October 18, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Social Workers Held to Have Qualified Immunity on Foster Child’s Special-Relationship Claims

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Dahn v. Amedei on Monday, August 14, 2017.

This case concerns an exception to the general rule that states are not liable for harm caused by private actors. This exception, called the special-relationship doctrine, makes a state or its agents liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for failing to protect people from harm if they have deprived those people of liberty and made them completely dependent on the state for their basic needs. In this case, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided whether the geographical reach of the special-relationship doctrine crosses state lines.

A foster child, James Dahn, sued two Colorado social workers responsible for investigating reports that he was being abused. Dahn had been in Oklahoma’s custody until, in 2008, a Colorado adoption agency (Adoption Alliance) placed him for adoption with a foster father, Jeremiah Lovato, in Colorado. The foster father physically abused Dahn before and after adopting him. Many reports of suspicious abuse were reported to employees of the Moffat County Department of Social Services, Audrey Amedei and Amanda Cramer. Amedei and Cramer responded to the reports from Dahn’s school regarding Dahn’s suspicious bruising and significant, twenty-eight-pound weight loss, by interviewing Dahn and speaking with Lovato, via telephone. The reports of abuse were then determined to be unfounded. After further reports of suspicious bruising, Cramer chose not to speak with Dahn or Lovato, but instead called Vicki little, an independent contractor hired by Adoption Alliance to act as Dahn’s caseworker. Little visited the home, only speaking with Dahn alone for a few minutes, and shrugged off the concerns, determining Dahn was doing well. After two more visits where Little failed to speak to Dahn alone, she recommended that Lovato be allowed to adopt Dahn.

In 2010, the physical abuse from Lovato had escalated to the point where Dahn had to protect himself by running away. Dahn was taken to the hospital, where it was discovered that Lovato had broken Dahn’s arm months earlier, there was still ongoing abuse resulting in bruising, internal injuries, and bleeding, as well as open lesions. Lovato was tried and convicted of criminal child abuse in Colorado and sentenced to 119 ½ years-to-life in prison.

In 2013, Dahn sued Adoption Alliance, Little, Tem (Little’s supervisor), Amedei, and Cramer for his injuries. Dahn alleged (1) all defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights, under a special-relationship theory; (2) all defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights, under a state-created-danger theory; and (3) that defendants Adoption Alliance, Tem, and Amedei failed to properly train and supervise their employees in evaluating, monitoring, and investigating the prospective adoptive placement for abuse, resulting in violations of Dahn’s Fourteenth Amendment substantive-due-process rights. Dahn also brought state-law claims for negligence and outrageous conduct against all defendants. The issue decided by the Circuit was whether the district court erred in concluding that Amedei and Cramer had a special relationship with Dahn, and whether the law on this issue was clearly established.

Due process claims built on the special-relationship doctrine have four elements. First, the plaintiff must demonstrate the existence of a special relationship, meaning that the plaintiff completely depended on the state to satisfy basic human needs. Second, the plaintiff must show that the defendant knew that the plaintiff was in danger or failed to exercise professional judgment regarding that danger. Third, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s conduct caused the plaintiff’s injuries. And, fourth, the defendant’s actions must shock the conscience. The question the Circuit decided was whether a foster child in the custody of one state can, after being placed by a private adoption agency with a foster father in a different state, establish a special custodial relationship with that second state when the second state takes on the duties to investigate evidence suggesting abuse.

The Tenth Circuit found that the law does not clearly extend constitutional liability under the special-relationship doctrine to employees of a state that did not deprive Dahn of his liberty or supply his basic needs, even though they were social workers in the county where he resided. Although the Circuit stated that Amedei and Cramer owed some duty to Dahn, as they investigated the suspected abuse but failed to take any action to remove Dahn from Lovato’s custody, the court found that Dahn had failed to show clearly established law that created a special-relationship between him, Amedei, and Cramer. This conclusion comes from a previous case which noted that the affirmative duty to protect arises not from the state’s knowledge of the individual’s predicament or from its expressions of intent to help him, but from the limitations which it has imposed on his freedom to act on his own behalf. Because the state had not deprived the child of his liberty, it did not have a custodial relationship with him that required the state to protect him from harm. The Circuit declined to address the other element of his claim, which is whether Amedei and Cramer acted in an unprofessional and conscience-shocking manner.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals REVERSED the district court’s order denying Amedei and Cramer’s motion to dismiss Dahn’s special-relationship claim against them, and REMANDED for further proceedings.

Colorado Supreme Court: 42 U.S.C. § 1988 Damages Not Properly Awarded Under Colorado Election Code

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Frazier v. Williams, Colorado Secretary of State on Monday, September 11, 2017.

Election Proceedings under C.R.S. § 1-1-113—42 U.S.C. § 1983—Supremacy Clause.

The Colorado Supreme Court held that claims brought under C.R.S. § 1-1-113 are limited to those alleging a breach or neglect of duty or other wrongful act under the Colorado Election Code. The language of C.R.S. § 1-1-113 limits claims that may be brought to those alleging a breach or neglect of duty or other wrongful act under “this code,” meaning the Colorado Election Code. The court emphasized that Colorado courts remain entirely open for adjudication of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012) claims, including on an expedited basis if a preliminary injunction is sought, and therefore C.R.S. § 1-1-113 does not run afoul of the Supremacy Clause. To the extent that Brown v. Davidson, 192 P.3d 415 (Colo. App. 2006), holds to the contrary, it is overruled.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: § 1983 Claim May Not Be Brought in Colorado Election Code Proceeding

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Williams, Colorado Secretary of State v. Libertarian Party of Colorado on Monday, September 11, 2017.

Election Proceedings under C.R.S. § 1-1-113—42 U.S.C. § 1983—Supremacy Clause.

As held in Frazier v. Willaims, 2017 CO 85, ___ P.3d ___, a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012) claim may not be brought in a proceeding under C.R.S. § 1-1-113.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: No Clearly Established Right to Use Inflammatory Language in Course Assignment Without Being Criticized or Pressured to Make Revisions

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Pompeo v. Board of Regents for the University of New Mexico on Tuesday, March 28, 2017.

Ms. Pompeo was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico (UNM). Ms. Pompeo filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against the Board of Regents of UNM, and Caroline Hinkley and Susan Dever in their individual capacities, for violation of her First Amendment rights. Ms. Pompeo submitted a paper that contained language relating to a politically charged topic. The Defendants met with the student on several occasions to assist the student in rewriting the paper to include citable authority and language consistent for an academic audience. Ms. Pompeo did not rewrite the paper and claimed she was banned from the class. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the individual defendants because they were entitled to qualified immunity. The UNM Board of Regents was immune under the Eleventh Amendment. Ms. Pompeo appealed.

The Tenth Circuit exercised jurisdiction under 29 U.S.C. 1291 and it reviewed the grant for summary judgment de novo.

The court evaluated the issue of whether the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, focusing on the whether “the right at issue was clearly established.” For a right to be clearly established, “in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness must be apparent.” Within the specific context of the case, the particular conduct is clearly established if “existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Further, “a court must assess whether the right was clearly established against a backdrop of the objective legal reasonableness of the actor’s conduct.”

The parties agree that the dispute involved “school-sponsored speech” that “a school affirmatively promotes, as opposed to speech that it tolerates.” Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” Reviewing courts give “substantial deference to educators’ stated pedagogical concerns.” “Courts may override an educator’s judgment where the proffered goal or methodology was a sham pretext for an impermissible ulterior motive.” The educator may “limit or grade speech in the classroom in the name of learning and not as a pretext for punishing the student for her race, gender, economic class, religion or political persuasion.” The court found that summary judgment was appropriate in this case because the defendants’ actions were justified as truly pedagogical.

Ms. Pompeo argued that the right is clearly established by precedent that “an instructor cannot restrict a student’s speech based on the instructor’s hostility to the viewpoint expressed in the speech and pretextual explanation for the legitimate reason for the restriction of speech will not pass constitutional muster.” The court rejected this argument. “Our jurisprudence “entrusts to educators these decisions that require judgments based on viewpoints.” Further, “clearly established law would not put defendants on notice that such conduct is unconstitutional.” Therefore, under Fleming educators are not prohibited from engaging in viewpoint discrimination.”

The court stated that the inquiry into whether the pedagogical concern not well established by case law. The inquiry is either objective or subjective. However, the Tenth Circuit did not refine the inquiry in this decision because it found that the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity under either standard. “The actions taken by Hinkley and Dever were sufficiently related to pedagogical goals that the claimed unconstitutional nature of their particular conduct was not clearly established.” Additionally, the pedagogical goals were legitimate. The defendants’ actions “encouraged critical analysis, to avoid unsupported generalizations, and maintain focus on assigned material rather than a student’s general opinions.”

The court AFFIRMED the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants.

Tenth Circuit: No Fourth Amendment Violation Where Person with Apparent Authority Consented to Search

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Patel v. Hall on March 1, 2017.

On April 20, 1011, Officers Bubla and Hall arrived at Mr. Austin’s auto-repair business pursuant to a call from Ms. Austin regarding suspicious activity by their landlord, Plaintiff Chetan Patel. The officers were informed that several cars that Plaintiff brought in were missing their Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Additionally, Mr. Austin told the officers that he suspected the VINs had been switched on certain vehicles.

The officers contacted the County Attorney’s Office after speaking with the Austins and were informed that the officers could permit the Austins to remove their belongings from the premises and seal the building pending a search warrant. The officers also photographed the trucks with missing or replaced VIN plates which Mr. Austin had pointed out to them. The officers sealed the building. The next morning, Mr. and Ms. Austin and their son submitted written statements to the police and swore to their truthfulness in front of a notary. The statements included instances where the Plaintiff told Mr. Austin he needed to remove Plaintiff’s vehicles off the premises “because they were starting to draw the state’s attention.”

Officer Hall was unable to immediately obtain a search warrant, as none of the judges in Big Horn County were available. Officer Hall contacted the County Attorney’s Office to inquire whether there was probable cause to arrest Plaintiff because Officer Hall believed Plaintiff might remove evidence from the premises. The County Attorney determined that there was probable cause to justify a warrantless arrest for felony VIN fraud. Plaintiff was arrested and the county court issued an arrest warrant the next day, along with a search warrant for the premises.

Pursuant to the search warrant, the officers discovered a syringe and white powder on a table in the premises. The officers left the building and obtained a new warrant to search for drugs as well as VIN plates inside the building. In total, the officers seized two loose VIN plates, a truck with switched VIN plates, a truck with a missing VIN plate, and an empty insurance envelope which was found laying on the floor with a claim number written on it. The officers also photographed several documents with VIN numbers written on them.

The charges against Plaintiff for felony VIN fraud were dismissed on October 4, 2011. In April 2014, Plaintiff filed the § 1983 complaint. Defendants argued they were entitled to qualified immunity. Plaintiff supplied an affidavit purportedly signed by Mr. Austin. Plaintiff’s two attorneys also submitted affidavits stating they met with Plaintiff and Mr. Austin when Mr. Austin allegedly made statements that differed from his original sworn police witness statement.

The district court granted summary judgment for Defendants and refused to consider the purported Mr. Austin affidavit. The district court also disregarded Plaintiff’s attorneys’ affidavits holding that the affidavits would make the attorneys material witnesses to the case in violation of Rule 3.7 of the Wyoming Rules of Professional Conduct.  The district court held that Plaintiff had not shown a constitutional violation relating to the search and seizure because (i) Mr. Austin consented to the initial search, (ii) the officers had probable cause to seize the shop while they obtained a search warrant, (iii) the subsequent search was conducted pursuant to a search warrant, and (iv) there was sufficient probable cause for Plaintiff’s arrest. The district court also rejected Plaintiff’s claim that the search was beyond the scope of the search warrant because Plaintiff had not shown the officer’s actions violated clearly established law. Finally, the district court dismissed Plaintiff’s state law claims with prejudice based on a procedural deficiency by Plaintiff and the state defense of qualified immunity.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Officer Hall on Plaintiff’s official-capacity claim. The claim requires evidence that the municipality “caused the harm through the execution of its own policy or customs or by those whose acts may fairly be said to represent official policy.” The police department at the time had no chief of police, and Officer Hall was the senior officer. The Tenth Circuit laid out the test to decide whether a government employee is a final policymaker whose actions can give rise to municipal liability. First, the employee must be constrained by policies not of his own making. Second, his decisions must be final. Finally, the policy decisions and actions must fall within the realm of the employee’s grant of authority.

The Tenth Circuit held that there was no evidence to indicate whether or not Officer Hall was meaningfully constrained by policies not of his own making, whether or not his decisions were final, or whether his actions fell within the realm of his grant of authority. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiff failed to satisfy the municipal liability test. Simply because Hall was “in charge” before the new chief took office was not enough. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on Plaintiff’s official-capacity claims.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed the claims against Defendants in their individual capacities. The Tenth Circuit held that because Defendants asserted qualified immunity, the burden shifted to Plaintiff to establish that the Defendants violated a constitutional right and that the right was clearly established at the time of the violation.

Plaintiff’s first claim was against Officers Hall and Bubla for violation of his Fourth Amendment right when they initially searched the shop without a warrant. The Tenth Circuit held that the search was conducted pursuant to consent. The Austins had actual or apparent authority to consent as both worked at the auto-repair business. Ms. Austin contacted police and both she and Mr. Austin were present when the officers were shown around the shop. Mr. Austin did not protest, and the Tenth Circuit held that this was non-verbal consent.

Next, Plaintiff argued that Officers Hall and Bubla violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they sealed the premises without a warrant or probable cause. The Tenth Circuit held that there was probable cause and therefore Plaintiff’s rights were not violated. Probable cause existed because of what the officers found during their initial search with the Austins, Plaintiff’s suspected criminal conduct, and what Mr. Austin had told the officers about his conversations with Plaintiff. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the officers were justified in sealing the building.

Third, Plaintiff argued that Hall violated his Fourth Amendment rights by arresting him without a warrant. The Tenth Circuit held that the arrest was valid because Hall had probable cause to believe Plaintiff was fraudulently altering VIN Plates. The Tenth Circuit held that the factors justifying the warrantless seizure of the building also supported Plaintiff’s arrest.

Fourth, Plaintiff argues that the warrants to search his shop and for his arrest were defective because they were “procured with reckless insufficient information.” The Tenth Circuit stated that there only needs to be a “substantial probability” that the suspect committed the crime before making an arrest. The Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiff’s evidence did not dispute that there was a substantial probability. Further because the prior search was lawful due to consent, the Tenth Circuit held that there was probable cause for a warrant to search the shop based on the initial findings.

Fifth, Plaintiff argued that the officers exceeded the scope of the search warrant. The Tenth Circuit held that the first two ways alleged by Plaintiff were not supported by evidence. The third allegation was that the officers exceeded the scope by seizing an envelope found on the ground of the shop. The Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiff met his burden of showing that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity on that issue. The warrant clearly specified what items were to be seized, and by seizing additional items, the officers acted unreasonably for Fourth Amendment purposes.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed the district court’s decision to disregard the affidavit purportedly signed by Mr. Austin and its holding that the attorneys’ affidavits were inadmissible based on Wyoming’s professional conduct lawyer-as-witness rule. The Tenth Circuit held that is did not need to consider whether the district courts holding was accurate because even if the information from Mr. Austin’s purported affidavit was considered, it would not have created a material dispute of fact to defeat the Defendant’s assertion of qualified immunity. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that any error by the district court regarding Mr. Austin’s affidavit was harmless.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court erred in dismissing Plaintiff’s state law claims with prejudice. Because the district court did not explain why the defendants were entitled to the state qualified immunity, the Tenth Circuit remanded the issue for further consideration by the district court.

In sum, the Tenth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment as to the seizure of the envelope, remanded for further proceedings on the state qualified immunity issue, and affirmed the district courts grant of summary judgment in favor of all Defendants on the remaining claims.

Tenth Circuit: Random Drug Test for County Employee Acceptable When Employee Holds Safety-Sensitive Position

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Washington v. Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kansas on February 6, 2017.

Roberick Washington was a lieutenant at the Wyandotte Country Juvenile Detention Center in Kansas City, Kansas. The position entailed Washington interacting with residents, conducting disciplinary hearings for residents, driving the County van to take juveniles to the intake assessment center, and being present if a fight broke out. Wyandotte County has a random drug testing policy that applies to employees in “safety sensitive positions.” The county’s Policy on Substance Abuse and Drug and Alcohol Testing lists Washington’s position, “juvenile lieutenant,” as a safety sensitive position. The policy states that a failed drug or alcohol test is grounds for discipline, including discharge.

Sheriff Donald Ash terminated Washington after he tested positive for cocaine following a random drug test. Pursuant to the Human Resource Guide, Washington Appealed Ash’s decision to the administrator of the Juvenile Detention Center. This grievance was denied, and Washington appealed to the County Administrator’s Office. After a hearing, an assistant county administrator upheld the termination. Washington claims that he sought an evidentiary hearing and a name-clearing hearing, but was denied both.

Washington alleged three violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, namely that the drug test was an illegal search in violation of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, he was deprived of his property interest in continued employment without due process, and defendants failed to provide him with a name-clearing hearing. Additionally, Washington claimed the county breached an implied contract created by its written disciplinary policies in violation of state contract law. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants on all counts.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Washington’s § 1983 claims. Municipalities are not protected by qualified immunity, so to grant summary judgment in favor or a municipality, the pleadings and supporting materials must establish there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A plaintiff must identify an unconstitutional policy that caused the claimed injury in order for a municipality to be liable under § 1983. A plaintiff must establish that the municipal employee causing the harm violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Washington’s claim that the county’s random drug test violated the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause and warrant requirements. Ordinarily, a search must be based on individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. However, when the government asserts a special need beyond ordinary crime detection, the Tenth Circuit has found suspicionless drug testing reasonable if the government’s interests outweigh the individual’s privacy interests. Courts have held that when drug use among the individuals tested would threaten the workplace or public safety, the government’s concerns are real. Additionally, courts have held that random drug tests are effective at detecting and deterring drug use.

The Tenth Circuit held that the county had a legitimate special need because the random drug tests to juvenile lieutenants ensured the safety and welfare of the children housed in the juvenile detention center. The juvenile lieutenant position involved interactions with residents, and drug use would impair his ability to interact with the youth. Additionally, the random testing minimized the possibility that employees would evade detection and maximized deterrence. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit found a legitimate special need for the random drug testing.

The Tenth Circuit then weighed the special need against Washington’s privacy interests to determine if the tests were reasonable. The Tenth Circuit held that as a correctional employee, Washington’s expectation of privacy was diminished. Additionally, the drug testing was minimally invasive, as Washington provided a sample behind a closed door with no supervision.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that the county presented two interests that were important enough to justify testing Washington. The first was that Washington was working with juveniles in an educational setting, and an employee’s illegal drug use presented a risk of harm to minors. Second, if an employee has law enforcement duties and access to direct contact with inmates, that employee’s illegal use of drugs presents a significant threat to inmates and the security of the facility. The Supreme Court has held that suspicionless drug testing of employees in certain safety sensitive positions was reasonable. In this case, the county’s policy lists “juvenile lieutenant” as a safety sensitive position. The Tenth Circuit held that this classification was reasonable to Washington’s position based on the duties that he performed. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that in this specific instance, the county’s interests were more important and outweighed Washington’s diminished privacy rights, and thus the random drug test was reasonable. Consequently, neither Sheriff Ash nor the county could be subject to § 1983 liability.

Next, the Tenth Circuit addressed Washington’s claim that the county’s personnel policies established he had a protected property interest in his continued employment at the Juvenile Detention Center. The Tenth Circuit stated a two-part inquiry to determine whether a plaintiff was denied procedural due process. First, the plaintiff must have a protected interest to which due process is applicable. The second inquiry is whether the plaintiff was afforded an appropriate level of due process.

Here, the Tenth Circuit looked to Kansas state law to determine if Washington had a protected property interest. The Tenth Circuit determined that Kansas law established that public employment is presumptively at-will, and that Washington did not provide evidence to rebut this presumption. The Tenth Circuit held that personnel policies alone were insufficient to create an implied employment contract. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on this claim.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for Washington’s claim that he was entitled to a name-clearing hearing because Washington’s pretrial order did not reference any damaged liberty interest.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit holds that because Washington failed to establish that there was an implied employment contract, the county was entitled to summary judgment on his breach of contract claim.

Tenth Circuit: Reasonable Person Would Not Have Felt Free to Leave When Stopped by Officers

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Hernandez on Thursday, February 9, 2017.

Phillip Hernandez was charged with one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C § 922(g)(1). The district court granted his motion to suppress the evidence, as it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unlawful seizure during his encounter with two police officers. The government appealed, claiming that the court should apply the subsequent decision in Utah v. Streiff, and arguing that the district court failed to properly apply the Spence factors to the seizure.

On October 20, 2014, two police officers observed Phillip Hernandez walking near a construction site in a known high crime area. The uniformed officers asked Hernandez if they could speak to him, and began asking him questions while driving along side him in their marked police car as Hernandez continued walking. The officers eventually asked Hernandez to stop so they could ask him additional questions. While questioning Hernandez, the officers discovered an active warrant against him and that Hernandez was in possession of a firearm. Hernandez filed a motion to suppress the firearm evidence, which the district court granted.

On appeal, the government asserted that the Supreme Court’s decision in Utah v. Streiff should apply to this case. In Streiff, the Supreme Court ruled that courts may admit illegally obtained evidence as long as the link between the evidence and the illegal method is sufficiently remote, in a case where the evidence in question was obtained by police officers who illegally stop someone and later discover an existing warrant against that person. The Tenth Circuit, however, rejected the application of the decision in Streiff, agreeing with Hernandez that the government had waived the right to present this argument as they had failed to assert it at the district court level.

The court next turned to the government’s argument that the lower court improperly applied the Spence factors to Hernandez’s encounter with the two officers because officers are free to approach individuals and question them. The court stated that the crucial test to determine if an unlawful seizure has occurred is if the officer’s conduct would lead a reasonable person under similar circumstances to believe they were not free to ignore the police presence and leave the situation. The court agreed with the district court’s application of the factors enumerated in United States v. Spence, stating that once the police officers asked Hernandez to stop, because there were two uniformed police officers in a police car at night without other witnesses present, a reasonable person would not have felt he could walk away.

Finally, the court addressed if the officers had reasonable suspicion to justify an investigative detention. In considering the reasonableness of the detention, the court looked at if there were “specific and articulable facts and rational inferences drawn from those facts” that gave the officers reasonable suspicion that Hernandez was involved in criminal activity. The court looked at the officer’s stated reasons for suspicion, including that Hernandez was walking near a construction site where there had been prior thefts, Hernandez was in a high crime area, Hernandez chose not to walk on the side of the street with a sidewalk, and Hernandez was dressed in all black clothing and carrying two backpacks. The court ultimately determined that, although the level of suspicion required for a Terry stop is less than that required for an arrest, the circumstances in this case did not rise to the requisite level for the officers to stop Hernandez.

Justice Briscoe dissented, stating that he believed the encounter between Hernandez and the officers was more along the lines of a consensual encounter and did not constitute an unlawful seizure considering the circumstances.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of a motion to suppress the evidence.

Tenth Circuit: Officers Reasonably Believed Use of Deadly Force was Necessary

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Carabajal v. City of Cheyenne, Wyoming on February 6, 2017.

This case arose out of an instance involving the Plaintiffs, Mathew Carabajal and his son, V.M.C., being pulled over by several officers, including Officer Thornton and Officer Sutton. On September 19, 2011, Mr. Carabajal was driving a vehicle containing his infant son, V.M.C., and two others. A police vehicle with its lights and sirens activated followed him, but he continued to drive for approximately six blocks, obeying the speed limit. After Mr. Carabajal pulled over, Officer Thornton, one of two officers who later arrived at the scene, stood in front of the vehicle, while a police vehicle was positioned behind Mr. Carabajal’s vehicle and two other vehicles were parked in front of Mr. Carabajal’s. Officer Thornton shouted at Mr. Carabajal, “Don’t start the car or I’ll shoot.” Mr. Carabajal’s vehicle began to move forward and, after three seconds, Officer Thornton fired two rounds from his shotgun at Mr. Carabajal, injuring him. The car then stopped and Officers Thornton and Sutton removed Mr. Carabajal from the vehicle. Mr. Carabajal fell to the ground and Officers Sutton and Thornton slowly dragged Mr. Carabajal out of the vehicle.

Plaintiffs sued the City of Cheyenne, Wyoming, its police department, and four officers, including Officers Thornton and Sutton, in their individual capacities. The district court dismissed V.M.C.’s claim that he was unlawfully seized when Officer Thornton shot into the vehicle he was an occupant in. The district court granted summary judgment on Mr. Carabajal’s excessive force claims, finding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The district court also held that the complaint did not plead a negligence claim against the City based on the alleged hiring of Officer Thornton, due to a lack of evidentiary support.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Mr. Carabajal’s challenge of the district court’s grant of qualified immunity on his excessive force claims. In this case, the events were captured on video, and the Tenth Circuit states that it relied on that evidence. The Tenth Circuit articulated the two-part analysis required when a defendant asserts qualified immunity. First, the plaintiff must allege facts to demonstrate that a violation of a constitutional right occurred. Second, if that demonstration is made, the court must determine whether the right at issue was “clearly established” at the time of the incident. The plaintiff must show both of these factors.

Mr. Carabajal alleged that Officers Thornton and Sutton violated his Fourth Amendment rights through the use of excessive force.  The Fourth Amendment protects individuals against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” A “seizure” must have occurred and the plaintiff must prove that is was “unreasonable.” Mr. Carabajal made two claims of excessive force.

Mr. Carabajal’s first excessive force claim regarded Officer Thornton’s shooting of Mr. Carabajal. The district court held that the use of force in this case was reasonable. The Tenth Circuit agreed. The Tenth Circuit cited the facts that Mr. Carabajal had eluded police for several blocks, was ordered not to start the vehicle, and that Mr. Carabajal appeared to deliberately drive his vehicle in Officer Thornton’s direction. Additionally, because of the positions of the three police vehicles, in those close quarters, the Tenth Circuit held that a reasonable officer could conclude that his life was in danger and employ deadly force to stop the vehicle. It was reasonable for Officer Thornton to have perceived that Mr. Carabajal’s driving was deliberate. Therefore, Officer Thornton’s conduct was reasonable.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that, even if Officer Thornton’s conduct was excessive under the Forth Amendment, it was not clearly established that his conduct was unlawful at the time of the shooting. The Tenth Circuit addresses a circuit split regarding the issue and a lack of Supreme Court precedent to hold that the unlawfulness of Officer Thornton’s conduct was not clearly established.

Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that qualified immunity was warranted regarding Mr. Carabajal’s first excessive force claim.

Mr. Carabajal’s second excessive force claim regarded Officers Thornton and Sutton’s removal of Mr. Carabajal from the vehicle after he was shot. The Tenth Circuit held that the video evidence revealed that the officers did not use an unreasonable amount of force, nor was it unreasonable to remove Mr. Carabajal from the vehicle under those circumstances. When Mr. Carabajal was removed, the officers were aware that he had been non-compliant with police instructions at least twice. Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit held that Mr. Carabajal did not demonstrate a violation of a constitutional right and that Officers Thornton and Sutton were entitled to qualified immunity regarding Mr. Carabajal’s second excessive force claim.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed V.M.C.’s claim that he was unlawfully seized by Officer Thornton when he shot into the vehicle that V.M.C. occupied. The Tenth Circuit held that even if V.M.C. did plead a plausible unreasonable seizure claim, Officer Thornton would have been entitled to qualified immunity because the law does not clearly establish whether firing a weapon into a car constitutes a Fourth Amendment seizure.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit addressed the district court’s dismissal of the Plaintiffs’ negligent hiring claim against the City. A plaintiff must show that the City was reckless or negligent in its employment of improper persons in work that posed a risk of harm to others, for the City to be liable. Here, the City engaged in an extensive investigation into Officer Thornton that demonstrated he qualified under Wyoming standards for employment as a police officer. The Plaintiffs presented no evidence that the City was on notice that Officer Thornton was likely to use unnecessary or excessive force against a member of the public. Thus, the Tenth Circuit held that the City owed no legal duty to protect Plaintiffs as they alleged.

Colorado Court of Appeals: 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is Not State Employers’ Liability Law

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in City of Lakewood v. Safety National Casualty Corp. on Thursday, March 9, 2017.

42 U.S.C. § 1983—Indemnification—Defense Costs—Insurance—Employer Liability Law.

A City of Lakewood (City) police officer was killed by friendly fire, and his widow filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the City and various fellow officers had violated the deceased officer’s rights under the U.S. Constitution. The City sought indemnification for its own defense costs and those of the officers named in the lawsuit, which the City has an independent statutory duty to cover. The insurance company, Safety National Casualty Corporation, denied coverage. The district court concluded that a § 1983 claim did not arise under an employer liability law of any state and granted summary judgment for the insurance company.

On appeal, the City contended that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the insurance company because the policy unambiguously covers all defense costs incurred by the City in connection with the § 1983 lawsuit. Specifically, the City argued that the § 1983 municipal liability claim must be covered by the employers’ liability portion of the policy because it is a claim based on work-related injuries that falls outside the ambit of the workers’ compensation laws. However, this overstates the scope of the coverage under the policy. By the policy’s plain terms, the common law claims must arise under the laws of Colorado or “other State(s).” Section 1983 is not a law of Colorado or any other state. Therefore, the City’s defense costs, which were sustained because of liability imposed as a result of the widow’s § 1983 claim, did not arise from a state workers’ compensation or employers’ liability law and were not covered by the policy.

Next, the City contended that it was entitled to reimbursement for amounts it paid to cover the fellow officers’ defense costs. The policy’s definition makes clear that the term “Employee” refers to the injured employee, not to an employee potentially responsible for the injury. “Loss” means payments by the City to the injured employee and the employee’s dependents. Therefore, the City’s indemnification payments to the officers named in the lawsuit do not qualify as losses under the policy and the City is not entitled to reimbursement from the insurance company.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Trustee’s Loss in Recall Election Did Not Arise from Town’s Misconduct

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Jones v. Samora on Thursday, December 30, 2016.

Summary Judgment—Identity of Persons Casting Votes—Colo. Const. Art. VII, § 8—Standing—§ 1983 Claim—Law of the Case—Issue Preclusion.

Residents of the Town of Center (Town) organized a recall election to oust the trustees, including Jones, from their positions. Voters either turned in mail ballots or voted in person. All of the ballots had numbered stubs and, based on these stubs, the town clerk, Samora, had a list that showed which voter had received which ballot. He used the list to ensure that each voter had voted only once. To ensure voter secrecy, the stubs were removed before they were tallied. These procedures were used for all in-person ballots that were cast. But the procedures were not followed at all times for the mail-in ballots. At some point, the election judges realized that they had not removed the stubs from some ballots, but decided to continue tallying the ballots before removing the stubs. Because they could see the identifying numbers on the stubs when tallying the votes, the judges could have determined the identity of the voters by consulting the voter list.

Jones and Citizen Center, a nonprofit, filed this lawsuit including five state law claims and a § 1983 claim. The state law claims were severed from the § 1983 claim. A bench trial was held on the state law claims. The court found that the procedural errors were unintentional, that no voter identity had been disclosed when tallying the ballots, and that the election was fundamentally untainted by any substantive intentional error of procedure. However, the court concluded that tallying the mail-in ballots had violated Article VII, § 8 of the Colorado Constitution. Even though no voter identities had been revealed, the opportunity to discover them had been available and this violated Colorado’s constitutional and statutory guarantee of a secret ballot. The court voided the results of the recall election and ordered the Town to hold a new recall election within 30 to 90 days.

The Town appealed. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated the recall election results, concluding that the stubs were on the ballots because a statute required them to be there; there was no violation of the Colorado Constitution; and the trial court erred in concluding that the election had been void.

The § 1983 claim was still at issue. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, both sides moved for summary judgment. The court granted the Town’s motion and denied plaintiffs’ motion.

On appeal, the Town asserted that plaintiffs did not have standing to file the case. As to the trustee, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that because the loss of the trustee’s position did not arise from the Town’s conduct, the trustee could not satisfy the injury requirement. In addition, because the trustee suffered no injury, he did not have third-party standing, and because he failed to allege his tax dollars were used in an unconstitutional manner, he did not have taxpayer standing.

Although the trustee lacked standing, the court found that Citizen Center had organizational standing because one or more of its members had voted in the recall election by mail-in ballot, and therefore their right to cast a secret ballot had allegedly been violated; the interests Citizen Center sought to protect were germane to its purpose; and the claim asserted and relief requested did not require that individual members of the organization participate in the case.

Regarding its summary judgment motion, the Town asserted that the law of the case barred Citizen Center’s claim. Here, the state law claims proceeding and the § 1983 proceeding were severed and were not the same case. In addition, the law of the case doctrine applies only to a court’s decisions of law, not to its resolution of factual questions. Whether the Town actually violated voter secrecy rights is a question of fact. Thus the law of the case doctrine does not apply.

The Town also asserted that issue preclusion barred Citizen Center’s claim. Issue preclusion bars relitigating factual matters that a court has previously litigated and decided. Here, the factual issue in the state proceeding was identical to the § 1983 factual issue: whether the mail-in voters’ secrecy rights were actually violated. Citizen Center was involved in the state claims case and that case ended in a final judgment. Citizen Center also had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the factual issue of whether the mail-in voters’ secrecy rights were violated. Therefore, issue preclusion barred Citizen Center from relitigating whether the mail-in voters’ secrecy rights were violated.

On the § 1983 claim, the court concluded that there was no genuine issue as to any material fact and the trial court properly granted the Town’s motion for summary judgment. Further, applying the issue preclusion doctrine, the election judges did not infringe on Citizen Center’s members rights, and the Town did not deprive those members of their constitutional rights.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Facts Existed to Support District Court’s Denial of Qualified Immunity

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Durkee v. Minor on Monday, November 14, 2016.

James Durkee was an inmate at the Summit County Corrections Center in Colorado. After being threatened by a notoriously violent inmate, Ricky Michael Ray Ramos, Durkee expressed concern about Ramos’ aggression and a deputy issued an incident report stating that Durkee and Ramos were not allowed to attend any programs together, be in the hallways together or in passing, or be in the booking area together. The report was signed by the jail staff, including Defendant Hochmuth. On December 28, 2012, Plaintiff Durkee was in the jail’s professional visitation room, when Ramos was escorted into the booking area by Hochmuth. Plaintiff saw both Defendant and Ramos, and Ramos saw plaintiff, but Hochmuth reported that he did not see plaintiff despite the large glass window between the rooms. When defendant removed Ramos’ shackles, he ran into the visitation room and attacked plaintiff, leaving him with severe facial fractures.

Plaintiff sued Hochmuth and the Summit County Sheriff, Defendant Minor, in their individual capacities under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his Eighth Amendment rights. Both defendants moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The district court denied summary judgment and the defendants appealed.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit evaluated whether the district court found facts sufficient to support plaintiff’s claim that the defendants violated clearly established law. The Tenth Circuit found that, as to Hochmuth, the plaintiff had to prove sufficient facts that the defendant knew of and disregarded a substantial risk to plaintiff. Hochmuth does not dispute that he knew Ramos posed a substantial risk of harm to plaintiff “generally,” but argued he did not know plaintiff was in the unlocked room adjacent to the booking room. The Tenth Circuit noted that the success of the defendant’s defense may turn on whether the jury finds his testimony credible that he did not see plaintiff in the next room.

As to Minor, the Tenth Circuit did not find facts sufficient to prove that in his individual capacity as the director of the jail he knew of and disregarded a substantial risk of harm to plaintiff. The Tenth Circuit found that plaintiff could not show Minor’s direct personal responsibility for the harm suffered by plaintiff. The Tenth Circuit could not find a policy dilemma, since unshackling inmates in the booking area had not been a problem for anyone prior to the incident with plaintiff.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings.

Tenth Circuit: Jurisdictional Time Limit Not Tolled When Rule 4(a)(4)(A) Requirements Not Met

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Williams v. Akers on Tuesday, September 20, 2016.

George Rouse hanged himself shortly after being booked into the Grady County Law Enforcement Center in Oklahoma. His mother, Regina Williams, brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, arguing the defendants knew he was suicidal but failed to inform jail staff of that fact. Defendants asserted qualified immunity and moved to dismiss Williams’ § 1983 claim. The district court denied the motion on October 8, 2014, concluding Williams’ complaint adequately alleged facts showing defendants’ violated Rouse’s clearly established Fourth Amendment rights.

Eight months later, defendants filed a motion to reconsider the district court’s denial of their motion to dismiss. The district court denied the motion on July 31, 2o15. Defendants then filed an appeal of the October 2014 motion with the Tenth Circuit. Noting the jurisdictional defect, the Tenth Circuit requested additional briefing from the parties on August 24, 2015. Defendants argued that because their notice of appeal was filed only four days after the district court denied their motion to reconsider, it was timely filed as to the October 2014 motion to dismiss.

The Tenth Circuit disagreed. The Tenth Circuit noted that Fed. R. App. P. 4(a)(4)(A)(vi) allows a party to enlarge the 30-day time limit for filing an appeal if that party timely files a Rule 60(b) motion, in which case the time limit is tolled until 30 days after the entry of the order disposing of the motion for reconsideration. The Tenth Circuit remarked that it appears that defendants believed they could enlarge the time for filing their notice of appeal from the October 2014 order by filing a motion for reconsideration. However, because the motion for reconsideration was not filed within Rule 4(a)(4)(A)’s mandated 30-day time limit, the notice of appeal was not timely.

The Tenth Circuit also addressed the defendants’ attempt to change the focus of the appeal after the Tenth Circuit requested additional briefing on jurisdiction. Although the Tenth Circuit could look to the notice of appeal, the docketing statement, and the request for the district court to stay proceedings as evidence of defendants’ intent, the Tenth Circuit found only an intent to appeal the October 2014 order, not the July 2015 order. Due to the untimeliness of the appeal from the October 2014 order, the Tenth Circuit lacked jurisdiction to consider the defendants’ arguments.

The Tenth Circuit dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.