’s motion because the evidence would be relevant, not unfairly prejudicial, and admissible if the abuse in Mayberrry’s case occurred after April 4th. The Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court because there was a limiting instruction given to the jury that properly allowed the jury to consider the incidents only if they took place before the alleged abuse of Mayberry.

The Tenth Circuit AFFIRMED the district court’s judgment.

Tenth Circuit: Defendant Sentenced to Significant Jail Time After Evasion of Personal Taxes

Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in United States v. Stegman on Friday, October 20, 2017.

Defendant Stegman owned and operated Midwest Medical Aesthetics Center (Midwest), which provided a wide range of medical aesthetic services. Clients were permitted to pay with a credit card, cash, or check made out to Stegman personally, who encouraged cash or checks. Stegman would personally collect the cash and checks at the end of each business day.

Stegman then established several limited liability companies (LLCs), which were effectively used to launder Midwest client payments. Stegman would use the LLCs to purchase money orders that she then used to purchase items for personal use. Stegman reported zero cash income on her federal income tax returns in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Stegman employed two separate tax preparers for her corporate and personal tax returns. Stegman provided Jones, the corporate tax preparer, with Midwest bank account information, but did not provide Jones with bank records for the other accounts into which she deposited Midwest income. Similarly, Stegman did not provide Lake, the personal tax preparer, with accurate records of the Midwest client payments that she used to purchase personal property.

When Stegman was audited for the 2007 and 2008 tax returns, Stegman said Midwest never accepted cash payments, stated that the source of her money came from relatives or savings, and gave conflicting information for the purpose of one of her LLCs. The case was then referred to the IRS’s criminal investigation division. The investigation that followed revealed that Stegman used her LLCs to create false business expenses, that Stegman altered Midwest’s ledgers and directed other employees to destroy business records, and that Stegman encouraged a former Midwest client, Clark, to tell the IRS that she, Clark, didn’t remember anything about her dealings with Midwest. Stegman raises five issues on appeal.

1. The Amendment of the Indictment During Trial

Stegman argued that the district court erred by granting the government’s motion to amend the indictment during trial. The indictment in this case alleged that Stegman was the owner and operator of “Midwest Medical Aesthetics Center” and not “Midwest Medical Aesthetics Center, Inc.” The Tenth Circuit distinguished between a district court’s amending an indictment as to form, which is permissible, and as to substance, which is impermissible. An amendment as to form is a change that does not mislead the defendant in any sense, does not subject the defendant to any added burdens, and does not otherwise prejudice the defendant.

Stegman argued that the amendment, which substituted the name of one business entity for another, was substantive. The Tenth Circuit disagreed. Contrary to Stegman’s assertion, and consistent with what the district court concluded, the amendment was merely a matter of form, and dropping the “Inc.” accurately reflected the change that Stegman made to the structure of her business. Because the amendment was one of form only, the district court did not err in granting the government’s motion to amend the indictment.

Stegman further argued that the jury was never told there was an amendment or that she was entitled to rely on the indictment and, as a result, the jury may have been left with the impression that she misled them. The Tenth Circuit disagreed for several reasons. First, Stegman’s counsel conceded that Stegman never asked for such an instruction. Second, she failed to properly alert the district court to her constitutional challenge. Third, the argument lacked merit given the conclusion that the amendment was one of form only. Finally, the evidence of Stegman’s guilt was overwhelming and thus the district court’s decision did not deprive her of the right to a fair trial.

2. The Purported Braswell Violation

Stegman next contended that the government violated the Supreme Court’s decision in Braswell v. United States, 487 U.S. 99 (1988), by using corporate records against her as an individual. The company ledgers were obtained by compulsory summons issued to her. The Court in Braswell noted that it had long recognized that, for purposes of the Fifth Amendment, corporations and other collective entities are treated differently from individuals.

Prior to trial, Stegman moved to exclude from evidence handwritten ledgers of Midwest that were produced to the IRS pursuant to a Corporate Summons. Stegman argued, in pertinent part, that under Braswell, the Government could not introduce into evidence the fact that Stegman produced the documents in response to a subpoena, and thus could not attribute the documents to Stegman as an individual. Contrary to Stegman’s assertions, however, the Tenth Circuit found no violation of Braswell.

3. The Alleged Destruction of Exculpatory Evidence

Stegman also argued that the district court erred in denying her motion to dismiss the indictment due to destruction of exculpatory evidence.

After Stegman’s audit was referred to the IRS’s criminal investigation division in 2009, the IRS’s civil division forwarded to the criminal division a referral package of documents that included the file from an earlier audit that the IRS had conducted for the 2000 and 2001 tax season. The file was ultimately destroyed at the National Archives and Record Administration facility without the IRS’s knowledge.

Stegman moved to dismiss the indictment due to destruction of exculpatory evidence, namely the old civil audit file relating to her tax returns for 2000 and 2001. Stegman argued that these returns contained positions that were similar, if not identical, to the positions the government claimed were criminal in this case, and that the IRS found the 2000 and 2001 tax returns were accurate and did not assess any additional tax.

Where, as here, a defendant made the necessary request, but the evidence was no longer available at that time, the failure to preserve the evidence violates due process if the evidence was exculpatory and its exculpatory value was apparent before its loss. If, however, the evidence was not apparently exculpatory but merely potentially useful, the failure to preserve the evidence does not violate due process unless the criminal defendant can show bad faith on the part of the police.

The Tenth Circuit concluded that the district court did not clearly err in finding that the exculpatory value of the civil audit file was not apparent, as Stegman failed to challenge the district court’s finding that many of the documents could be obtained from other sources. Further, Stegman failed to establish that she relied in good faith on the IRS’s determination that her tax positions in 2000 and 2001 were valid. Lastly, Stegman failed to produce any evidence that the IRS itself played a role in the file’s destruction or any authority supporting a per se bad faith rule.

4. The Admission of Testimonial Statements from Don Lake

In her fourth issue on appeal, Stegman argued that the district court erred by allowing the government to introduce testimonial statements from her now-deceased personal tax preparer, Don Lake, in violation of the Confrontation Clause.

In her appeal, Stegman focused on the district court’s admission of Exhibit 85, a fax cover sheet and faxed records that Lake sent to an IRS Revenue Agent during the course of the IRS’s investigation. Mrs. Lake identified Don Lake’s handwriting on the fax cover sheet and on some of the accompanying records. Stegman objected to Exhibit 85, arguing that the language on the fax cover sheet violated her confrontation rights.

The Tenth Circuit remarked that Stegman made no attempt to challenge the district court’s finding that the papers contained in Exhibit 85 were actually her own financial documents rather than Lake’s work papers. She also failed to make a showing that the documents were testimonial in nature, which is a requirement for a challenge under the Confrontation Clause. As for the fax cover sheet that contained Lake’s handwriting, the Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that it was also not testimonial in nature.

5. Stegman’s Advisory Sentencing Range

Finally, Stegman argued that the district court erred by miscalculating her advisory sentencing range under the Sentencing Guidelines. More specifically, Stegman asserted that the district court improperly calculated the intended tax loss and improperly applied the sophisticated means and obstruction of justice enhancements in calculating her advisory Guidelines sentencing range.

The Sentencing Guidelines apply to tax-related crimes, such as those of which Stegman was convicted. It directs a district court to apply a base offense level from the Tax Table corresponding to the tax loss. If the offense involved both individual and corporate tax returns, the tax loss is the aggregate tax loss from the offenses added together. The district court in this case found that the corporate tax loss and the individual tax loss were inextricably intertwined, and Tenth Circuit agreed.

One section of the Sentencing Guidelines states that if a tax-related offense involved sophisticated means, the base offense increases. “Sophisticated means” includes especially complex or especially intricate offense conduct pertaining to the execution or concealment of an offense, and includes conduct such as hiding assets or transactions through the use of fictitious entities, corporate shells, or offshore financial accounts. The district court in this case concluded that the “sophisticated means” enhancement applied to Stegman, and the Tenth Circuit found no error.

The Sentencing Guidelines further direct a district court to increase a defendant’s offense level if the defendant willfully obstructed or impeded, or attempted to obstruct or impede, the administration of justice with respect to the investigation, prosecution, or sentencing of the instant offense of conviction and the obstructive conduct related to (A) the defendant’s offense of conviction and any relevant conduct, or (B) a closely related offense. The district court in this case found that Stegman obstructed the IRS’s investigation in three ways: directing employees to shred receipts that documented cash that she received from her business, altering Midwest ledger entries to change the characterization of the way certain expenses were entered so that they appeared to be legitimate business expenses, and directing a witness, Clark, to testify that she did not remember her business relationship with Midwest.

Stegman argued that any attempt she made to tamper with Clark’s testimony was unsuccessful because Clark told investigators that she couldn’t recall what happened when she was a client of Midwest. Notably, the district court found that even if Stegman’s attempt to influence Clark’s testimony was unsuccessful, it nevertheless was an attempt to obstruct justice. The Tenth Circuit, therefore, concluded that the district court did not err in applying the obstruction of justice enhancement.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals AFFIRMED the judgment of the district court.

Tenth Circuit: Case Properly Remanded to State Court Under the Class Action Fairness Act

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Speed v. JMA Energy Company, LLC on Monday, October 2, 2017.

Plaintiff Speed filed a petition in the District Court of Hughes County, Oklahoma, asserting a class action against JMA Energy Company, alleging that JMA had willfully violated an Oklahoma statute that requires interest payments of revenue from oil and gas production. Speed further asserted that JMA fraudulently concealed from mineral-interest owners that JMA owed interest to the owners, intending to pay only those who requested the interest.

JMA removed the case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, asserting that the district court had jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA). Speed then filed an amended motion to remand the case to state court. The district court granted this motion, relying on an exception to CAFA that permits a district court to decline to exercise jurisdiction over a class action meeting certain prerequisites based on consideration of certain factors.

JMA appealed, challenging the district court’s remand order. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals found the district court properly considered the statutory factors and did not abuse its discretion by remanding to state court.

CAFA permits a class action to be brought in or removed to federal court if: (1) the proposed class includes at least 100 persons with claims; (2) the aggregate amount in controversy on all claims exceeds $5 million; (3) at least one proposed plaintiff and one defendant have diverse citizenship; and (4) the primary defendants are not governmental entities or officials against whom a federal court cannot order relief.

CAFA also recognizes three statutory exceptions. The exception at issue in this case is the discretionary exception. This exception allows a federal court to decline to exercise jurisdiction over a class action that is otherwise covered by CAFA based on six enumerated factors. The Tenth Circuit considered each factor in turn to determine if there was a legal error or other abuse of discretion by the district court.

The first factor is whether the claims asserted involve a matter of national or interstate interest. The Tenth Circuit found that JMA failed to explain how there could be a significant national interest in the mere allocation of interest between producers and royalty owners. The only thing national or interstate about this case is that some of the owners of Oklahoma property, who are basing their claims on alleged violations of an Oklahoma statute, happen to live in other states and receive their royalty checks there. The Tenth Circuit determined that was not enough to reverse the district court’s finding.

The second factor was whether the claims asserted would be governed by Oklahoma law or the laws of other states. The district court found JMA’s argument that a fraud claim against Oklahoma may be governed by the law of a different state unpersuasive and concluded that this factor weighed in favor of Speed’s motion to remand. The Tenth Circuit concluded that Oklahoma law controlled.

The third factor was whether the class action had been pleaded in order to avoid federal jurisdiction. JMA asserted that Speed attempted to avoid federal jurisdiction by excluding from the class any publicly traded companies and affiliated entities that produced, gathered, processed, or marketed oil and gas. The district court found this argument unpersuasive, reasoning that Speed had proposed a class that encompassed all the people and claims that one would expect to include in a class action. The Tenth Circuit agreed.

The fourth factor was whether the action was brought in a forum with a distinct nexus with the class members, the alleged harm, or the defendants. The Tenth Circuit found no abuse of discretion by the district court, as the factors of this case demonstrated the required nexus between Oklahoma and the class members, the alleged harms, and the defendant, including that the action was related to real-property interests in Oklahoma, the class members owned royalty interests in Oklahoma property, JMA is a citizen of Oklahoma, and the underlying alleged actions that gave rise to this suit took place in Oklahoma.

The fifth factor was whether the number of citizens of the state in which the action was originally filed is substantially larger than the number of citizens from any other state for plaintiffs in the class, and whether the citizenship of the other members of the proposed class was dispersed among a substantial number of states. The Tenth Circuit found the district court correctly determined that this factor weighed in favor of remand, as the number of Oklahoma citizens was about 2.5 times the number of citizens from any other state.

The sixth, and last, factor was whether, during the three-year period preceding the filing of the class action, one or more other class actions asserting the same or similar claims on behalf of the same or other persons had been filed. No other actions have been filed; therefore, this factor favors remand.

The Tenth Circuit determined that the district court did not abuse its discretion in ruling that each factor supported remand.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals AFFIRMED the decision remanding the case to state court.

Tenth Circuit: Workers’ Compensation Case Reversed Because Interpretation of Policy was Arbitrary and Capricious

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Owings v. United of Omaha Life Insurance Co. on Tuesday, October 17, 2017.

The plaintiff in this case, Owings, suffered a disabling injury while on the job and was afforded long-term disability benefits by the defendant, United of Omaha Life Insurance Company (United). Owings disagreed with the amount and beginning date of his disability benefits and filed suit. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of United, and Owings appealed.

Owings injured his back at work on July 1, 2013 while moving a surgical chair and cabinet, which left Owings unable to lift, bend, stoop, carry, push, and pull, resulting in Owings experiencing long-term back pain and spasms. The same day of his injury, Owings met with Bratton, the Director of Human Resources at United, who informed Owings that his title would be changed and his salary reduced, effective immediately. Owings went home and did not work for the company thereafter. Owings then applied for short-term disability benefits with United. As part of his application, Owings described the incident and the date it occurred, as well as statements from his employer and treating physician, Dr. McClintick. Dr. McClintick listed the “Date symptoms first appeared” as July 1, 2013, also noting that Owings had been continuously disabled and unable to work from the same date. Bratton, however, completed and signed an “Employer’s Statement” form for United, where she stated that Owings disability resulted from a previous injury and his last day of work was July 2, 2013.

Owings applied for long-term disability and was approved, although the letter stated that Owings became disabled on July 3, 2013. Owings, through his attorney, sent a letter to United asking for the date of disability to be changed to July 1, 2013. In response, United asked for copies of all of Owings’ time sheets. Bratton emailed Union twice with conflicting dates on Owings’ last day, but ultimately concluded that Owings left work at some time on July 2, 2013. Relying on this information, United denied the request to adjust Owings’ disability date, explaining that July 3 was the first day Owings was unable to work, since his employer verified he had worked July 2. United would only pay Owings the discounted salary set forth by Britton on July 1st. Owings subsequently filed suit.

Owings’ complaint is governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). A benefits decision under an ERISA-governed plan is generally left to the discretion of the administrator in determining the terms of the plan and of determining eligibility. In this case, the policy afforded United the discretion and final authority to construe and interpret the policy. The Tenth Circuit then examined whether the benefits decision at issue was arbitrary and capricious, limiting the review to determining whether the interpretation of the plan was reasonable and made in good faith.

Owings asserted that United abused its discretion in interpreting the term “disability” when calculating the amount of his monthly long-term disability benefit under the policy. Owings argued that the policy defined disability by reference to the inability to perform at least one of the material duties of his regular occupation, whereas United omitted the phrase “at least one of” to modify the policy to include each and every job duty.

The Tenth Circuit found United’s definition of disability to be inconsistent with the plain language of the policy, which requires only that the injury prevent the employee from being able to perform one material duty of occupation. The Tenth Circuit therefore found United’s definition of disability arbitrary and capricious.

The next issue was that United prohibited an employee from being declared disabled on the last day that he or she worked. United argues that Owings performed his job with no impairment for at least part of the day on July 1, so the earliest possible date disability could begin was on July 2. The Tenth Circuit found that United’s explanation could not be inferred from the policy’s definitional section. Nothing in the policy supported United’s conclusion that an employee cannot become immediately disabled after working for part of the day.

A third issue was whether United erred in relying exclusively on the statements from Bratton. The Tenth Circuit found that the record established, without question, that United rejected Owings’ initial request to adjust his disability date, as well as his subsequent administrative appeal, due to Bratton’s statements. The Tenth Circuit held that United erred in blindly relying on Bratton’s statements, as the determination should not have been based on whether Owings worked on a particular day, but rather on which day he sustained his injury.

The Tenth Circuit found that it was undisputed that Owings became injured on July 1. Owings’ treating physician identified July 1 as the date Owings was first unable to work. The only work Owings did on July 2 consisted of using the company cell phone; he did not physically go to the workplace. For these reasons, the Tenth Circuit concluded that United acted arbitrarily and capriciously in interpreting and applying the policy language. Under plain and ordinary meaning of the policy language, Owings became disabled on July 1, 2013. The proper remedy was to reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of United.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals REVERSED and REMANDED with directions to enter summary judgment in favor of Owings.

Tenth Circuit: Colorado RTD Manager Found Guilty of Bribery

Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Hardin on Wednesday, October 25, 2017.

Defendant Hardin was the senior manager for the Regional Transportation District (RTD) in Colorado. Part of Hardin’s job responsibilities included setting goals on projects for small business participation and ensuring compliance of small business participation on various projects. Ward was the owner of a busing company as well as a manufacturing representative for Build Your Dream, a manufacturer of automobiles and rechargeable batteries. Ward represents Build Your Dream to sell their merchandise in Denver.

Ward’s busing company contracted with RTD as a service provider for Access-a-Ride, a program that provides local bus transportation in Denver for people with disabilities. From that point on, Ward paid Defendant monthly bribes in exchange for Defendant’s help to secure a contract with RTD, as RTD was preparing to solicit bids for the purchase of shuttle buses. Ward would meet with Defendant every month and pay Defendant to help Ward win the contract. Further, Defendant gave Ward information on potential competitors to allow Ward to tailor his proposal to RTD.

Unbeknownst to Defendant, Ward had previously pleaded guilty to tax evasion and, to receive a reduced sentence, relayed Defendant’s original bribe request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Ward then became the FBI’s confidential informant to investigate Defendant for bribery. The meetings and conversations between Ward and Defendant were all recorded.

Defendant was charged with four counts of committing bribery involving a program that receives federal funds. The jury found Defendant guilty of three counts relating to the proposed shuttle bus contract. Defendant appealed, arguing that, by dismissing one count, it could not be shown that he had solicited the requisite $5,000 threshold that is set by the federal-program bribery statute. The Tenth Circuit found that the $5,000 pertains to the subject matter of the bribe and Ward paid for Defendant’s help with respect to the lucrative shuttle bus purchase contract. The Tenth Circuit was persuaded that the statute was sufficiently definite to give Defendant fair notice of the criminality of his conduct.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals AFFIRMED Defendant’s conviction and sentence.

Tenth Circuit: Appeal of Fracking Regulation Unripe Due to Uncertainty of Future

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in State of Wyoming v. Zinke on Thursday, September 21, 2017.

In this case, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is asked to decide whether the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acted beyond its statutory authority when it created a regulation that governed hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on lands owned by the United States.

As fracking has become more common, public concern has increased about whether fracking is contributing to contamination of underground water sources. The BLM responded by preparing a regulation that attempted to modernize the existing federal regulations governing fracking on lands owned by the United States by increasing disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking, updating the standards for wellbore construction and testing, and addressing management of water used in the fracking process.

The finalized, published fracking regulation attempted to regulate fracking in four ways: by (1) imposing new well construction and testing requirements; (2) imposing new flowback storage requirements; (3) imposing new chemical disclosure requirements; and (4) generally increasing BLM’s oversight of fracking.

Shortly before the fracking regulation was to take effect, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and the Western Energy Alliance (WEA) filed a petition for review under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), opposing the new regulation. North Dakota, Utah, and the Ute Indian Tribe also intervened.

The petition for review asserted that the fracking regulation violated two provisions of the APA in two ways: (1) the regulation was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law; and (2) it was in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations, or short of statutory right.

The district court concluded that no statute authorized the BLM to regulate fracking. The district court reasoned that states may regulate underground injections of any substance, not the federal government. According to the district court, only the states could regulate fracking.

While the parties supporting the regulation brought an appeal, the BLM asked this court to hold these appeals in abeyance, explaining that President Trump’s Executive Order required the Department of the Interior to review its regulations, including the fracking regulation, for consistency with the policies and priorities of the new administration. Another Executive Order directed the Secretary of the Interior, as soon as practicable, to publish for notice and comment proposed rules suspending, revising, or rescinding the fracking regulation at issue. The Secretary of the Interior then stated that the BLM would rescind the regulation in full.

The issue addressed in this appeal is whether the BLM has the authority to regulate fracking on lands owned or held in trust by the United States and thereby to promulgate the fracking regulation. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the case was not ripe for review, as there was no hardship to the parties. The only harm suffered will be the continued operation of oil and gas development on federal lands, which represents no departure from the status quo since 2015. Further, the BLM will be able to proceed with its proposed rule rescinding the fracking regulation, and would face more uncertainty if these appeals were to remain under advisement. The appeal was held to be unripe and unfit for judicial review.

The Circuit dismissed the appeals, finding that the subject matter is unripe and the record is notably undeveloped or the future is particularly uncertain.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals DISMISSED the appeals as prudentially unripe, VACATED the district court’s judgment invalidating the fracking regulation, and REMANDED with instructions to dismiss the underlying action without prejudice.

Tenth Circuit: Plaintiff’s Request for Immediate Release from Federal Custody Denied Under ACCA’s Enumerated Clause

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Snyder on Thursday, September 21, 2017.

This case arose from Snyder’s request for immediate release from federal custody on the basis that he had already served more than the maximum sentence allowed by law. Snyder argues that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Johnson v. United States invalidates his sentence enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The district court denied Snyder’s motion, and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial, concluding that Snyder was not sentenced based on the ACCA’s residual clause that was invalidated in Johnson.

In 2004, Snyder pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. A presentence report was prepared and concluded that Snyder was subject to an enhanced sentence as an armed career criminal because he had sustained two convictions for burglary of two residences, and had a conviction of a controlled substance offense. Snyder’s argument that his burglary convictions failed to constitute predicate offenses under the ACCA were rejected by the district court.

In 2015, the Supreme Court decided Johnson. Snyder subsequently filed a motion to vacate his sentence for immediate release, asserting that, following the Court’s decision in Johnson, his burglary convictions no longer qualify as predicate offenses under the ACCA, so he is not an armed career criminal, and his enhanced sentence exceeds the maximum authorized by law.

The Circuit first determined whether the district court erred in concluding that Snyder’s motion was not timely.  By the plain language of the statute in question, the statute allows a motion to be filed within one year of the date on which the rights asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court. The Circuit concluded that to be timely, a motion need only to invoke the newly recognized right, regardless of whether the facts of record ultimately support the claim, and found that Snyder’s motion did just that.

The court then discussed whether Snyder had overcome the procedural-default rule, which is a general rule that claims not raised on direct appeal may not be raised on collateral review unless the petitioner can show cause and prejudice.

Cause is shown if a claim is so novel that its legal basis was not reasonably available to counsel at the time of the direct appeal. The Supreme Court has stated that if one of its decisions explicitly overrides prior precedent, then, prior to that decision, the new constitutional principle was not reasonably available to counsel, and defendant has cause for failing to raise the issue. The Johnson claim was not reasonably available to Snyder at the time of his direct appeal, and the Circuit found this sufficient to establish cause.

To establish actual prejudice, the Circuit held that Snyder must show that the error of which he complains is an error of constitutional dimensions and worked to his actual and substantial disadvantage. The Circuit found that Snyder has shown actual prejudice through his argument that the ACCA sentence enhancement is invalid after Johnson. The court concluded this by acknowledging that if Snyder is correct, he should have been sentenced to only ten years maximum, not eighteen as he had been sentenced. The sentence of eighteen years would then be unauthorized under law, creating an actual and substantial disadvantage of constitutional dimensions.

The Circuit next discusses the merits of Snyder’s claim. Snyder alleged that the sentence was imposed under an invalid legal theory and that he was, therefore, sentenced in violation of the Constitution. In order to make a determination, the relevant background of the legal environment at the time of sentencing must be evaluated. The Circuit held that the actual facts of record in this matter offered no basis whatsoever for the notion that the sentence Snyder received was based on the ACCA’s residual clause, rather than its enumerated offenses clause. The Circuit found no mention of the residual clause in the presentence report or any other pleading or transcript. Further, given the relevant background legal environment that existed at the time of Snyder’s sentencing, there would have been no need for reliance on the residual clause. The Circuit concluded that Snyder’s claim failed because the court’s ACCA’s determination at the time of sentencing rested on the enumerated crimes clause rather than the residual clause.

The decision of the district court denying Snyder’s motion is AFFIRMED by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Tenth Circuit: Chicken Farmer Prejudiced by District Court’s Judgment on Basis Not Raised by Either Party

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Oldham v. O.K. Farms, Inc. on Monday, September 25, 2017.

Plaintiff, Earl Oldham, had entered into a contract with O.K. Farms (O.K.), which contract is at issue in this case. Under the contract, O.K. would provide Oldham with chickens to raise, the chickens would remain O.K.’s property, and Oldham would be paid for providing their care. Although the contract had a three-year duration, O.K. retained the right to terminate the contract for certain specified reasons, including breach of any term or condition of the contract, abandonment or neglect of a flock, and failure to care for or causing damage to O.K.’s equipment or property.

Early one morning, Oldham discovered one of his three chicken houses had flooded and contacted O.K. requesting help. Oldham then briefly left the farm to open his tire shop, and when he returned, he was informed by an O.K. field technician that it was his problem, not O.K.’s, and Oldham would have to deal with it. Oldham began complaining at the lack of help provided by O.K. and requested they come and get all of the chickens.

An O.K. crew arrived at Oldham’s farm, removed the live chickens, and brought them to a nearby farm to be raised by a different farmer. Oldham was paid for the work he had done raising the chickens to that point, reduced by the cost of catching and moving the chickens. O.K. subsequently sent Oldham a letter, providing him with a ninety-day notice of contract termination. O.K. provided its reasoning behind termination of the contract: (1) Oldham breached the terms and conditions of the contract by failing to adequately provide for the animal welfare of the chickens in his care; (2) Oldham abandoned and neglected the flock to open his tire shop when the chickens were encountering a threat to their welfare; and (3) the flooding in the henhouse damaged O.K.’s property, the chickens.

In response to these allegations, Oldham contended the flooding was the result of an act of God, not neglect. As for the abandonment argument, Oldham argued that he did not abandon the chickens by leaving for fifteen to twenty minutes while an O.K. field technician was at the scene telephoning his supervisor to determine what they should do about the situation.

This appeal follows the district court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of O.K. on the premise that Oldham abandoned the flock when he requested O.K. come pick up all of the chickens, not just the ones in the flooded henhouse.

After carefully reviewing the summary judgment record and the parties’ arguments, the court determined that the district court granted judgment on a basis that was not raised by O.K. or briefed by either party. The only argument regarding abandonment that O.K. raised in its brief was the argument that Oldham abandoned the flock by leaving to open his tire shop. O.K. never raised any argument that Oldham abandoned his flock by telling O.K. to come get all of the birds.

The rules of civil procedure permit a district court to grant summary judgment on grounds not raised by a party, but only after giving notice and a reasonable time to respond. The district court gave no notice that it intended to grant summary judgment on a basis that was not raised by O.K., nor did the district court give Oldham any time to respond to this decision, much less reasonable time to consider the new theory and develop the arguments to dispute it. The court found that Oldham was prejudiced by this lack of notice and opportunity to respond.

In order to establish the requisite prejudice, the losing party must identify what additional arguments he could have made or evidence he could have produced or relied on to undermine the district court’s ruling. In this case, Oldham evidenced that he was motivated by concern for all of the other chickens’ welfare in telling O.K. to pick up all of the chickens, as there was more rain forecasted and he did not want another henhouse to be flooded. This concern for the chicken’s welfare might have been relevant to the district court’s holding that Oldham legally abandoned the chickens. The court found that this information was enough to show prejudice.

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

Tenth Circuit: Social Worker Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity after Violating Defendant’s Constitutional Rights

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued is opinion in T.D. v. Patton on Monday, August 28, 2017.

Ms. Patton is a social worker for the Denver Department of Human Services (DDHS) and was responsible for removing T.D., a minor, from his mother’s home, and recommending T.D. remain in the temporary custody of his father, Duerson. T.D. was removed from Duerson’s home after DDHS made a determination that T.D. had suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his father. This case concerns Ms. Patton’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that she is entitled to qualified immunity.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Ms. Patton violated T.D.’s clearly established substantive due process constitutional right to be free of a state official’s creation of danger from a private actor under a danger-creation theory. The court found that Ms. Patton violated T.D.’s substantive due process right by knowingly placing T.D. in a position of danger by recommending that T.D. be placed in Duerson’s custody despite admitted concerns about T.D.’s safety, her knowledge of Duerson’s criminal history and conviction for attempted sexual assault against a minor, and failure to investigate whether Duerson was abusing T.D. despite her awareness of evidence of potential abuse. The court found that Ms. Patton acted recklessly and in conscious disregard of a known and substantial risk that T.D. would suffer serious, immediate, and proximate harm in his father’s home.

Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a person acting under color of state law who subjects any citizen of the United States to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution shall be liable to the injured party. However, a defendant in an action may raise a defense of qualified immunity, which shields public officials from damages unless their conduct was unreasonable in light of law. Once a defendant asserts qualified immunity, the plaintiff has the burden to show that the defendant’s actions violated a federal constitutional or statutory right and that the right was clearly established at the time of the defendant’s unlawful conduct.

The court first evaluated whether the facts satisfied T.D.’s claim of danger-creation. The court considered whether Ms. Patton created or increased the danger posed to T.D. The court concluded that Ms. Patton’s actions amounted to a failure to investigate evidence that Duerson was abusing T.D., satisfying the first element. The second element is whether T.D. was a member of a limited and specifically definable group. The court held that because the state removed T.D. from his natural parent and took him into state custody, T.D. fell within a limited and specifically definable group of children.

Third, Ms. Patton’s conduct put T.D. at substantial risk of serious, immediate, and proximate harm. This is evidenced by Ms. Patton withholding relevant information and recommending T.D. be placed with his father, by failing to investigate evidence of potential abuse, and by continuing to recommend T.D. remain with his father.

The court discussed the fourth and fifth elements simultaneously. Ms. Patton acted recklessly and in conscious disregard of a risk (element 4) that was obvious or known (element 5). Ms. Patton knew of Duerson’s criminal history, but deleted those concerns for fear of being fired. She further withheld concerns of T.D.’s safety and concerns, stemming from her professional judgment, that T.D. should be removed from the home. Her intentional exclusion of her knowledge and concerns from her hearing report showed she acted recklessly and in conscious disregard of an obvious or known risk that Duerson posed to T.D.

The last element is satisfied by Ms. Patton’s conscience-shocking conduct. Ms. Patton’s conduct was held to significantly exceed ordinary negligence or permitting unreasonable risk and rose to a degree of outrageousness and a magnitude of potential or actual harm that is truly conscience shocking.

In sum, Ms. Patton’s conduct violated T.D.’s substantive due process right by creating or increasing T.D.’s vulnerability to the danger of private violence by Duerson.

The court found that the law was clearly established at the time of Ms. Patton’s misconduct. The court held that a reasonable official in Ms. Patton’s shoes would have understood that she was violating T.D.’s constitutional right by creating or increasing T.D.’s vulnerability to the danger posed by Duerson.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals AFFIRMED the district court’s DENIAL of summary judgment.

Tenth Circuit: Mandatory Minimum Sentence Provision in Child Pornography Statute Unconstitutional

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Haymond on Thursday, August 31, 2017.

This appeal comes from the district court’s decision to revoke Andre Haymond’s supervised release based, in part, on a finding that Haymond knowingly possessed thirteen images of child pornography, which were found on his phone by his probation officer. On appeal, Haymond argued that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding by a preponderance of the evidence that he knowingly possessed child pornography, and he argued that the sentence imposed upon him is unconstitutional because it violates his right to due process. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s revocation of Haymond’s supervised release, but holds that the sentencing was unconstitutional.

In regards to Haymond’s sufficiency of the evidence argument, the Tenth Circuit found that the district court abused its discretion by relying on a clearly erroneous finding of fact that Haymond knowingly took some act related to the images that resulted in the images being on his phone in a manner consistent with knowing possession, as testimony supports only a finding that the images were accessible on Haymond’s phone, not that Haymond necessarily saved, downloaded, or otherwise placed them there. Nonetheless, the court found that the remaining evidence in the record was sufficient to support a finding that Haymond knowingly possessed the child pornography. The information the court relied on was (1) Haymond had nearly exclusive use and possession of his password-protected phone; (2) at some point, thirteen images of child pornography were accessible somewhere on Haymond’s phone; and (3) the sexual acts depicted in the images are consistent with the images forming the basis of Haymond’s original conviction. The court found the evidence supported a finding that it is more likely than not that Haymond downloaded the images and knowingly possessed child pornography, in violation of his release.

The Circuit then moved on to the constitutional question. Haymond’s original conviction, a class C felony, included a supervised release statute that requires a mandatory term of supervised release of five years to life under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k), which may be revoked if a court later finds that the defendant has violated the conditions of that release. If not for the mandatory sentence required by § 3583(k), the sentence Haymond would have received following revocation of his release would have been significantly lower — two years at the most. The Circuit concluded that § 3583(k) violates the Fifth and Sixth Amendments because (1) it strips the sentencing judge of discretion to impose punishment within the statutorily prescribed range; and (2) it imposes heightened punishment on sex offenders, expressly based not on their original crimes of conviction, but on new conduct for which they have not been convicted by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt and for which they may be separately charged, convicted, and punished. The Circuit found that § 3583(k) violates the Sixth Amendment because it punishes the defendant with reincarceration for conduct of which he or she has not been found guilty by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, and it raises the possibility that a defendant would be charged and punished twice for the same conduct, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

The Circuit noted that the court must refrain from invalidating more of the statute than is necessary. There are two sentences under § 3583(k) that the court found to violate the Constitution by increasing the term of imprisonment authorized by statute based on facts found by a judge, not by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, and by tying the available punishment to subsequent conduct, rather than the original crime of conviction. The court concluded that without the unconstitutional provision, all violations of the conditions of supervised release would be governed by a different statute, which the court finds to be more appropriate. The sentences at issue under § 3583(k) are found to be unconstitutional and, therefore, unenforceable.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals AFFIRMED the revocation of Haymond’s supervised release, VACATED his sentence following that revocation, and REMANDED for resentencing without consideration of § 3583(k)’s mandatory minimum sentence provision or its increased penalties for certain subsequent conduct.

Tenth Circuit: Attorney General’s Interpretation of the Immigration and Nationality Act’s Reinstatement Provision is Reasonable

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in R-S-C v. Sessions on Wednesday, September 6, 2017.

This case presents a conflict between the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The asylum section of the INA states that any alien, irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum. By contrast, the reinstatement provision mandates that a previously deported alien who illegally reenters the United States will have his prior removal order reinstated and is not eligible and may not apply for any relief. The Attorney General has determined that the latter subsection prevails and an illegal reentrant with a reinstated removal order is not eligible for asylum relief.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was asked to decide whether the Attorney General’s interpretation of the INA is a reasonable interpretation of the statutory scheme.

The background of this case involves R-S-C, a woman originally from Guatemala, who had come to the United States without inspection three times to escape threats and extortion against her in Guatemala. The Tenth Circuit found no merit in the argument that she did not illegally reenter the United States, as she expressly declined to contest the determination that she reentered the United States illegally, and there is no evidence in the record suggesting that she presented herself at the border in search of an immigration officer to file an asylum application, as she had previously claimed.

The Tenth Circuit evaluated whether the Attorney General’s interpretation was reasonable. The court determined this through a two-step framework. First, the Court examined whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue. The court concluded that the statutory command is ambiguous, as there is conflict between the asylum and reinstatement provisions. The Circuit found that Congress did not clearly resolve the question.

Second, because the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the question for the Circuit is whether the Attorney General’s answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute. If so, the court must accept the Attorney General’s construction of the statute. The Circuit rejected an argument that the Attorney General failed to perceive the ambiguity in the statute and felt compelled by Congress when interpreting the statute. The court found that the Attorney General’s silence on the statutory interplay does not mean the Attorney General missed the ambiguity. In rejecting this argument, the court considered whether the interpretation was reasonable, and determined it was, offering five reasons.

First, it is reasonable for the Attorney General to conclude that the reinstatement provision means what it says: that certain aliens are not eligible for “any relief.” It is also reasonable to conclude that the reference to “any relief” naturally means all forms of relief, including asylum.

Second, it is not unreasonable for the Attorney General to decide that the reinstatement provision is more specific than the asylum provision, as the Attorney General focused on the section of the INA that carves out a subset of persons for special treatment, rather than another section that establishes rules for a particular kind of relief that apply across the board.

Third, the Attorney General could reasonably conclude that the reinstatement provision operates with stronger force than the asylum section, as it speaks in mandatory terms, requiring the Attorney General to deny relief to aliens with reinstated removal orders.

Fourth, the asylum provision expressly authorizes the Attorney General to establish additional limitations and conditions, under which an alien shall be ineligible for asylum. By contrast, the Attorney General had no discretion to decide that some kinds of relief are immune from the eligibility bar after a removal order is reinstated. Thus, the Attorney General could have reasonably concluded that the reinstatement provision reflects a stronger congressional command than the asylum section.

Fifth, the Attorney General’s determination reasonably furthers the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act’s (IIRIRA) purpose in strengthening the reinstatement provision. Congress passed IIRIRA to replace a previous, more lenient, regime. IIRIRA foreclosed discretionary relief from the terms of the reinstated order. This suggests that Congress intended to fortify the effect of the reinstatement provision, and the Attorney General’s interpretation is faithful to that purpose.

In conclusion, the Circuit found that the INA does not clearly answer the question of whether an illegal reentrant with a reinstated removal order may apply for asylum. The Attorney General, however, has reasonably interpreted the ambiguous statutory scheme in concluding that such an alien is not eligible for asylum relief. The court, therefore, defers to the Attorney General’s interpretation.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals DENIED the petition for review.

Tenth Circuit: Collection of Resource Data Considered Protected Speech Under the First Amendment

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Western Watersheds Project v. Michael on Thursday, September 7, 2017.

The State of Wyoming has enacted a pair of statutes imposing civil and criminal liability on individuals who enter open land for the purpose of collecting resource data without permission from the owner. “Resource data” was defined as data relating to land or land use. And the term “collect” was defined as requiring two elements: (1) taking a sample of material or a photograph, or otherwise preserving information in any form that is (2) submitted or intended to be submitted to any agency of the state or federal government. Information obtained in violation of these provisions could not be used in any proceeding other than an action under the statutes themselves. The statutes also required government agencies to expunge data collected in violation of their provisions and forbade the agencies from considering such data in determining any agency action.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the statutes regulate protected speech under the First Amendment and that they are not shielded from constitutional scrutiny merely because they touch upon access to private property. The statutes at issue target the creation of speech by imposing heightened penalties on those who collect resource data.

Plaintiffs in this case are advocacy organizations, arguing that the statutes violated Free Speech and Petition Clauses of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and they were preempted by federal law. After the district court’s holding that Plaintiffs have stated claims for free speech, petition, and equal protection, Wyoming amended the two statutes, although the statutes continue to impose heightened criminal punishment and civil liability. The amendments penalize any individual who without authorization: (1) enters private land for the purpose of resource data; (2) enters private land and collects resource data; or (3) crosses private land to access adjacent or proximate land where he collects resource data. Under the current version of the statutes, there is no requirement that resource data be submitted to, or intended to be submitted, to a government agency. Instead, the term “collect” now means: (1) to take a sample of material or acquire, gather, photograph or otherwise preserve information in any form; and (2) to record a legal description or geographical coordinates of the location of the collection. The district court concluded that the revised version of the statutes did not implicate protected speech, Plaintiffs appealed to the Tenth Circuit.

The Tenth Circuit found that Wyoming already prohibits trespass, thus the effect of the challenged provisions is to increase a pre-existing penalty for trespassing if an individual collects resource data from public lands. To determine if such provisions are subject to scrutiny under the First Amendment, the question is not whether trespassing is protected conduct, but whether the act of collecting resource data on public lands qualifies as protected speech.

The Circuit concluded that the Plaintiffs’ collection of resource data constitutes the protected creation of speech, as the Supreme Court has explained that the creation and dissemination of information are speech within the meaning of the First Amendment; however, the court did not discuss the level of scrutiny to be applied, as the district court did not conduct an analysis on this matter and, as a general rule, the court will not consider an issue not passed upon below.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals REVERSED the district court’s conclusion that the statutes are not entitled to First Amendment protection and REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.