Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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Responding to a call to the sheriff’s office that the occupant was intoxicated and possibly suicidal, Deputy Kyle Wilson drove to the home of Shane Bridges. Within seconds of his arrival at the home, Wilson had fired 13 rounds from his semiautomatic handgun at Bridges, hitting him twice and killing him. The shooting led to claims by Plaintiff Janelle Bridges, special administrator of Shane. Bridges’ estate, against Deputy Wilson and the Board of County Commissioners of Mayes County. She sued Wilson under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for allegedly violating Mr. Bridges’ constitutional rights by using unreasonable force, and sued the Board under the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act (OGTCA) based on alleged negligence by Deputy Wilson. The district court granted the Board summary judgment on the ground that the OGTCA did not waive the Board’s immunity from suit because Wilson was acting “as a protector, not as a law enforcer.” The section 1983 claim against Wilson was then tried to a jury, which ruled in Wilson’s favor. At trial Plaintiff contended that when Wilson drove up, Mr. Bridges had briefly opened the door to his home to look outside and had never fired a weapon, but that Wilson began firing at him after he had closed the door and gone inside, where he was hit by shots that pierced the door. Wilson’s account was that Mr. Bridges began firing at him from the porch of the home after he had parked his vehicle, and that Wilson fired only in response to the shots from Mr. Bridges, who then retreated into his home and died. Plaintiff did not dispute the jury verdict on appeal to the Tenth Circuit, but she challenged the summary judgment entered in favor of the Board. After reviewing the briefs and the record, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment in favor of the Board on the ground suggested at oral argument (the Court did not address the immunity issue). “But on the evidence and theories of liability in this case, … a negligence claim under the OGTCA would be incompatible with the jury verdict. Plaintiff could prevail on the merits on each claim if, and only if, Mr. Bridges did not initiate the gun battle by firing at Deputy Wilson from his porch. By rendering a verdict in Wilson’s favor, the jury must have found that Mr. Bridges fired first.” View "Bridges v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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As plaintiff-appellant Julie Huff was at the bank in early 2016, Cedric Norris entered, murdered the bank president, grabbed some money from tellers, and took Huff hostage, forcing her to drive the getaway vehicle. Police officers pursued the vehicle and were able to force it to crash. At first, Norris fired at the officers and fled in one direction while Huff fled away from him. She raised her arms and faced the officers. But they fired at her and she fell to the ground. Later, Norris came up behind her and used her body as a shield. Norris was killed in the shootout. Huff was shot at least 10 times. Huff later filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for violations of her civil rights, alleging, among other things, that Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Chris Reeves used excessive force against her, in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. She also sued McIntosh County Sheriff Kevin Ledbetter for failure to properly train his deputies. The district court granted summary judgment to both defendants. The court found Reeves did not violate Huff’s constitutional rights because he did not shoot her intentionally. And it dismissed the claim against the sheriff on the grounds that Huff could neither demonstrate a predicate constitutional violation by one of his deputies nor identify any specific training deficiency related to the alleged violation. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the Fourteenth Amendment claim against Reeves and the failure-to-train claim against Sheriff Ledbetter, but reversed and remanded on the Fourth Amendment claim against Reeves. The Tenth Circuit held Huff could not invoke Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process in the circumstances of this case, and she failed to point to any additional training of Ledbetter’s personnel that could have prevented the alleged constitutional violation. But the Court concluded that Huff has presented a genuine issue of material fact on whether Reeves shot her intentionally. “And because it is clearly established in this circuit that an officer may not employ deadly force against a person who poses no threat, Reeves is not entitled to qualified immunity at this stage of the proceedings.” View "Huff v. Reeves" on Justia Law

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Dr. Erfan Ibrahim was a Muslim man of Pakistani descent who served as an executive at Alliance for Sustainable Energy until he was fired. Alliance attributed the firing to Dr. Ibrahim’s inappropriate comments to two women; Dr. Ibrahim disagrees, attributing the firing to discrimination based on his race, religion, and gender. Summary judgment was entered in favor of Alliance, rejecting Dr. Ibrahim's allegation that Alliance decided not to fire another executive accused of sexual harassment. The district court rejected the comparison, pointing to differences between the conduct of Dr. Ibrahim and the other executive. The Tenth Circuit concluded these differences involved matters for the factfinder. So judgment was reversed on the claim of race discrimination. View "Ibrahim v. Alliance for Sustainable Nrg." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Joan Unrein became legally blind and could no longer drive herself to work, a 120 mile round trip. She asked her employer, Colorado Plains Medical Center, to allow her to work a flexible schedule dependent on her ability to secure rides. The Medical Center permitted this arrangement for a while, but it became a problem because Unrein’s physical presence at the hospital was unpredictable. The flexible schedule arrangement ended in 2016, and was never reinstated. After Unrein was terminated, she sued the Medical Center for failure to accommodate her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. After a bench trial, the district court entered judgment in favor of the Medical Center because it concluded Unrein’s accommodation request was unreasonable since a physical presence at the hospital on a set and predictable schedule was an essential job function of her position. Unrein appealed. After review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed, agreeing that Unrein’s physical presence at the hospital on a set and predictable schedule was essential to her job, and the ADA did not require an employer to accommodate employees’ non-work related barriers created by personal lifestyle choices. View "Unrein v. PHC-Fort Morgan" on Justia Law

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After Plaintiff-Appellee Levi Frasier video-recorded Denver police officers using force while arresting an uncooperative suspect in public, one of the officers followed Frasier to his car and asked him to provide a statement on what he had seen and to turn over his video of the arrest. Frasier at first denied having filmed the arrest but ultimately showed the officer the tablet computer on which he had video-recorded it. He did so after an officer, Defendant-Appellant Christopher Evans, and four other members of the Denver Police Department (the other Defendants-Appellants) surrounded him and allegedly pressured him to comply with their demand to turn over the video. Frasier contended that when he showed Officer Evans the tablet computer, the officer grabbed it from his hands and searched it for the video without his consent. Frasier sued the five officers under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming they violated and conspired to violate his constitutional rights under both the First and Fourth Amendments. The officers moved the district court for summary judgment on qualified-immunity grounds, and the court granted them qualified immunity on some of Frasier’s claims but denied it to them on others. The district court, as relevant here, held that Officer Evans had reasonable suspicion to detain Frasier throughout their encounter because Frasier lied to him about filming the arrest, thereby potentially violating Colorado Revised Statutes 18-8-111. The court granted Officer Evans qualified immunity on Frasier’s claim that the officer illegally detained him in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and Frasier did not oppose granting summary judgment to the other officers on this claim. Officer Evans did not move for summary judgment on Frasier’s claim that he illegally searched Frasier’s tablet computer in violation of the Fourth Amendment, but the other officers did. The court granted them summary judgment because the record did not support a finding that they personally participated in the alleged search. The district court, however, denied the officers qualified immunity on Frasier’s First Amendment retaliation claim even though it had concluded that Frasier did not have a clearly established right to film a public arrest. The officers appealed the district court’s partial denial of qualified immunity. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court erred and reversed the partial denial of the officers' motions for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Frasier v. Evans" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Keith Sanders, a sergeant with the Montrose County Sheriff’s Office, appealed the denial of his summary judgment motion based on qualified immunity. Plaintiff-appellee Eric Vette filed a verified complaint alleging, among other things, that Sergeant Sanders subjected him to excessive force during the course of his arrest by committing the following acts after Vette had already been apprehended: punching Vette, hitting him in the face with a dog chain, and letting a police dog attack him. Sergeant Sanders moved to dismiss the complaint, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment, arguing he was entitled to qualified immunity. The district court converted Sergeant Sanders’s motion to one for summary judgment and denied it. Sergeant Sanders appealed, invoking the collateral order doctrine as the purported basis for appellate jurisdiction. The Tenth Circuit determined, however, that it lacked jurisdiction over Sergeant Sanders’ appeal to the extent his arguments depended on facts that differed from those the district court assumed in denying his summary judgment motion. Exercising jurisdiction over the abstract issues of law advanced by Sergeant Sanders, the Court held the district court did not err. View "Vette v. Sanders" on Justia Law

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Shawna Tanner, the plaintiff below, appealed an adverse ruling on summary judgment. Tanner was approximately 35 weeks pregnant and in custody at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County, New Mexico when she went into the final stages of her pregnancy. Over the ensuing thirty hours, commencing with the point at which her water broke, Appellees—employees of a nationwide private medical contractor—ignored and minimized her symptoms, refused to transport her to a hospital, and failed to conduct even a cursory pelvic examination. Only minimal attention was given to her: water, Tylenol, and sanitary pads. After thirty hours of pain and trauma, Tanner gave birth to her son. The child was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He was not breathing. He had no pulse. This appeal considered whether full-time employees of a for-profit, multi-state corporation organized to provide contract medical care in detention facilities may assert a qualified immunity defense to shield themselves from 42 U.S.C. 1983 liability. The Tenth Circuit found neither historical justifications of special government immunity nor modern policy considerations supported the extension of a qualified immunity defense to Appellees. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Tanner v. McMurray" on Justia Law

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This case arose from the tragic death of 21-year-old Madison Jensen while in custody of the Duchesne County Jail. Jensen was arrested after her father alerted law enforcement to her drug use and possession of drug paraphernalia. Her estate brought this action for deprivation of civil rights under color of state law. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the county and qualified immunity to jail supervisors and staff, but denied qualified immunity to jail medical personnel, Defendants-Appellants (Nurse) Jana Clyde and Dr. Kennon Tubbs. The district court held that genuine issues of material fact precluded qualified immunity on the Estate’s claims of: (1) deliberate indifference to serious medical needs against Nurse Clyde; and (2) supervisory liability against Dr. Tubbs. The Tenth Circuit ultimately concluded that when an individual’s sole purpose was “to serve as a gatekeeper for other medical personnel,” and that person delays or refuses to fulfill the gatekeeper role, he may be liable for deliberate indifference. Clyde was the gatekeeper in this case, and she failed to fulfill that role when she chose to give Jensen Gatorade instead of calling Dr. Tubbs or PA Clark. Accordingly, Clyde was given sufficient notice that what she was doing violated Jensen’s rights to medical care. The Court affirmed as to Clyde and reversed as to Dr. Tubbs. View "Estate of Madison Jody Jensen v. Clyde" on Justia Law

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Dustin Lance was denied medical treatment for priapsm at a detention center in McAlester, Oklahoma. He ultimately sued the sheriff and four jail guards; summary judgment was entered in favor of all defendants. After review of his appeal, the Tenth Circuit affirmed in part, and reversed in part. Like the district court, the Court concluded that one of the jail guards, Edward Morgan, had qualified immunity because he didn’t violate Lance’s constitutional right to medical care. But the Court concluded that qualified immunity was unavailable to the three other jail guards: Mike Smead, Dakota Morgan, and Daniel Harper. And the sheriff, Chris Morris, was not entitled to summary judgment in his official capacity because the factfinder could reasonably determine that the county’s policies had violated Lance’s constitutional right to medical care. View "Lance v. Board of County Commissioners" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Antonio Hooks alleged Officers Chris Harding and James Irby of the Bethany, Oklahoma, Police Department, used excessive force against him in the course of an arrest, and, separately, that Officer Kayode Atoki exhibited deliberate indifference by failing to intervene during a vicious, gang-related jailhouse assault. The district court screened and dismissed Hooks’s excessive force claim prior to discovery. And after limited discovery, the district court granted Officer Atoki’s motion for summary judgment on the deliberate indifference claim. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit affirmed, in part and reversed, in part. Specifically, the Court reversed the district court’s dismissal of Hooks’s excessive force claim because some of his allegations were not barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). The Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Officer Atoki on Hooks’s deliberate indifference claim. The Court also took the opportunity to clarify that its recent discussion of the deliberate indifference standard in Strain v. Regalado, 977 F.3d 984 (10th Cir. 2020), applied outside the medical context. View "Hooks v. Atoki" on Justia Law