July 23, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Duplicitous Charges Violate Equal Protection Clause Where Underlying Conduct Identical

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Slaughter on Thursday, February 21, 2019.

Equal Protection—Felony Strangulation—Charging Options.

The prosecution charged defendant with second degree assault by strangulation under C.R.S. § 18-3-203(1)(i) for allegedly strangling the victim with his hands. The People later moved to add a new count under the crime of violence sentencing statute, C.R.S. § 18-1.3-406(2)(a)(I)(A), based on their assertion that defendant used his hands as a deadly weapon. The trial court dismissed the charged sentence enhancer as violating defendant’s equal protection rights. The People filed this interlocutory appeal.

Under the Colorado Constitution, if criminal statutes provide different penalties for identical conduct, a person convicted under the statute with the harsher penalty is denied equal protection unless there are reasonable differences between the proscribed behaviors. A prosecutor charging an accused with felony strangulation has multiple charging options under the Colorado criminal statutes. The crime can be charged under the first degree assault statute, C.R.S. § 18-3-202(1)(g), which requires proof that the accused caused serious bodily injury to the victim.If the prosecution does not want to prove serious bodily injury, it can charge the accused under the second degree assault statute, C.R.S. § 18-3-203. This statute has two charging options, (1)(b) or (1)(i), neither of which would require proof of serious bodily injury. Under (1)(b) proof of use of a deadly weapon is required. Unless charged with a crime of violence sentence enhancer, a strangulation charge under subsection (1)(i) would not require proof of use of a deadly weapon. The penalty available for strangulation charged under (1)(i) if charged as a crime of violence under C.R.S. § 18-1.3-406(2)(a)(I)(A) is substantially more severe than if an accused is charged under (1)(b), even though both would require proof of use of a deadly weapon.

Though prosecutors have discretion in charging decisions, the prosecution is not permitted to charge an accused in a way that would result in an equal protection violation if the defendant were found guilty and sentenced to a harsher penalty than another accused might receive for identical assault conduct.Here, the combination of the prosecution’s charge against defendant under C.R.S. § 18-3-203(1)(i) and the crime of violence sentence enhancer under C.R.S. § 18-1.3-406(2)(a)(I)(A) renders these statutory provisions unconstitutional as applied to defendant. Thus, the prosecution’s motion to charge defendant with a crime of violence sentence enhancer should have been denied, and the trial court did not err.

The order was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Findings of Fact Needed to Determine Whether Termination Caused by Employer’s Belief that Employee Engaged in Protected Activity

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Bird v. West Valley City on Monday, August 8, 2016.

Karen Bird was hired at West Valley City’s animal shelter in 2001, and was promoted to manager by Kelly Davis, her direct supervisor, in 2002. In 2005, West Valley City’s human resources manager, Shirlayne George, investigated the shelter and reported several negative comments about Ms. Bird by fellow employees. Mr. Davis was also the subject of several complaints, especially by women, and Ms. George investigated him in 2009. Most of the women who complained about Mr. Davis were either fired or voluntarily left the animal shelter shortly after complaining. Ms. Bird and Mr. Davis had a disagreement in 2009, and their already strained relationship deteriorated thereafter, to the point where Ms. Bird would not look Mr. Davis in the eye and could not stand to be in the same room as him.

In October 2011, the Salt Lake Tribune published an article about a cat that had endured two failed euthanasia attempts in the shelter’s gas chamber. About a week later, a reporter called the shelter after receiving an anonymous tip about a planned mass-euthanasia due to overpopulation. Both Layne Morris, the Community Preservation Department Director and Mr. Davis’s direct supervisor, and Mr. Davis believed that the anonymous tip had come from Ms. Bird, although she denied it. Ms. Bird was notoriously against using the gas chamber for euthanasia and was one of the few individuals privy to the information about the shelter’s overpopulation. Shortly after this incident, Ms. Bird emailed Ms. George that she could not take any more of Mr. Davis’s harassment. She filed a formal complaint on November 3, 2011.

Less than a week later, Mr. Davis issued two letters of reprimand to Ms. Bird regarding unauthorized use of overtime pay, despite the shelter’s usual practice of issuing less formal warnings before the letters of reprimand. On November 14, in response to Ms. Bird’s complaint, Ms. George undertook an investigation of the entire shelter. She received several complaints regarding both Ms. Bird and Mr. Davis, but more against Ms. Bird. Mr. Morris reviewed the results of the investigation and decided to discipline Ms. Bird for insubordination and failure to be courteous to the public or other shelter employees. He sent Ms. Bird a letter advising of the discipline on November 16, and ultimately terminated her employment on November 29. Mr. Morris testified that his decision to terminate Ms. Bird was not only based on the November 2011 investigation, but rather because of the deterioration of the relationship between Ms. Bird and Mr. Davis. Mr. Morris also testified that he had considered terminating Ms. Bird in December 2010 but Mr. Davis stayed his hand.

Ms. Bird unsuccessfully appealed her termination to Ms. George, then the city’s human resources director, and finally to the West Valley City Appeals Board. When all three appeals were unsuccessful, Ms. Bird filed a complaint in district court, alleging the city terminated her in violation of Title VII as a result of gender discrimination and subjected her to a hostile work environment; the city violated § 1983 because it terminated her as a result of gender discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause; and both the city and Mr. Davis violated § 1983 because they terminated her in retaliation for exercising her First Amendment rights concerning the anonymous tip to the reporter. Ms. Bird maintained that she did not provide the anonymous tip, but because she was perceived as doing so, the termination in retaliation violated her First Amendment rights. Ms. Bird also brought state law claims for breach of contract and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The district court granted summary judgment to defendants on all claims.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit first considered Ms. Bird’s Title VII gender discrimination and hostile work environment claims. Applying the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, the Tenth Circuit evaluated Ms. Bird’s claim that the shelter had a pattern and practice of discriminating against female employees. However, Mr. Morris provided two legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for terminating Ms. Bird: insubordination and failure to be courteous and cooperative with fellow employees. The Tenth Circuit evaluated Ms. Bird’s proffered reasons why Mr. Morris’s explanation was pretextual. She first contended that the reasons he outlined for terminating her differed from those offered in his deposition. The Tenth Circuit disagreed; the Circuit noted that Mr. Morris had offered specific examples in his deposition but his stated reasons for Ms. Bird’s termination were always insubordination and failure to be courteous. Ms. Bird also contended that the individuals to whom she appealed her termination offered different reasons, but the Tenth Circuit found that they merely offered different instances of her conduct. The Tenth Circuit held that no reasonable juror could determine that the city’s reason for terminating her was pretextual.

The Tenth Circuit similarly disposed of Ms. Bird’s hostile work environment claims. Although Mr. Davis’s conduct was deplorable, the Circuit did not find any evidence that his behavior was gender-based. Ms. Bird pointed to several statements, but the statements were generalized and did not point to specific instances. The Tenth Circuit refused to consider vague and conclusory statements as evidence of gender discrimination.

Turning next to the § 1983 Equal Protection claims, the Tenth Circuit found that because Ms. Bird alleged the same facts to prove her Equal Protection claim as she asserted to prove her Title VII claims, the Equal Protection argument failed for the same reasons. The Tenth Circuit also disposed of Ms. Bird’s state law breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty claims. Ms. Bird relied on the employee handbook to argue her claims based on violation of the “Workplace Violence” section and the unwritten anti-retaliation policy. The Tenth Circuit found that the large disclaimer on the handbook eliminated all contractual liability for the city.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit evaluated Ms. Bird’s § 1983 First Amendment retaliation claims. Although Ms. Bird continued to argue that she did not make the anonymous tips to the reporters, she alleged that she was terminated in retaliation because the city believed she had made the tips. The Tenth Circuit found that the Supreme Court’s decision in Heffernan v. City of Paterson, 136 S. Ct. 1412 (2016), controlled its analysis. The lower court did not evaluate Ms. Bird’s First Amendment claims because she could not show that she engaged in protected activity. The Tenth Circuit remanded for a determination of whether Ms. Bird raised a genuine issue of material fact that the city’s belief motivated its decision to terminate her employment.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the Title VII gender discrimination and retaliation claims, the § 1983 Equal Protection Claims, and the state law contractual claims. The Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded on the § 1983 First Amendment claims.

Colorado Court of Appeals: District Court Within Statutory Authority to Sua Sponte Set Sentencing Hearing

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Reyes on Thursday, June 30, 2016.

Revocation of Probation—Resentencing—Hearing—Separation of Powers—Sua Sponte—Equal Protection—Discretion.

Reyes was serving a sentence. A revocation of probation complaint was filed, Reyes entered into a plea agreement, and the district court resentenced him to four years in community corrections. Reyes was subsequently terminated from the community corrections program for violating its policies. The court held a resentencing hearing sua sponte and resentenced Reyes to five years in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

On appeal, Reyes contended that the court lacked the statutory authority to set a resentencing hearing without a request from one of the parties. The district court can increase an offender’s sentence as long as it holds a resentencing hearing, and there is no statutory requirement that one of the parties must request that hearing.

Reyes also contended that the sua sponte hearing violated separation of powers because the prosecutor did not request the hearing. Discretion to request a resentencing hearing does not lie solely with the prosecutor, and the district court did not violate separation of powers principles.

Additionally, Reyes argued that the court violated his equal protection right by singling him out from other defendants and setting a resentencing hearing just because it disagreed with the prior judge’s four-year sentence. The Court of Appeals found that the court’s decision to set a resentencing hearing was rationally related to a legitimate governmental objective and did not violate Reyes’s right to equal protection.

Finally, Reyes asserted that even if the court did not violate his equal protection right, it abused its discretion by setting the resentencing hearing because its decision was manifestly arbitrary and abrogated the previous judge’s sentence, which was the law of the case. Here, the court’s decision to set a hearing was rationally based on Reyes’ particular circumstances, and the court did not abuse its discretion.

The five-year sentence was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: District Court Not Statutorily Required to Grant De Novo Review of Arbitrator’s Decision

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Marriage of Vanderborgh on Thursday, March 25, 2016.

Parenting Time Dispute—Arbitration Agreement—De Novo Hearing—Constitutional Rights.

The parties submitted their post-dissolution parenting time disputes to an arbitrator pursuant to their agreement in their Parenting Plan. After the third decision by an arbitrator, father moved for a de novo hearing, under CRS § 14-10-128.5(2), on his motion to modify the parenting time schedule. The court denied father’s request for a de novo hearing and confirmed the arbitrator’s decision.

On appeal, father first contended that the district court erred by denying him a de novo hearing on his request for equal parenting time during the school year because CRS § 14-10-128.5(2) mandates such a hearing whenever a party requests one. The plain language of this statute, however, gives the court discretion to grant or deny a party’s motion for a de novo hearing, and the Court of Appeals concluded that the court did not abuse that discretion.

Father next argued that CRS § 14-10-128.5(2) is unconstitutional as the district court applied it because it “allows an arbitration decision on parenting time, a constitutionally protected interest, without procedural safeguards and only discretionary review.” Father agreed to arbitrate the issue of parenting time, and his right to challenge the arbitration award under the Colorado Uniform Arbitration Act and to request (but not necessarily receive) a de novo hearing under CRS § 14-10-128.5 sufficiently protect his rights to procedural due process.

Father also argued that the parties’ child was denied equal protection because he does not have the same rights as children whose parents do not choose arbitration for parenting time disputes. The Court determined that the child’s rights were adequately protected under the dissolution statutes.

The order was affirmed and the case was remanded to determine mother’s request for appellate attorney fees.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Equal Protection Challenge Does Not Apply to Parole Eligibility Date

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Dean v. People on Monday, February 29, 2016.

Equal Protection—Habitual Criminal Sentencing.

The Supreme Court addressed defendant’s contention that the interplay of the habitual criminal statute (CRS § 18-1.3-801) and the parole eligibility statute (CRS § 17-22.5-403), as applied here, violate his right to equal protection because he must serve a longer period of incarceration before he is eligible for parole than an habitual offender with a history of more serious felony convictions. The Court held that the habitual criminal sentencing scheme and the parole eligibility scheme are both rationally related to legitimate government purposes. Moreover, for purposes of an equal protection claim, a court compares the relative harshness of a penalty by reference to the maximum possible period of incarceration, not the timing of parole eligibility. The Court therefore concluded that the habitual criminal sentencing and parole eligibility scheme, as applied to defendant, do not violate Colorado’s guarantee of equal protection. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case with directions to correct the mittimus.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Identity Theft and Unauthorized Financial Transactions Statutes Address Different Conduct

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Trujillo on Thursday, March 12, 2015.

Identity Theft—Unauthorized Use of Financial Transaction Device—Testimony—Character Evidence—Habit Evidence—Equal Protection.

Trujillo worked at an assisted-living facility. One weekend, she took $250 in cash and a debit card from a resident. Trujillo used the debit card to spend approximately $270 at several stores. She was convicted of identity theft and theft from an at-risk adult.

On appeal, Trujillo argued that the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted the resident’s testimony that she never gave her debit card to anyone, contending it was inadmissible character evidence. The resident described her regular response to the situation of needing people to buy things for her—her habit was to never give them her debit card. This testimony was habit evidence, not character evidence, and thus the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting it.

Trujillo also contended that her conviction for identity theft violated her right to equal protection of the laws because, as applied to her, the identity theft statute punishes the same conduct as the unauthorized use of a financial transaction device statute but carries a harsher penalty. Trujillo’s charged conduct was using the resident’s debit card, without her permission, to purchase food, clothing, and other items. A reasonable distinction can be drawn between the conduct punished by the two statutes because the felony identify theft statute describes a theft perpetrated against the account holder of a financial device, while the misdemeanor statute describes fraudulent conduct committed against the provider of cash, property, or services in a financial transaction. Therefore, Trujillo’s equal protection rights were not violated. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Utah’s Ban on Same-Sex Marriage and Refusal to Recognize Same Is Unconstitutional

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Kitchen v. Herbert on Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

In 2004, Utah legislators and citizens amended their statutes and state constitution (collectively referred to in the opinion as Amendment 3) to ensure that Utah “‘will not recognize, enforce, or give legal effect to any law’ that provides ‘substantially equivalent’ benefits to a marriage between two persons of the same sex as are allowed for two persons of the opposite sex.” Three same-sex couples filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Governor and Attorney General of Utah, and the Clerk of Salt Lake County, challenging the constitutionality of the two statutes and the constitutional provision. The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment that Amendment 3 is unconstitutional and an injunction prohibiting its enforcement.

The district court granted summary judgment for the plaintiffs, holding that the statutes and amendment violated the fundamental right to liberty and denied plaintiffs equal protection because it classified based on sex and sexual orientation without a rational basis. The court permanently enjoined enforcement of the provisions. The U.S. Supreme Court stayed the district court’s decision pending appeal to the Tenth Circuit.

The Tenth Circuit first considered the issue of standing because the Salt Lake County Clerk had not appealed the district court’s decision. The court held that because the governor and attorney general have actual supervisory power to compel county clerks to comply with Amendment 3, they had standing to appeal.

Next, the court held that the Supreme Court’s 1972 summary dismissal of Baker v. Nelson was not controlling precedent, especially after United States v. Windsor. In Baker, the Court dismissed, for lack of a substantial federal question, the appeal of a decision affirming Minnesota’s ban on same-sex marriage. Judge Kelly dissented from the portions of this decision regarding Baker v. Nelson and holding that the Fourteenth Amendment requires Utah to permit same-sex marriage and to recognize same-sex marriages entered into in other states.

In holding that the right to marry is a fundamental liberty interest, the court rejected the arguments that only opposite-sex marriage is a fundamental right and marriage is only a fundamental right because of procreation. The court also rejected the argument that the definition of marriage by its nature excludes same-sex couples. In describing a liberty interest, “it is impermissible to focus on the identity or class-membership of the individual exercising the right.” Fundamental rights do not change based on who is seeking to exercise them.

After deciding that the right to marry is a fundamental liberty, the court applied strict scrutiny to Amendment 3. The appellants contended Amendment 3 “furthers the state’s interests in: (1) “fostering a child-centric marriage culture that encourages parents to subordinate their own interests to the needs of their children”; (2) “children being raised by their biological mothers and fathers—or at least by a married mother and father—in a stable home”; (3) “ensuring adequate reproduction”; and (4) “accommodating religious freedom and reducing the potential for civic strife.” The court found Amendment 3 was not narrowly tailored to further the first three interests as the state permitted marriage by many nonprocreative couples. It noted these same arguments were rejected in Windsor. As to the fourth alleged interest, the court pointed out that public opposition cannot provide cover for a violation of fundamental rights.

The Tenth Circuit held that “under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution, those who wish to marry a person of the same sex are entitled to exercise the same fundamental right as is recognized for persons who wish to marry a person of the opposite sex, and that Amendment 3 and similar statutory enactments do not withstand constitutional scrutiny. . . . A state may not deny the issuance of a marriage license to two persons, or refuse to recognize their marriage, based solely upon the sex of the persons in the marriage union.”

The court affirmed the district court and stayed its mandate pending the disposition of any petition for writ of certiorari.

Tenth Circuit: In Sexual Harassment Case, Summary Judgment For County and Judge Affirmed in Part and Reversed in Part

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Eisenhour v. Weber County on Wednesday, March 12, 2014.

Marcia Eisenhour worked for Weber County for 24 years, serving as the Court Administrator for the Weber County Justice Court under the direct supervision of Judge Storey. According to Ms. Eisenhour, Judge Storey began acting inappropriately toward Ms. Eisenhour in early 2008. He became “touchy” and would often stand so close to her that his groin rubbed against her. In addition to the touching, Judge Storey once told her that he had a dream about her in which she was naked. Ms. Eisenhour also found a poem by Judge Storey, which revealed his romantic feelings for her. According to Ms. Eisenhour, she was also subjected to unreasonable demands about her activities away from work.

The County launched an investigation, but ultimately decided not to discipline Judge Storey. The matter was later referred to Utah’s Judicial Conduct Commission, which the Commission dismissed.

Between August and December 2009, the County Commissioners closed the Justice Court, which meant the loss of Ms. Eisenhour’s job. Ms. Eisenhour applied to the County for three vacant positions. Unsuccessful, she lost not only her job but also the potential for retirement benefits. She eventually spoke to the media about the Judicial Conduct Commission’s investigation of Judge Storey.

Marcia Eisenhour sued Weber County, three of its county commissioners, and Judge Storey. She claimed violations of Utah’s Whistleblower Act, the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, and Title VII. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on all claims. Ms. Eisenhour appealed.

Ms. Eisenhour first challenged the district court’s exclusion of her testimony on disciplinary proceedings involving the judge. The Tenth Circuit affirmed. The exclusion of Ms. Eisenhour’s testimony during the disciplinary proceedings involving Judge Storey was proper, since, under the applicable Utah statute, section 78A-11-112(1), testimony taken during the course of proceedings before the Judicial Conduct Commission cannot be introduced in a civil action.

Ms. Eisenhour asserted a claim under Title VII for retaliation. The district court held that it lacked jurisdiction over the claim because Ms. Eisenhour failed to exhaust administrative remedies. The Tenth Circuit agreed. Ms. Eisenhour filed an EEOC claim for sexual harassment, but this claim did not refer to any of the retaliatory acts underlying the eventual cause of action under Title VII. As a result, the court affirmed the award of summary judgment to the County on the Title VII retaliation claim.

Next, Ms. Eisenhour invoked the First Amendment, claiming that the County retaliated against her by closing the Justice Court when she spoke to the media about the Judicial Conduct Commission’s investigation of Judge Storey. The Tenth Circuit held that triable issues of fact existed and that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the County. When the court is faced with a First Amendment claim by a public employee, the district court must balance the First Amendment interests of that employee, speaking as a concerned citizen, with the government’s interests in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees. The Tenth Circuit held that her comments to the media involved protected speech and that she presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact-finder to infer that her comments were a motivating factor in the County’s decision to close the Court. The evidence also created a genuine issue of fact about the legitimacy of the County’s explanation for closing the Justice Court.

On the First Amendment claim for retaliation, Ms. Eisenhour also sued three county commissioners in their personal capacities. This claim was based on the Commissioners’ decision to close the Justice Court. Their motivation, according to Ms. Eisenhour, was to retaliate for her comments to the media. Like the County, the Commissioners argued that Ms. Eisenhour’s speech was not protected under the First Amendment and that the County closed the courthouse because of budgetary considerations rather than a retaliatory motive. As discussed above, these arguments involved factual issues turning on the resolution of conflicting evidence, thereby preventing summary judgment for the County.

Ms. Eisenhour further alleged that the County violated Utah’s Whistleblower Act, which prohibits government employers from retaliating against employees who report employer misconduct. According to Ms. Eisenhour, the County violated the state law by closing the Justice Court and refusing to hire her. Ms. Eisenhour waited more than 180 days from the alleged violation to assert a Whistleblower Act claim, so this claim was time-barred. However, for her claim relating to the closing of the court, the claim did relate back to the original filing, so it was not time-barred.

Ms. Eisenhour argued that the County deprived her of a property interest in her job without due process of law. The district court held that Ms. Eisenhour had failed to establish a protected property interest. The Tenth Circuit agreed. For purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, property interests must derive from some independent source, such as state law, contract, or other understandings that give rise to a claim of entitlement. However, her employment was at-will. And at-will employees lack a property interest in continued employment.

Ms. Eisenhour asserted that the County violated her right to equal protection, and the district court granted summary judgment to the County on the ground that Judge Storey was not an official policymaker. The Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision. A municipality can be liable under Section 1983 for the acts of a municipal official only when the official possesses final policymaking authority to establish municipal policy with respect to the acts in question.

Judge Storey lacked policymaking authority to touch Ms. Eisenhour inappropriately under the County’s sexual harassment policy. Further, his monitoring of her whereabouts (when missing work) did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. As a result, the County was entitled to summary judgment on the equal-protection claim.

Ms. Eisenhour further asserted an equal-protection claim against Judge Storey. The district court concluded that Judge Storey was entitled to qualified immunity. The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Judge Storey, concluding that he was not entitled to qualified immunity and that there was a fact-issue about whether Judge Storey inappropriately touched Ms. Eisenhour.

To overcome a defense of qualified immunity, a plaintiff must show that: (1) the defendant’s conduct violated the law, and (2) the law was clearly established when the violation occurred. The Tenth Circuit held that Ms. Eisenhour made the threshold showing and that issues of fact precluded summary judgment.

For the reasons stated above, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the award of summary judgment on Ms. Eisenhour’s claims against the County under the: (1) Whistleblower Act for a refusal to rehire her, (2) Title VII, and (3) § 1983 based on a deprivation of due process and denial of equal protection. The court also held that the district court properly excluded Ms. Eisenhour’s testimony taken during the judicial-misconduct investigation. But the court agreed with Ms. Eisenhour that genuine issues of fact precluded summary judgment on: (1) her § 1983 claim against the County and the County Commissioners based on the First Amendment, (2) the Whistleblower Act claim against the County based on the court closing, and (3) the § 1983 claim against Judge Storey based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Accordingly, the case was REMANDED to the district court with instructions to VACATE the award of summary judgment on these claims.


Defendant Craig Storey requested rehearing, arguing in part: (1) The panel opinion erroneously relied in part on sworn testimony before the Judicial Conduct Commission even though the testimony was deemed inadmissible; and (2) the evidence did not support Ms. Eisenhour’s claim that Defendant Storey knowingly and intentionally committed sexual harassment by telling her about a dream. On these issues, Defendant Storey also requested en banc consideration. In addition, he sought en banc consideration on the issue of qualified immunity.

The panel granted rehearing on the first issue, which involved reliance on the Commission testimony by Ms. Eisenhour. The remainder of the petition for panel rehearing was denied. In light of the partial grant of the petition, however, the panel vacated the opinion issued on December 31, 2013. The clerk was directed to substitute the amended decision above and to file it contemporaneously with this order.

Tenth Circuit: Disparity in Contribution Limits Among Candidates for Same Office Violated Equal Protection of Contributors

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Riddle v. Hickenlooper on Thursday, January 23, 2014.

In 2010, three individuals ran for the Colorado House of Representatives, House District 61: Kathleen Curry, Roger Wilson, and Luke Korkowski. Curry was a write-in candidate, Wilson was the Democratic nominee, and Korkowski was the Republican nominee. Under Colorado law, individual contributions to Curry were capped at $200, and individual contributions to each of her opponents were capped at $400. Contributors to Curry’s campaign (along with others) sued state officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming violation of the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The district court rejected the claims and granted summary judgment to the state officials.

Amendment 27 of the state constitution limits campaign contributions to state office candidates from single contributors to $200 for the primary and $200 for the general election. In 2004, the legislature removed time limits as to when a candidate could accept and spend contributions when a primary is involved. Because Republican and Democratic candidates must run in a primary to get on the ballot even if unopposed, but minor party, unaffiliated, or write-in candidates are only required to run in a primary when multiple candidates seek the nomination, the Secretary of State interprets the amendment and statute to allow candidates with a primary to accept $400 and those without to accept only $200.

The plaintiffs made an as applied argument to the statute and challenged the disparity rather than the amount of the limit. The Tenth Circuit focused on the contributors, not the candidates, in finding that contributors to all three candidates were similarly situated. It then applied the intermediate level of scrutiny the U.S. Supreme Court applied in the First Amendment context of contribution limits — whether the limits are closely drawn to a sufficiently important governmental interest.

The court found that the defendant’s asserted interest of anticorruption was not advanced by the statute so it was not closely drawn. It held that the statutory classification violates the right to equal protection for individuals wishing to contribute to write-ins, unaffiliated candidates, and minor-party candidates when each candidate runs unopposed for the nomination. The court reversed and remanded for summary judgment to be awarded to the plaintiffs.

Tenth Circuit: High School Students’ First and Fourteenth Amendment Rights Not Violated When School Stopped Their Distribution of Fetus Dolls

The Tenth Circuit published its opinion in Taylor v. Roswell Independent School District on Monday, April 8, 2013.

The plaintiffs are high school students from Roswell, New Mexico, who belong to a religious group called “Relentless” (“Plaintiffs”). On January 29, 2010, the Relentless students planned to distribute 2,500 small rubber dolls at two high schools, Roswell High School and Goddard High School. Each two-inch doll was designed to be a realistic representation of a human fetus. The Relentless students did not seek permission before distributing these items.

At Goddard High, Relentless students began distributing the dolls to every student entering the school that morning. When the Assistant Principal discovered that the students did not have prior approval, he stopped the distribution and confiscated the dolls. Dolls were also confiscated at Roswell High. Both schools experienced doll-related disruptions that day.

When these distributions began, Roswell District had two policies concerning distribution of non-school related materials on campus. Policy 7110 required advance permission from the District before distribution of promotional items or advertisements on campus. A separate unwritten policy required students to obtain permission before on-campus distribution of non-school-sponsored literature. This policy was later formalized as written Policy 5195.

Plaintiffs sued Roswell Independent School District and Superintendent Michael Gottlieb in his official capacity (collectively “the District”) seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and alleged three counts. Count I included two First Amendment speech claims. First, Plaintiffs brought a facial challenge against the District’s preapproval policies for non-school-sponsored material, alleging the policies were unconstitutional prior restraints and were unconstitutionally vague. Second, they challenged the policies as applied to Plaintiffs, claiming that the District’s refusal to allow them to distribute the fetus dolls violated their free speech rights. Count II alleged violation of Plaintiffs’ free exercise rights under a so-called hybrid claim theory. Count III alleged that the District discriminated against Plaintiffs in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. A magistrate judge granted summary judgment for the District on all claims, and Plaintiffs appealed on Counts I and III.

Count I: Two First Amendment Speech Claims

The Court noted that two important questions were not at issue. First, this case did not turn on whether the content of Plaintiffs’ message warranted First Amendment protection—there was no question that it did. The record showed Plaintiffs meant to convey a religious and political message when they distributed the dolls, and the Constitution requires they be permitted to express these views at school in some form. Second, the parties did not contest that the District was allowed to confiscate already distributed rubber dolls from any students who threw them, used them to harm school property, or displayed them as props for lewd or obscene expressions of their own.

What was contested was whether the District violated Plaintiffs’ free speech rights when it stopped their on-campus distribution of the dolls. The answer depends on whether school officials reasonably forecast that this particular form of expression would create a substantial disruption to school discipline.

First, Plaintiffs brought a facial challenge against the District’s preapproval policies for non-school-sponsored material, alleging the policies are unconstitutional prior restraints and were unconstitutionally vague.

Plaintiffs’ facial challenge to the school policy failed. Generally, a “prior restraint” restricts speech in advance on the basis of content and carries a presumption of unconstitutionality. See R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377, 382-83 (1992). The policy was not unconstitutional under the prior restraint doctrine because it constrained official discretion and contained adequate procedural safeguards—and because it applied to the school environment where greater deference is given to school officials. It was not void for vagueness because students of ordinary intelligence could understand its meaning and it neither authorized nor encouraged arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement.

Second, Plaintiffs challenged the policies as applied to Plaintiffs, claiming that the District’s refusal to allow them to distribute the dolls violated their free speech rights.

Under the standards developed in Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), The Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiffs’ free speech challenges failed because school officials reasonably forecast that the distribution would cause substantial disruption and because the distribution did cause substantial disruption. Plaintiffs’ distribution conveyed a political and religious message and would likely merit First Amendment protection outside the school context. Inside the school walls, however, the Court had to consider whether the expression was, or was reasonably forecast to be, disruptive. The record was replete with reports of doll-related disruptions throughout the day on January 29, 2010, including substantial disruptions to classroom instruction, damage to school property, and risks to student safety. In short, there was ample undisputed evidence that the District had permissible reasons for stopping the distribution. Plaintiffs’ free speech rights were therefore not violated.

Count III: Discrimination Claim

Plaintiffs alleged that the District discriminated against Plaintiffs in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Plaintiffs argued they were treated differently because non-Relentless students were permitted to distribute Valentine’s Day cards, chocolate, and stuffed animals on the same day that they were prevented from distributing the rubber fetuses.

The Equal Protection Clause provides that “[n]o state shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.A. To prevail on an equal protection claim, a plaintiff must show that she was treated differently from others who were similarly situated. Tonkovich v. Kansas Bd. of Regents, 159 F.3d 504, 532 (10th Cir. 1998).

Applying the rational basis test, the Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiffs’ free exercise and equal protection claims failed because the decision to stop the distribution was not based on religion, and Plaintiffs failed to show they were treated differently from similarly situated students.

The Tenth Circuit noted that the public school setting was important to its analysis.


Tenth Circuit: Students Have Standing to Challenge Kansas Act Funding Public Schools

The Tenth Circuit issued its opinion in Petrella v. Brownback on Thursday, October 18, 2012.

The Kansas Constitution requires the Kansas legislature to make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state. In 2005, the Kansas Supreme Court determined the then-current school finance system (the Act) violated the state constitution because it failed to make suitable provisions for funding public schools. Among the Act’s constitutional shortcomings were an overall funding of public education and a wealth-based disparity in public education funding based on difference in assessed property values from district to district. At the same time, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the Act against an equal protection challenge, finding the Act did not violate either the Kansas or United States constitutions on equal protection grounds.

The Act in part authorized districts to adopt a “Local Option Budget” (LOB), which permitted a district to raise extra money by levying additional property taxes beyond the minimum. The LOB was capped at 31% of the district’s State Financial Aid entitlement. Plaintiffs, students and parents of students, filed this action claiming the LOB cap violated their federal Equal Protection and Due Process rights by effectively reducing their educational services.

The district court dismissed the case for lack of standing, concluding the LOB cap was not severable from the rest of the Act. Therefore, a finding that the LOB cap was unconstitutional would result in the invalidation of the entire Act, leaving the school board unable to levy any taxes at all. In other words, a favorable decision striking the cap could not redress plaintiffs’ alleged injury. This appeal followed.

The three requirements of standing are: injury-in-fact, causation, and redressability. The Tenth Circuit found that Appellants carried their burden to establish the three requirements of Article III standing. The Court stated that Appellants’ standing did not depend on their certain ability to raise funding from within the district. Instead, Appellants had standing because they alleged a violation of their right to equal protection that was fairly traceable to the challenged statute, and that would be redressed by a favorable decision on the merits, even if such a decision resulted in the wholesale invalidation of the Act.

Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit REVERSED and REMANDED for consideration on the merits.

Tenth Circuit: Student’s Restrictive Desk Not a Violation of Equal Protection, the Fourth Amendment, or the Fourteenth Amendment

The Tenth Circuit issued its opinion in Ebonie S. v. Pueblo School Dist. 60 on August 28, 2012.

This appeal required the Tenth Circuit to decide whether the use of a particular desk in special education classrooms is permissible under the United States Constitution. The desks in question wrap around the student on the front and the sides and have a securing bar that  runs behind the student’s chair. A student can only remove herself by sliding under or crawling over the desk’s surface when the bar is in place. In a kindergarten special education classroom in Pueblo, Colorado, Ebonie S., a young girl with multiple disabilities, was often required to sit in this type of desk. Ebonie’s mother, Mary S., filed suit on her behalf  contending that the use of the  desk violated the Fourth Amendment, the Due Process Clause, and the Equal Protection Clause. The district court granted summary judgment to defendants on the constitutional claims. Plaintiff appealed the grants of summary judgment, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed.

The Court noted that, although students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate, federal courts have long recognized that government action impermissible in other spheres may be proper in the school setting. The Court further stated that the rights of students in the public schools are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings. The Court also stated that some in-school disciplinary measures that restrict a student’s movement present only a de minimis level of imposition with which the Constitution is not concerned.

In light of this precedent and the record, the Court concluded that the desk’s limitation on Ebonie’s movement did not significantly exceed that inherent in every-day, compulsory school attendance. Accordingly, it held that Ebonie failed to demonstrate a cognizable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

Plaintiff also contended that the desk violated Ebonie’s Fourteenth Amendment rights by restricting her liberty without due process. In light of its conclusion that the restrictions placed on Ebonie did not substantially exceed those inherent in compulsory education, the Court concluded that Ebonie’s liberty interest in freedom from bodily restraint was not implicated.

Finally, Plaintiff made an Equal Protection claim contending that the desk infringed on Ebonie’s fundamental right to be free from bodily restraint. Since Plaintiff cited no case holding that an in-school limitation of movement, especially one that was not significantly more restrictive than those imposed on all students, implicates this fundamental right, it was unwilling to subject every teacher’s order that limits the freedom of a student to strict constitutional scrutiny. AFFIRMED.