October 20, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 10/2/2017

On Monday, October 2, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued one published opinion and one unpublished opinion.

United States v. Soberanis

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions.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

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.

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 9/29/2017

On Friday, September 29, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued no published opinion and two unpublished opinions.

United States v. Aman

Barnes v. Clark

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions.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

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 9/28/2017

On Thursday, September 28, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued one published opinion and one unpublished opinion.

Appleby v. Cline

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions.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

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 9/26/2017

On Tuesday, September 26, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued no published opinion and two unpublished opinions.

Chapman v. Lampert

Bird v. Wyoming Department of Corrections

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions.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

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 9/25/2017

On Monday, September 25, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued one published opinion and two unpublished opinions.

Miller v. Ford

United States v. Tinajero-Porras

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions.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

Tenth Circuit: EPA Exceeded Statutory Authority in Denying Small Refinery Exemption

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Sinclair Wyoming Refining Co. v. United States Environmental Protection Agnecy on Tuesday, August 15, 2017.

In 2005, in an amendment to the Clean Air Act (CAA), Congress directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to operate a Renewable Fuel Standards Program (the RFS Program) to increase oil refineries’ use of renewable fuels. However, if smaller refineries would suffer a disproportionate economic hardship in compliance with the RFS Program, the statute allows the EPA to grant exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

The program induces refineries to produce renewable fuel products (e.g., ethanol), and if they cannot, to purchase biofuel-generated credits from refineries that can. However, Congress was aware that the RFS Program might disproportionately impact small refineries because of the inherent scale advantages of larger refineries and, therefore, Congress created three classes of exemptions to protect these smaller refineries.

First, the statute exempted all small refineries from the RFS Program until 2011.

Second, Congress directed a study to be done to determine whether compliance with the RFS Program would impose disproportionate economic hardship on small refineries after the program’s implementation. After this study was conducted, it was found that Sinclair’s two refineries, among others, would suffer disproportionate economic hardship. The EPA then extended the blanket exemption for two more years.

Third, Congress provided a process for small refineries to petition the EPA at any time for an extension of the initial exemption for reason of disproportionate economic hardship. In evaluating the petitions, the EPA must consult with the Department of Energy (DOE) and consider other economic factors. It is this third exemption that is at issue in this case.

After successfully receiving a blanket exemption to the RFS Program until 2013, Sinclair then petitioned the EPA to extend their exemption. The EPA denied the petitions, finding that both refineries appeared to be profitable enough to pay the costs of the RFS Program. Sinclair filed a petition for review with the Tenth Circuit, which was granted.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed Sinclair’s petitions under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The APA finds agency action unlawful if it is in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations, in short of statutory right.

In order to decide if the EPA’s interpretation of the statute constitutes the force of law, the Circuit followed an analysis set forth in Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134 (1994). In the Skidmore case, the Court explained that the weight courts provide an administrative judgment will depend upon the thoroughness evident in the agency’s consideration, the validity of its reasoning, its consistency with earlier and later pronouncements, and all those factors which give it power to persuade, if lacking power to control.

The Circuit found that Congress did not authorize the EPA to promulgate regulations for the small refinery exemptions, the EPA conducted its interpretation via informal adjudication, the decisions were not made by the head of the EPA, but by a mid-level agency official, the decisions hold no precedential value for third parties, nor have any precedential value for even a refiner, and the EPA’s analysis is not a longstanding practice, but is only a few years old.

Thus, the Circuit concluded that Congress did not intend the EPA’s interpretation of “disproportionate economic hardship” to have the force of law. The Circuit then analyzed Congress’s grant of power to the EPA to administer the RFS Program, beginning with the statutory text.

Although Congress did not define the term “disproportionate economic hardship” in the statute, the provision makes clear that Congress provided the EPA with a comprehensive directive in analyzing and evaluating RFS Program exemptions. The Circuit then turned to whether the EPA’s decisions comport with Congress’s directive to grant exemptions when a small refinery demonstrates that complying with the RFS Program would cause it to suffer a disproportionate economic hardship.

Prior to considering a refinery’s petition for a hardship exemption, the EPA receives a recommendation on the petition from DOE. DOE created a scoring matrix for determining its recommendations for granting exemptions. The relevant part of DOE’s matrix assigns scores for three “viability” metrics: (1) whether the cost of compliance would reduce the profitability of the firm enough to impair future efficiency improvements; (2) whether individual special events have had a temporary negative impact on the ability of the refinery to comply; and (3) whether compliance costs are likely to lead to shutdown of the refinery.

Here, DOE applied its matrix and recommended the EPA provide a 50 percent waiver of the RFS Program’s requirements for both of Sinclair’s refineries. The EPA rejected DOE’s recommendations and denied both petitions.

The EPA concluded that “viability” meant only that program costs threatened the long-term survival of the refinery, not a short-term comparison to other industry actors. The Circuit held that the EPA’s long-term threat of closure requirement is inconsistent with the plain meaning of disproportionate economic hardship. The EPA takes the holistic evaluation required by Congress and morphs it into a single question: a threat of closure inquiry. This narrow viability evaluation is also not supported by contextual clues in the statutory scheme.

The Circuit concluded that by reading a necessary viability requirement into its statutory directive to evaluate a refinery’s petition for exemption from the RFS program based on disproportionate economic hardship, the EPA exceeded its statutory authority.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals GRANTED Sinclair’s petition for review, VACATED the EPA’s decisions for Sinclair’s refineries, and REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 9/22/2017

On Friday, September 22, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued no published opinion and six unpublished opinions.

Suarez v. Anthem, Inc.

Muhtorov v. Choate

Duran-Quintanilla v. Sessions

United States v. Devries

Allen v. People

United States v. Freeman

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

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 9/21/2017

On Thursday, September 21, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued three published opinions and two unpublished opinions.

Cunningham v. Federal Bureau of Prisons

Greene v. Logisticare Solutions, Inc.

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

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 9/20/2017

On Wednesday, September 20, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued no published opinion and two unpublished opinions.

Church Mutual Insurance Co. v. Salt Lake City Laumalie Ma’oni’oni Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga

Laratta v. Foster

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

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 9/19/2017

On Tuesday, September 19, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued one published opinion and six unpublished opinions.

Thundathil v. Sessions

Casalina v. Perry

Schupper v. Cafasso

Brown v. LaFerry’s LP Gas Co., Inc.

Sutton v. Van Leeuwen

United States v. Miles

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

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 9/18/2017

On Monday, September 18, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued two published opinions and one unpublished opinion.

Rivera v. Internal Revenue Service

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