May 24, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Inadequate Briefing Warrants Affirmance of Lower Court Opinion

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Nixon v. City & County of Denver on Thursday, April 30, 2015.

Ricky Nixon was a Denver police officer who was involved in two highly publicized incidents of excessive force. He was cleared of wrongdoing after the first incident, but the Denver manager of safety ordered a 30-day suspension after the second incident and ordered his termination when he was not truthful about the incident. A panel of the Denver Civil Service Commission reversed the termination but ultimately the Colorado Court of Appeals remanded. While the Commission decision was being challenged by the City, Nixon filed a § 1983 suit against the manager of safety, the City, and others in federal district court. The district court dismissed all his claims, but on appeal Nixon challenged the dismissal of only two: (1) the City and manager violated his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him for protected speech, and (2) a Due Process claim based on his protected status as a police officer.

The Tenth Circuit noted that First Amendment claims should be evaluated under the Garcetti/Pickering test, and that to show a due process violation the employee must prove governmental defamation and alteration in legal status. The district court dismissed Nixon’s claims for failure to state a claim for relief.

The Tenth Circuit analyzed Nixon’s opening brief on appeal and found that no pertinent issue was adequately developed. The Tenth Circuit first affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Nixon’s stigma-plus-due process claim because Nixon’s opening brief “contain[ed] nary a word to challenge the basis of the dismissal.” As for Nixon’s claims that his speech was on a matter of public concern, the Tenth Circuit found only general statements about the protected speech and not specific references as required. Addressing the district court’s ruling that Nixon’s 2013 statement before the Civil Service Commission could not have been a motivating factor in his 2011 termination, the Tenth Circuit found that if it sought to make arguments for Nixon it could read one sentence in his brief to state that the retaliation was the City’s decision to seek state court review of the Commission’s ruling in Nixon’s favor. The Tenth Circuit, however, had “no obligation to address the point because the sentence fails to satisfy minimal standards for intelligibility that we must require from lawyers, it is misleadingly placed under a heading for a different issue, and the brief does not even say that the sentence is intended as a response to a ruling by the district court or an argument by the City.”

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court judgment.

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