January 16, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: CGIA Bars Father’s Claims that City Breached a Duty of Care to Prevent Son’s Death

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in L.J. v. Carracito on Thursday, January 11, 2018.

Wrongful Death—Child Protection Act of 1987—Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Police Officer—Failure to Report Child Abuse—Public Entity—Vicarious Liability—Tort—Willful and Wanton—Exemplary Damages.

D.J.M., age 2, died after suffering a beating by his mother’s boyfriend. D.J.M.’s father brought an action against the City of Colorado Springs (City) and Officer Carricato, individually and in his capacity as an officer with the City of Colorado Springs Police Department, for failing to report child abuse that father complained about to them multiple times. The complaint alleged violation of the Child Protection Act of 1987 (CPA); negligence (wrongful death) by the City and Officer Carricato; negligence per se by the City and Officer Carricato; violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by the City and Officer Carricato; vicarious liability against the City; and an entitlement to exemplary damages under C.R.S. § 24-10-118(1)(c) against Officer Carricato. The district court determined that while the negligence claims for wrongful death and negligence per se were barred by the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA), the claim for violation of the CPA was not barred because it was not a claim based in tort. The district court allowed the claim for vicarious liability to stand insofar as it related to the violation of the CPA and found, without conducting a hearing under Trinity Broadcasting of Denver, Inc. v. City of Westminster, that the complaint alleged a sufficient factual basis to support a claim of willful and wanton behavior.

On appeal, the City and Officer Carricato argued that the district court erred because the CGIA bars the claim for violation of the CPA and father’s complaint does not allege specific facts sufficient to support a finding that Officer Carricato’s conduct was willful and wanton. The City is undisputedly a “public entity.” The exceptions to sovereign immunity are not applicable here because (1) the enumerated statutory exceptions are not at issue; (2) the CPA does not fit within any of the statutory exceptions; and (3) father is not requesting equitable, remedial, or non-compensatory remedies. Here, the essence of father’s claim is that the City breached a duty of care owed to D.J.M., which caused his death. Because father’s claim lies or could lie in tort, the CGIA bars the claim against the City for alleged violation of the CPA. Thus, the district court improperly denied that part of the motion to dismiss. Similarly, the vicarious liability claims are claims that lie in tort or could lie in tort and are thus barred by the CGIA.

Furthermore, public employees are immune from liability for tort claims unless their act or omission was willful and wanton. The district court must determine whether the conduct was in fact willful or wanton. Here, the district court failed to hold a Trinity hearing on this issue.

Finally, Officer Carricato argued that the claim for exemplary damages cannot stand because it was improperly pleaded and that exemplary damages cannot be awarded against a police officer. The CGIA allows a claim for exemplary damages against public employees only if their conduct was willful and wanton. The claim for exemplary damages against the police officer was prematurely pled.

The portions of the judgment on the claims against the City, the vicarious liability claim, and the exemplary damages claim were reversed. The portion of the judgment relating to the claims against Officer Carricato was remanded.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Brand Inspection Division is Entitled to Eleventh Amendment Immunity

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

This case stemmed from a battle between Ms. Colby and her mother over the ownership of a horse. The mother complained to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which sent someone from the Brand Inspection Division (Division) to investigate the situation. After investigating, the inspector seized the horse. Ms. Colby and her mother settled the ownership dispute in court and after three years, Ms. Colby prevailed and received the horse back. Ms. Colby and her husband then sued the Division and two of its officers. The district court dismissed the action.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed the Division as a defendant in the suit. It held that the Division was entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity as an arm of the state and therefore could not be sued in federal court. Further, the Tenth Circuit held that because the Division was an arm of the state entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, the Colbys could not sue the two officers in their official capacity.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed the Eleventh Amendment immunity issue de novo. The Eleventh Amendment extends to governmental entities that are considered arms of the state. When determining if the Division was an arm of the state, the Tenth Circuit laid out five factors that it considered: (1) how the Division is characterized under Colorado law; (2) how much guidance and control the state of Colorado exercises over the Division; (3) how much funding the Division receives from the State; (4) whether the Division enjoys the ability to issue bonds and levy taxes; and (5) whether the state of Colorado bears legal liability to pay judgments against the Division.

The Tenth Circuit held that the first factor weighed in favor of regarding the Division as an arm of the state. This was due to the fact that Colorado law treats the Division as part of the state government. Additionally, the Division participates in state government as a state agency and the agency’s inspectors are Colorado law enforcement officers with the power to make arrests for violations of state law.

The Tenth Circuit held that the second factor also weighed in favor of regarding the Division as an arm of the state. This was because the Division is considered part of the state Department of Agriculture and is therefore subject to control by state officials.

With regard to the third factor, the Division is entirely self-funded. Additionally, with regard to the fourth factor, the State Board of Stock Commissioners is entitled to issue bonds worth up to $10 million to pay the Division’s expenses. The Tenth Circuit held that these two factors by themselves would cut against Eleventh Amendment immunity. However, the Tenth Circuit held that because the Division is entitled to participate in the Colorado risk management fund, which obtains money from state appropriations, that use of state money supports consideration of the Division as an arm of the state.

The Tenth Circuit held that it was unclear whether the State bears legal liability to pay a judgment of the Division.

Therefore, because the first and second factors clearly support characterization as an arm of the state, and the third and fourth could go both ways, the Tenth Circuit held that the balancing of all of the factors led it to regard the Division as an arm of the state. Therefore, the Division was entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err in dismissing the claims against the division. However, it did hold that the dismissal with prejudice was a mistake. Because Eleventh Amendment immunity is jurisdictional, the Tenth Circuit held that the dismissal should have been without prejudice.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed the Eleventh Amendment immunity issue with regards to the Divisions’ two officers on the official-capacity claims for damages. The Tenth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to immunity in their official capacitates on behalf of the Division being an arm of the state. Therefore, The Tenth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to dismissal on the official-capacity claims for damages. However, just as with the Divisions Eleventh Amendment claim, because Eleventh Amendment immunity is jurisdictional, the district court should have dismissed the claim without prejudice.

The Tenth Circuit finally addressed the federal personal-capacity claims against the officers for damages. The district court had dismissed these claims based on timeliness. The Tenth Circuit stated that the Colbys claims had a two year statute of limitations. Further, the Tenth Circuit determined that the suffered damage accrued when the horse was seized on July 22, 2011. That action triggered the statute of limitations period. Because the Colbys did not sue until nearly three years later, the Tenth Circuit held that the claims were time-barred.

The Tenth Circuit addressed the Colbys’ argument that the statute of limitations should not have started until they were denied a timely post-deprivation hearing. The Tenth Circuit held that, even if this claim was accurate, that would only have moved the statute of limitations period six weeks in the future, which would still have resulted in the statute of limitations running out before the suit was filed.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that the continued violation doctrine did not apply to this case because the complaint does not base the claim on any acts taking place after July 22, 2011. Though the Colbys did not have their horse for three years, and therefore damages continued that entire period, the wrongful acts occurred only on July 22, 2011. Therefore, the Colbys’ claims against the officers in their individual capacity were time-barred.

In sum, the Tenth Circuit held that the Division and the officers in their official capacities were entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. However, because the district court dismissed these claims with prejudice, the Tenth Circuit remanded them for the limited purpose of directing the district court to make the dismissals without prejudice. Additionally, the remaining federal claims against the officers were properly dismissed based on the expiration of the statute of limitations.