Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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While in pretrial detention at the Rio Grande County Jail (RGCJ), Gordon Sawyers’s delusional behavior deteriorated to the point that he removed his right eyeball from its socket. He sued the sheriff in his individual and official capacities under 42 U.S.C 1983 for a deliberate indifference Fourteenth Amendment violation, and under state law for negligence. He also sued three on-duty officers for state law negligence. The district court granted in part and denied in part Defendants' summary judgment motion. Defendants appealed. The Tenth Circuit, after its review, affirmed the denial of the three officers' motion for summary judgment asserting qualified immunity to Sawyers' 1983 claim. The Court concluded it lacked jurisdiction on interlocutory review to address their factual challenges to the trial court's conclusion that a jury could find a constitutional violation. Further, due to what the Court characterized as "inadequate briefing," it determined defendants waived an argument about clearly established law. The Court affirmed the denial of sovereign immunity to Rio Grande County on the state law negligence claim because the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act waived immunity resulting from the operation of a jail. View "Sawyers v. Norton" on Justia Law

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In separate claims, appellees Willie Carr and Kim Minor sought disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). In each case, the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) denied the claim, and the agency’s Appeals Council declined to review. While his case was pending in district court, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) ALJs were “inferior officers” under the Appointments Clause, and therefore must be appointed by the President, a court, or head of the agency. Shortly thereafter, Minor also sued in district court to challenge the denial of benefits in her case. In response to the Supreme Court case, Lucia v. S.E.C., 138 S. Ct. 2044 (2018), the SSA Commissioner appointed the SSA's ALJs to address any Appointments Clause questions Lucia posed. After the Commissioner’s action, Carr and Minor each filed a supplemental brief, asserting for the first time that the ALJs who had rejected their claims had not been properly appointed under the Appointments Clause. The district court upheld the ALJs’ denials of the claims, but it agreed with the Appointments Clause challenges. The court vacated the SSA decisions and remanded for new hearings before constitutionally appointed ALJs. It held that appellees did not waive their Appointments Clause challenges by failing to raise them in their SSA proceedings. On appeal, the Commissioner argued Appellees waived their Appointments Clause challenges by failing to exhaust them before the SSA. The Tenth Circuit agreed with the Commissioner and reversed. View "Carr v. Commissioner, SSA" on Justia Law

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The United States Forest Service approved two forest thinning projects in the Santa Fe National Forest pursuant to authority granted by a 2014 amendment to the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA). By thinning the forest and then conducting prescribed burns in the project areas, the Forest Service sought to reduce the risk of high-intensity wildfires and tree mortality related to insects and disease. Certain environmental organizations and individuals (collectively Wild Watershed) challenged the projects’ approval under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), asserting the Forest Service failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and HFRA. The district court rejected these claims, and the Tenth Circuit concurred, finding the Forest Service adequately considered the projects’ cumulative impacts as well as their potential effects on sensitive species in the area and the development of old growth forest. Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court. View "Wild Watershed v. Hurlocker" on Justia Law

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After a bench trial, a district court decided that Defendants RaPower-3, LLC, International Automated Systems, Inc. (IAS), LTB1, LLC, Neldon Johnson, and R. Gregory Shepard had promoted an unlawful tax scheme. Defendants’ scheme was based on a supposed project to utilize a purportedly new, commercially viable way of converting solar radiation into electricity. There was no “third party verification of any of Johnson’s designs.” Nor did he have any “record that his system ha[d] produced energy,” and “[t]here [were] no witnesses to his production of a useful product from solar energy,” a fact that he attributed to his decision to do his testing “on the weekends when no one was around because he didn’t want people to see what he was doing.” Defendants never secured a purchase agreement for the sale of electricity to an end user. The district court found that Johnson’s purported solar energy technology was not a commercial-grade solar energy system that converts sunlight into electrical power or other useful energy. Despite this, Defendants’ project generated tens of millions of dollars between 2005 and 2018. Beginning in 2006, buyers would purchase lenses from IAS or RaPower-3 for a down payment of about one-third of the purchase price. The entity would “finance” the remaining two-thirds of the purchase price with a zero- or nominal- interest, nonrecourse loan. No further payments would be due from the customer until the system had been generating revenue from electricity sales for five years. The customer would agree to lease the lens back to LTB1 for installation at a “Power Plant”; but LTB1 would not be obligated to make any rental payments until the system had begun generating revenue. The district court found that each plastic sheet for the lenses was sold to Defendants for between $52 and $70, yet the purchase price of a lens was between $3,500 and $30,000. Although Defendants sold between 45,000 and 50,000 lenses, fewer than 5% of them were ever installed. Customers were told that buying a lens would have very favorable income-tax consequences. Johnson and Shepard sold the lenses by advertising that customers could “zero out” federal income-tax liability by taking advantage of depreciation deductions and solar-energy tax credits. To remedy Defendants' misconduct, the district court enjoined Defendants from continuing to promote their scheme and ordered disgorgement of their gross receipts from the scheme. Defendants appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court. View "United States v. RaPower-3" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Cody Cox sued Defendant Don Wilson, a deputy in the Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Department, under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Cox alleged that when Wilson shot him in his vehicle while stopped on Interstate 70, Wilson violated the constitutional prohibition against the use of excessive force by law-enforcement officers. Plaintiff appealed when the jury returned a verdict in favor of the deputy, arguing the district court erred in failing to instruct the jury to consider whether Wilson unreasonably created the need for the use of force by his own reckless conduct. The Tenth Circuit determined that although the district court incorrectly stated the Supreme Court had recently abrogated the Tenth Circuit's precedents requiring such an instruction in appropriate circumstances, the evidence in this case did not support the instruction. "No law, certainly no law clearly established at the time of the incident, suggests that Wilson acted unreasonably up to and including the time that he exited his vehicle and approached Cox’s vehicle." Therefore, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment in favor of Deputy Wilson. View "Cox v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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In August 2017, Kansas law enforcement officers, after a traffic chase, pulled over Matthew Holmes for suspected vehicular burglary. The officers were from the City of Newton Police Department (“NPD”), McPherson County Sheriff’s Office (“MCSO”), and Harvey County Sheriff’s Office (“HCSO”). After Holmes stopped and exited the car, officers wrestled him to the ground. McPherson County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Somers shot Holmes in the back. He later died from the gunshot wound. Holmes' estate sued, alleging constitutional violations under 42 U.S.C. 1983 ad a state law claim. The district court granted in part and denied in part Defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motions. In particular, it denied each sheriff’s motion to dismiss based on Eleventh Amendment immunity because, “with respect to local law enforcement activities, sheriffs are not arms of the state but rather of the county that they serve.” The Tenth Circuit determined the district court did not err in denying the sheriffs' motions, and therefore affirmed. View "Couser v. Gay" on Justia Law

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The Town of Castle Rock, Colorado enacted a 7:00 p.m. curfew on commercial door-to-door solicitation. Aptive Environmental, LLC sold pest-control services through door-to-door solicitation and encouraged its salespeople to go door-to-door until dusk during the traditional business week. When Aptive came to Castle Rock in 2017, it struggled to sell its services as successfully as it had in other nearby markets. Blaming the Curfew, Aptive sued Castle Rock for violating its First Amendment rights and sought an injunction against the Curfew’s enforcement. After a bench trial, the district court permanently enjoined Castle Rock from enforcing the Curfew. Castle Rock appealed. After review, the Tenth Circuit concluded Castle Rock failed to demonstrate the Curfew advanced its substantial interests in a direct and material way. View "Aptive Environmental v. Town of Castle Rock" on Justia Law

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An Immigration Judge with the Board of Immigration Appeals moved sua sponte to reopen Juvenal Reyes-Vargas' removal proceedings. The Board ruled that under 8 C.F.R. 1003.23(b)(1) the Board ruled that this regulation removed the IJ’s jurisdiction to reopen an alien’s removal proceedings after the alien has departed the United States (the regulation’s “post-departure bar”). The Tenth Circuit reviewed the Board's interpretation of its regulation using the framework announced in Kisor v. Wilkie, 139 S. Ct. 2400 (2019), which clarified when and how courts defer to an agency interpreting its own regulations. Under that case, the Tenth Circuit determined it could defer to the Board’s interpretation only if the Court concluded, after rigorously applying all interpretative tools, that the regulation presented a genuine ambiguity and that the agency’s reading was reasonable and entitled to controlling weight. Applying this framework here, the Tenth Circuit concluded the regulation was not genuinely ambiguous on the issue in dispute: whether the post-departure bar eliminated the IJ’s jurisdiction to move sua sponte to reopen removal proceedings. In fact, the regulation’s plain language conclusively answered the question: the post-departure bar applies to a party’s “motion to reopen,” not to the IJ’s own sua sponte authority to reopen removal proceedings. So the Court did not defer, and granted Reyes-Vargas’s petition for review, vacated the Board’s decision, and remanded for further proceedings. On remand, the Board had to review the IJ’s conclusory decision that Reyes-Vargas had not shown “exceptional circumstances” as required before an IJ can move sua sponte to reopen removal proceedings. View "Reyes-Vargas v. Barr" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellee Dana Zzyym did not identify as either male or female, rather intersex. The United States State Department refused Zzyym's application for a passport. Zzyym sued, alleging that the State Department's reliance on a binary sex policy: (1) exceeded its statutory authority; (2) was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act; and (3) violated the federal Constitution. The district court concluded that as a matter of law, the State Department violated the APA on Zzyym's first two grounds; the court did not reach the constitutional claims. After review, the Tenth Circuit concluded the State Department acted within its authority. but exercised this authority in an arbitrary and capricious manner. The State Department gave five reasons for denying Zzyym’s request for a passport. Two of the reasons were supported by the administrative record, but three others weren’t. "Given the State Department’s partial reliance on three unsupported reasons, we don’t know whether the State Department would have denied Zzyym’s request if limited to the two supported reasons. The district court thus should have remanded to the State Department to reconsider the policy based only on the two reasons supported by the record." View "Zzyym v. Pompeo" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Nancy Marks was serving a prison term in Colorado when she obtained entry into a community corrections program operated by Intervention Community Corrections Services (Intervention). To stay in the program, plaintiff needed to remain employed. But while participating in the program, she aggravated a previous disability and Intervention deemed her unable to work. So Intervention terminated plaintiff from the program and returned her to prison. Plaintiff sued, blaming her regression on two Colorado agencies,: the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) and the Colorado Department of Criminal Justice (CDCJ). In the suit, plaintiff sought damages and prospective relief based on: (1) a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act; and (2) a denial of equal protection. The district court dismissed the claims for prospective relief and granted summary judgment to the CDOC and CDCJ on the remaining claims, holding: (1) the Rehabilitation Act did not apply because Intervention had not received federal funding; (2) neither the CDOC nor the CDCJ could incur liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act or Rehabilitation Act for Intervention’s decision to regress plaintiff; and (3) plaintiff did not show the regression decision lacked a rational basis. After review, the Tenth Circuit agreed that (1) claims for prospective relief were moot and (2) neither the CDOC nor CDCJ violated plaintiff's right to equal protection. However, the Court reversed on the award of summary judgment on claims involving the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, finding the trial court mistakenly concluded the Rehabilitation Act did not apply because Intervention had not received federal funding, and mistakenly focused on whether the CDOC and CDCJ could incur liability under the Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disabilities Act for a regression decision unilaterally made by Intervention, "This focus reflects a misunderstanding of Ms. Marks’s claim and the statutes." The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Marks v. Colorado Dept. of Corrections" on Justia Law