May 23, 2018

Tenth Circuit: Defendant Did Not Establish Significant Nexus Between Potential Alternative Perpetrators and Crimes

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Meisel on Tuesday, November 14, 2017.

In 2014, Detective Wright saw a user on the Ares file-sharing network offering child pornography. After identifying the IP address, Wright obtained a search warrant for a home Meisel shared with Thomas. Meisel’s personal computer was found to have child pornography on the external hard drive, with some pictures added just three days prior to the execution of the warrant. Meisel attributed the child porn to his son, W.R., who lived in the home previously. During the investigation, however, there was evidence of the child porn being viewed frequently after W.R. moved out of the home. Meisel continued to assert there was a sufficient nexus between three individuals, J.H., S.H., and W.R., and the child pornography. On appeal, Meisel asserted the district court (1) violated his right to present a complete defense by preventing him from presenting alternative perpetrator evidence; and (2) erred in denying his request to instruct the jury on “identity.”

As for the argument of J.H., Meisel asserted that J.H., Thomas’s caregiver, had unfettered access to the computer and external hard drive at times Meisel was absent from the home. Meisel asserts that the computer was logged into and child pornography was downloaded at times that Meisel was not at the home. Further, Meisel contends that J.H. has a high level of technical knowledge.

S.H. is J.H.’s brother, and Meisel contends that S.H. would often visit the home when the computer was accessible and that S.H. previously lived at the home and knew the wifi password.

W.R., Meisel’s son, lived at the home previously, and Meisel argue that he found W.R. accessing child pornography sites on his computer.

The district court determined that Meisel had not proffered sufficient evidence to establish the necessary nexus between any of the proposed perpetrators and the crimes with which Meisel was charged.

Meisel argued that the district court did not allow him to utilize the term “alternate perpetrator” in presenting his case to the jury. The question was whether the evidence was sufficient to allow Meisel to argue that a particular person was the one who placed the child pornography on his hard drive. The Tenth Circuit found that the district court did an appropriate balancing of evidence in finding that Meisel did not satisfy requirements for arguing that anyone else was responsible for downloading the child pornography.

The Supreme Court has noted that special considerations arise when a court is faced with a defense theory of an alternative perpetrator: “Evidence tending to show the commission by another person of the crime charged may be introduced by accused when it is inconsistent with, and raises a reasonable doubt of, his own guilt; but frequently matters offered in evidence for this purpose are so remote and lack such connection with the crime that they are excluded.”

The Tenth Circuit reexamined the three potential perpetrators Meisel provided. The information on S.H. was not admitted into evidence, as mere proximity and potential access are not sufficient to argue an alternative perpetrator to a crime. Further, the evidence implicating W.R. as the actual perpetrator set out a speculative and remote outcome. And at most, the evidence at trial demonstrated that W.R. used Meisel’s computer; however, there was no evidence indicating that W.R. was anywhere near Meisel’s computer for at least one year before the events at issue. J.H., however, seemed to be a viable alternative perpetrator for these crimes, as J.H. was present in the home four days a week and was present while Thomas slept during the day. Further, child pornography was downloaded on a day Meisel was possibly absent from the home, but J.H. was there. However, the theory that J.H. was responsible for the child pornography was presented to, and rejected by, the jury.

The Tenth Circuit found that the evidence of Meisel’s guilt was, contrary to protest, overwhelming. Unrebutted and unexplained forensic evidence demonstrated that Meisel’s assertion that he was unaware of the child pornography was implausible. Instead, the evidence overwhelmingly proved that after Thomas found child pornography on Meisel’s computer, Meisel took extraordinary efforts to limit access to his computer. For that very reason, Meisel stated during his interview that if child pornography was found on the computer, he was the responsible party. Although Meisel attempted to explain away that statement at trial with the theory he was only accepting ultimate responsibility for the computer, the Tenth Circuit found the evidence to the contrary to be overwhelming.

Lastly, Meisel asserted the district court refused to give his proffered identity instruction to the jury. The Tenth Circuit found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the existing jury instructions made it clear to the jury that Meisel was legally responsible for the charges if he personally and knowingly possessed and distributed the child pornography found on his computer. The Tenth Circuit found that the district court’s jury instructions were not erroneous or inadequate as given.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals AFFIRMED the district court’s conviction.

Tenth Circuit: Petitioner Ineligible for Cancellation of Removal After Theft Convictions

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals Issued its opinion in Lucio-Rayos v. Sessions on Tuesday, November 14, 2017.

The issue presented in this case was whether petitioner Lucio-Rayos’s municipal theft conviction qualified as a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT). If so, it would make him ineligible for cancellation of removal. Lucio-Rayos is a citizen of Mexico who entered the United States without authorization. Although he conceded that he was subject to removal, he sought discretionary relief in the form of cancellation of removal.

Lucio-Rayos first contended that the immigration judge erred in refusing to recuse from his case because the immigration judge’s spouse works with the Denver Immigration and Customs Enforcement office that initiated this removal proceeding. The Tenth Circuit rejected this argument.

In order to prevail on this argument, Lucio-Rayos had to establish that he was deprived of due process and that the deprivation prejudiced him. Lucio-Rayos presented extrajudicial-influence and inherent-bias arguments relying on law that requires a federal judge to recuse in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned. However, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office had a plan in place to ensure that the immigration judge’s spouse had no involvement in the case. Further, there is no evidence suggesting that the immigration judge’s spouse played any role in Lucio-Rayos’ removal proceedings. The immigration judge’s spouse was not a party, officer, director, or trustee of a party in this matter.

In addition, Lucio-Rayos has not shown that he was prejudiced by the immigration judge’s refusal to recuse; that is, Lucio-Rayos has not shown that his rights were violated in a manner so as potentially to affect the outcome of the proceedings.

Next, the Tenth Circuit concluded that Lucio-Rayos is ineligible for cancellation of removal. To be eligible for cancellation of removal, Lucio-Rayos had to meet four requirements. The only one at issue was whether Lucio-Rayos’s conviction for theft is a CIMT.

The Tenth Circuit applied the categorical approach by comparing the elements of Lucio-Rayos’s offense to the definition of CIMT, which refers to conduct which is inherently base, vile, or depraved, contrary to the accepted rules of morality, and conduct that is inherently wrong, rather than conduct deemed wrong only because of a statutory proscription. The lower court found that a conviction like Lucio-Rayos’s qualifies as a CIMT only if one element of the offense is that the perpetrator intended to deprive the victim permanently of his property. The Tenth Circuit found, however, that not all convictions under the applicable theft provision require proof that the defendant intended to deprive the victim of his property permanently. The applicable code was found to be divisible.

The Tenth Circuit found that the undocumented alien bears the burden of proof to show that his conviction was not a CIMT. The Tenth Circuit held that, because it was unclear from Lucio-Rayos’s record whether he committed a CIMT, he did not prove eligibility for cancellation of removal.

Lastly, Lucio-Rayos contended that if his conviction was a CIMT, he nevertheless met an exception to ineligibility available for petty offenses. However, the Tenth Circuit held that in this situation, the petty offense exception did not prevent an immigrant’s CIMT conviction from disqualifying him from eligibility for discretionary cancellation of removal.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals DENIED Lucio-Rayos’s petition for review and found he was not eligible for cancellation of removal.

Tenth Circuit: Defendants Found Liable for ATV Protest Ride on Recapture Canyon in Utah

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Wells on Monday, October 23, 2017.

In 2007, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) closed part of Recapture Canyon in Utah to all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) due to potential damage to the soil and archaeological sites. Although this was intended to be temporary, the order was still in place in 2014. Upset at the delay in reopening, County Commissioner Lyman organized a protest ride on ATVs into the closed portion of the Canyon. Wells, who ran a website that reported on local news, assisted and interviewed Lyman, while also encouraging others to the protest. Despite warnings from the BLM that criminal and civil penalties would be enforced against anyone riding ATVs in the closed portion of the Canyon, the ride took place in May of 2014. There is undisputed evidence that both Lyman and Wells rode ATVs in the protest.

At trial, Lyman and Wells were found guilty for riding ATVs on the closed lands and with conspiracy to do the same. On appeal, Defendants seek a new trial, arguing that a reasonable observer would have questioned the district judge’s impartiality. Although the judge did ultimately recuse before sentencing, Defendants contend he should have recused earlier. Further, they challenge the denial of their motions to dismiss the criminal information, the denial of a new trial, and their restitution order. Lyman separately argues that he was deprived of effective assistance of counsel. The Tenth Circuit addressed each claim in turn.

The first argument was that the district court judge, Judge Shelby, should have recused earlier in the trial. Judge Shelby is close friends with the legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), an organization that was opposed to the protest ride. The ultimate recusal was based largely on a letter to the judge signed by SUWA and other conservative groups that expressed views adverse to Defendants, as well as evidence that showed SUWA had extensive pretrial involvement with the case in passing information to BLM officials and the United States Attorney’s Office.

Defendants argued for a new trial, contending that Judge Shelby ought to have recused from participation in the trial because a reasonable observer would have questioned his impartiality, as Judge Shelby should have been alerted to SUWA’s involvement by their legal director’s presence at trial and by a voir dire question asking potential jurors if close friends or family members were in SUWA.

The Tenth Circuit found that the argument for a new trial failed on the merits. The Circuit reviewed Judge Shelby’s decision not to recuse early in the trial for an abuse of discretion and found that the decision not to recuse could not be characterized as arbitrary or manifestly unreasonable. The Tenth Circuit concluded that recusal was not required where SUWA was not a party to the criminal prosecution, and, further, there was no evidence that Judge Shelby should have known about SUWA’s pretrial involvement. As Judge Shelby did not err in failing to recuse, Defendant were not entitled to a new trial.

The Defendants next challenged the denial of their motions to dismiss. Wells claimed that he could not be prosecuted for his activities because they consisted of protected speech under the First Amendment. To determine whether Wells’ conduct was protected, the Tenth Circuit inquired as to whether there was a realistic or reasonable likelihood of prosecutorial conduct that would not have occurred but for the hostility toward the defendant because he exercised his specific legal rights.

Wells argued that the prosecution’s hostility became evident when showings were made that SUWA had pushed for prosecution of the Canyon riders and that they regularly passed Wells’ social media posting on to prosecutors. However, the Tenth Circuit found that Wells did not present any evidence of prosecutorial hostility toward Wells’ exercise of his First Amendment rights. SUWA was simply interest in protecting the Canyon, not in limiting Wells’ First Amendment rights. The Circuit held that Wells failed to establish the requisite vindictiveness from the prosecution.

Lyman argued that the district court erred in denying his motion to dismiss when the government failed to allege interdependence, a required element of conspiracy. The Circuit applied a two-part test to determine the sufficiency of an indictment: First, the indictment must contain the elements of the offense and sufficiently apprise the defendant of what he must be prepared to meet; second, it must be such as to show to what extent he may plead a former acquittal or conviction as a bar to further prosecution for the same cause. The Tenth Circuit found that Lyman’s argument implicated only the first prong of this test. Further, Lyman and Wells worked together for their mutual benefit in the context of their conspiracy to ride ATVs on the Canyon in protest. The Tenth Circuit found that Lyman’s motion to dismiss argument failed.

Next, Wells argued that the government failed to introduce sufficient evidence that he was acting as a co-conspirator rather than a journalist. The Tenth Circuit inquired whether the evidence would establish each element of the crime of conspiracy, to wit: (1) an agreement, (2) to break the law, (3) an overt act, (4) in furtherance of the conspiracy’s object, and (5) proof that the defendant willfully entered the conspiracy. The Circuit found that the evidence presented by the government was sufficient for a jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Wells acted not merely as a journalist reporting on issues, but as a co-conspirator who agreed with Lyman to ride on the closed lands. More specifically, Wells reposted Lyman’s advertisements of the protest ride while adding flourishes of his own that suggest active support for, and agreement with, the planned ride.

Defendants next contested the district court’s denial of their motion for a new trial based on the post-trial discovery of a map which allegedly showed a right-of-way that the government failed to disclose before trial. Defendants argued that (1) the map would have permitted them to establish the existence of a right-of-way to negate the legality of the closure order on the Canyon, and (2) they should have been able to present the map as evidence relevant to their good-faith defense, since violation of the laws at hand require that the defendant act knowingly and willfully. The government argued that no violation occurred because the map in question was not material.

The Circuit found that the materiality of the map was at issue in this appeal. Materiality requires a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different had the evidence been disclosed. The Tenth Circuit concluded that the map could not have been material for purposes of the Defendants’ good-faith defense, and, as the district court pointed out, the map could not be relevant because the Defendants were unaware of the map at the time of the ATV ride. A mere suspicion that a right-of-way existed is not an honest belief that the road was not legally closed to ATV use. The Tenth Circuit found that the Defendants could not establish that the map would have been material to their good-faith defense. Further, the map failed to create a reasonable probability of a different outcome so as to cast doubt on Defendants’ convictions. The Circuit held that the district court properly denied Defendants’ motion for a new trial.

Wells next challenged the restitution order holding him jointly and severally responsible with Lyman for $48,000. Wells challenged that it included: (1) harms that were not recoverable as restitution because they were not caused by the conspiracy and its underlying conduct, and (2) amounts that were not legally cognizable as actual loss or supported by the evidence. Lyman made a similar argument. Under the Mandatory Victims Restitutions Act (MVRA), courts are required to order a defendant to pay restitution to a victim of the offense. No party disputed that the United States constituted a victim under the MVRA; however, the question was for which alleged harms could the United States properly recover restitution. The government was required to show both that the defendant’s conduct was the ‘but-for’ cause of the harm and that the defendant proximately caused the harm.

The government’s principal contention was that the conspiracy and its underlying conduct was the but-for cause of the motorized damage to archeological, riparian, and upland soil resources in the closed area. The Tenth Circuit concluded that the government presented ample evidence to find by a preponderance of the evidence that the government’s contention was correct. The district court did not err in ruling that Defendants were responsible for paying restitution to the United States for damages stemming directly and proximately from Defendants’ unlawful conspiracy to conduct a protest ride.

Next, Defendants challenged three aspects of the total amount of restitution ordered: (1) that the amount spent assessing the damage caused by the ATV ride was disallowed, speculative archeological expenses; (2) that the assessment costs were not incurred during participation in the investigation or prosecution of the offense; and (3) that at least some of the claimed amount was supported by estimates, not concrete figures. The Tenth Circuit first found that the government’s requested damages did not constitute speculative, archaeological damages. The archaeological value is an effort to go back in time before the violation occurred and estimate what it would have cost the United States to engage in a full-blown archaeological dig at the site, notwithstanding the fact that the United States had no plans to engage in any such effort. The Circuit held that the assessment that took place was detailed and anything but hypothetical.

Second, the MVRA provides that a victim must be reimbursed for expenses incurred during participation in the investigation or prosecution of the defense. The Tenth Circuit rejected Defendants’ assertion that the expenses were not incurred during the government’s participation in the investigation or prosecution of the offense, as the court has specifically recognized that the government’s investigatory costs can constitute actual losses subject to restitution.

Third, the Circuit concluded that the third argument was based on a mistaken view of the record. The government did not admit that its damages were not hard numbers. In context, the prosecutor was attempting to explain why restitution figures from an earlier case could not be considered as a basis for comparison in the present case. The Circuit found Defendants’ final argument misguided and spurious. The district court’s restitution award was upheld.

The last argument by Lyman was ineffective assistance of counsel. The Tenth Circuit found that ineffective assistance of counsel claims should be brought in collateral proceedings, not on direct appeal. Such claims brought on direct appeal are presumptively dismissible, and virtually all will be dismissed. As Lyman made no attempt to argue that his claim should be addressed on direct appeal, the Tenth Circuit saw no reason to reach its merits.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals AFFIRMED the district court’s judgment and restitution order.

Tenth Circuit: Failure to Brief on Alternative Bases for Summary Judgment Amounts to Concession of the Proof

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Digital Ally, Inc. v. Utility Associates, Inc. on February 16, 2018.

Utility Associates, Inc. (Utility), owns U.S. Patent No. 6,381,556 (the ’556 patent). Utility purchased the patent and other assets in January 2013 from a supplier of in-car mobile surveillance systems. Utility believed that the ’556 patent was potentially valuable and covered existing systems already in commerce. After the purchase was complete, Utility sent letters to potential customers (who were at that time customers of competitors), including Digital Ally, Inc. (Digital Ally), regarding the consequences of purchasing unlicensed and infringing systems; urging instead that customers purchase systems from Utility because it was now the rightful owner of the ’556 patent.

Upon receipt of the letter from Utility, Digital Ally filed a petition for inter partes review with the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) in May 2103 to determine the validity of all claims on the ’556 patent. The PTAB determined that claims 1-7, 9, 10, and 12-25 were unpatentable, and that Claim 11 was not shown to be unpatentable; Claim 8 was not reviewed. In October 2013, Digital Ally sought a declaratory judgment of non-infringement in Kansas federal district court, but the suit was dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction over Utility. The following year, Digital Ally filed this suit containing nine counts against Utility, including monopolization, false advertising, tortious interference, bad faith, assertion of patent infringement, defamation and product disparagement, and trade secret misappropriation. The district court granted Utility’s motion for summary judgment on all nine counts and denied Digital Ally’s motion of partial summary judgment.

Digital Ally appeals only from the grant of summary judgment on counts I-IV, focusing on bad faith, while Utility contends that Digital Ally’s brief fails to address the alternative bases for summary judgment as to Counts 1-IV. The failure to do so amounts to a concession of the proof.

Regarding Count I, the elements of a monopoly claim under 15 U.S.C. § 2 include “(1) monopoly power in the relevant market; (2) willful acquisition or maintenance of this power through exclusionary conduct; and (3) harm to competition.” Because Digital Ally did not address in its opening brief the district court’s decision that it did not prove a relevant market and market power, it has conceded the lack of proof on these elements and the district court’s decision must be affirmed.

With regards to Count II, bad faith assertion of patent infringement under Ga. Code Ann. § 10-1-771, Digital Ally did not adequately address the district court’s decision that Utility’s letters were not demand letters and that Digital Ally was not injured by the letters. The district court stated that the letters “merely suggest that recipients consider investigating whether products they are purchasing fall under the claims of the patent, and that if so, recipients investigate whether their supplier is licensed or needs to be,” and Digital Ally’s brief fails to adequately address this argument. The district court also concluded that the “plaintiff provided insufficient evidence that plaintiff was injured by those statements” and ruled Mr. Heckman’s testimony inadmissible to prove injury. On appeal, Digital Ally argues the testimony was admissible, but the Tenth Circuit could not determine whether the admissibility arguments concern the injury or demand letter requirement. Under Rule 28(a)(8)(A), which requires appellants to clearly state what part of the district court’s decision they are appealing, Digital Ally’s inadequate briefing has waived any argument on the injury element of its claim, in addition to whether the letters constitute demand letters. Thus, Digital Ally’s cannot prove its claim.

Finally, to state a false advertising claim under § 43(a) of the Lanham Act on Counts III and IV, Digital Ally was required to establish: (1) the defendant made material false or misleading representations of fact in connection with commercial advertising or promotion of its product; (2) in commerce; (3) that are either likely to cause confusion or mistake as to (a) the origin, association or approval of the product with or by another, or (b) the characteristics of the goods or services; and (4) injure the plaintiff. Digital Ally did not adequately address the district court’s holding that the claim failed because the statements in Utility’s were not false, but rather were made as a promotional strategy that included some puffery. Thus, Digital Ally has also waived this argument and conceded summary judgment on Counts II and IV.

The Tenth Circuit AFFIRMED the district court’s opinion.

Tenth Circuit: District Court Erred in Excluding Evidence That has the Necessary Effect of a Dismissal

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in HCG Platinum, LLC v. Prederred Product Placement Co. on Tuesday, October 17, 2017.

HCG Platinum, LLC (HCG) and Preferred Product Placement Corporation (PPPC) entered into a marketing and non-circumvention agreement, where PPPC agreed to place HCG products into specified retailers in exchange for a percentage of the proceeds, PPPC would disclose details of negotiations and projects with other business associates, and HCG would be prevented from interfering with PPPC’s agreements with any third-parties. The following year, HCG filed a breach of contract action against PPPC, alleging that PPPC breached the agreement by failing to execute a sales agreement with certain retailers. PPPC filed a counterclaim alleging that HCG breached the agreement by failing to pay outstanding commissions and by interfering with PPPC’s third-party relationships. The damages PPPC put forth were void of evidential support or significant written explanation.

HCG then moved to preclude PPPC from presenting any evidence of damages under the agreement. HCG argued that PPPC’s initial disclosures described projections that would be inadmissible without expert testimony and PPPC should not be able to put on any evidence of damages.

The district court stated that PPPC’s failure to supplement the damages aspect of its initial disclosures meant that PPPC could not introduce evidence of damages unless its discovery deficiency proved harmless or substantially justified. The district court then described an established “four factor test” regarding: (1) the prejudice or surprise to the party against whom the damages evidence would be offered, which is HCG; (2) HCG’s ability to cure that prejudice; (3) the extent to which the introduction of new damages evidence would disrupt the trial; and (4) whether bad faith or willfulness motivated PPPC’s discovery failures.

The district court addressed the fourth factor and found no support for a finding of bad faith. The district court then focused on prejudice and harmlessness and allowed arguments from both parties for the right way to think about the issue. HCG argued that the law compelled exclusion due to PPPC’s failure to disclose precise quantifications of damages, as well as claiming that the prejudice proved incurable and disruptive because reopening discovery and reviewing new documents would be burdensome and expensive. PPPC emphasized that its conduct caused only slight prejudice, which could be easily remedied through limited additional discovery.

The district court concluded that PPPC could not proceed to trial and entered a judgement in favor of HCG. PPPC appealed. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the district court’s decision.

The Tenth Circuit concluded that the district court abused its discretion by imposing a discovery sanction that barred PPPC from pursing its counterclaims. The court  based this conclusion on the fact that the district court misapplied the four-factor test described above, and found that the record reflected that the district court reached an arbitrary outcome that overlooked all but the last factor of the test.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment in favor of HCG on PPPC’s counterclaims and remanded to allow the district court to reevaluate the exclusion of PPPC’s damages evidence under the four factor test.

The Tenth Circuit also mentioned that district courts should consider the effectiveness of lesser sanctions, where the exclusion of evidence has the necessary force and effect of a dismissal. There are three reasons for this. First is that dismissal constitutes an extreme sanction that typically is appropriate only in cases of bad faith or willful misconduct. Second, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure expressly empower the district courts to impose sanctions short of exclusion. And third is the notion that district courts should consider the appropriateness of lesser sanctions, where their discovery rulings have the effect of dismissal, which is in accord with the decisions of other circuits.

The Tenth Circuit held that where the exclusion of evidence has the necessary effect of a dismissal, as in this case, the district courts should, in conjunction with the traditional four factor test, consider the efficacy of less drastic alternatives, reserving the sanction of dismissal for cases involving bad faith or willfulness or instances where less severe sanctions would prove futile.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals REVERSED the district court’s judgment in favor of HCG and REMANDED with instructions that the district court reevaluate the exclusion of PPPC’s damage evidence.

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.