Justia Civil Procedure Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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Plaintiff, Steve Strauss, brought claims against Defendant, Angie’s List, Inc., alleging violations of the Lanham Act. Strauss owned a tree trimming/removal business called Classic Tree Care (“Classic”). Defendant Angie’s List was an internet-based consumer ratings forum on which fee-paying members could view and share reviews of local businesses. According to Strauss, the membership agreement between Angie’s List and its members lead members to believe that businesses were ranked by Angie’s List according to unedited consumer commentaries and endorsements when, in reality, the order in which businesses were ranked was actually based on the amount of advertising the business bought from Angie’s List. He alleged businesses were told they will be ranked more favorably on the website if they paid advertising and referral fees to Angie’s List. According to Strauss, from 2005 to 2016 he paid $200,000 in advertising services fees and coupon retention percentages to Angie’s List “in an effort to appear higher” in search results. The business relationship between Strauss and Angie’s List, however, began to sour in 2013. Strauss alleged he failed to appear in search results for a three-month period and then was “buried” in search-result listings even though he had numerous favorable reviews and a high rating from consumers. In September 2017, Strauss filed a putative class action lawsuit against Angie’s List, raising allegations that Angie’s List engaged in false advertising in violation of section 45(a) of the Lanham Act, as well as the Kansas Consumer Protection Act (KCPA). Strauss appealed when the district court dismissed his complaint on the basis that it failed to identify any statements made by Angie’s List that qualified as commercial advertising or promotion within the meaning of the Lanham Act’s false advertising provision. Strauss contended the district court erred by analyzing his claims under the test adopted by the Tenth Circuit in Proctor & Gamble Co. v. Haugen, 222 F.3d 1262 (10th Cir. 2000) (adopting a four-part test for determining what constitutes commercial advertising or promotion). Finding no reversible error, however, the Tenth Circuit affirmed dismissal of Strauss’ case. View "Strauss v. Angie's List" on Justia Law

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Arthur Noreja appeals the denial of his claim for disability benefits. Noreja filed his disability claim in March 2012. In July 2013, following a hearing, an ALJ issued a detailed written order – exceeding 13 pages with single spacing – in which she denied Noreja’s claim. The ALJ found Noreja had several severe impairments, including “arthritis of the left upper extremity and right lower extremity,” “cognitive disorder,” and “headaches.” Nevertheless, the ALJ determined that these impairments (or a combination of the impairments) did not warrant relief. The ALJ found that Noreja had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to do “medium” work, subject to various limitations, and that there were “jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy” which Noreja could perform. The Appeals Council disagreed with the ALJ’s assessment, and remanded with direction for further proceedings. Once more, however, the ALJ determined that Noreja did not have “an impairment or combination of impairments” that warranted relief, reiterated that Noreja had the RFC to do "medium" work, subject to various limitations, and that there were jobs in existence "in significant numbers" which Noreja could perform. The ALJ did not obtain a new consultative mental examination before issuing her May 2016 decision, but she procured additional evidence regarding Noreja’s impairments. On appeal of the second ALJ decision, Noreja alleged the ALJ failed to follow an instruction in the Appeals Council's remand order. The Tenth Circuit held: (1) it had jurisdiction to determine whether an alleged ALJ violation of an Appeals Council order warranted reversal; but (2) the Court's “usual” review standards remained in force, meaning that the alleged violation was material only if it showed the ALJ meaningfully failed to apply the correct legal standards, or the denial of benefits was unsupported by substantial evidence; and (3) applying those standards here, the ALJ’s denial of Noreja’s application had to be affirmed. View "Noreja v. Commissioner, SSA" on Justia Law

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The Colorado Roadless Rule, which the Forest Service adopted in 2012, prohibits road construction in designated areas but included an exception for the North Fork Coal Mining Area (the “North Fork Exception”). In prior litigation, a district court concluded agency decisions violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) and the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), and vacated the North Fork Exception. Following these decisions, the Forest Service prepared a Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement (“North Fork SFEIS”) and readopted the Exception, Roadless Area Conservation. Mountain Coal Company, LLC, submitted lease modification requests in connection with coal leases in the area. In response, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) issued a Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement (“Leasing SFEIS”) and approved the requests. In the lawsuit that followed, a coalition of environmental organizations alleged the agencies violated NEPA and the APA by unreasonably eliminating alternatives from detailed study in the North Fork SFEIS and the Leasing SFEIS. The district court rejected these challenges. After review, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed as to the North Fork SFEIS, holding that the Forest Service violated NEPA by failing to study in detail the “Pilot Knob Alternative” proposed by plaintiffs. Accordingly, the matter was remanded to the district court with instructions to vacate the North Fork Exception. With respect to the Leasing SFEIS, the Tenth Circuit held NEPA did not require consideration of the “Methane Flaring Alternative” proposed by plaintiffs. View "High Country Conservation v. United States Forest Service" on Justia Law

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RW Trucking pumped fracking water from frac tanks at oil-well sites and hauled it away for disposal. Jason Metz worked as a driver for RW Trucking. When his trailer reached capacity, Metz turned off the pump and disengaged the hose. According to Metz, he then left a ticket in the truck of another well-site worker, David Garza. Metz testified that as he began walking back to his truck’s cab from its passenger side, and about sixty feet from the frac tanks, he flicked his lighter to light a cigarette. This ignited fumes and caused a flash fire that injured Garza (as well as Metz and another nearby RW Trucking employee). In this appeal and cross-appeal, the issue presented for the Tenth Circuit's review was which of two insurers’ insurance policies covered bodily injuries. Carolina Casualty Insurance Company and Burlington Insurance Company had earlier issued policies to RW Trucking. By design, the two policies dovetailed each other’s coverage. Each insurer contended that the other was solely liable to indemnify the insureds, RW Trucking and Metz, for damages arising from Garza’s bodily injuries suffered in the fire. After Burlington and Carolina jointly settled Garza’s claims, with each reserving its rights against the other, Carolina filed this declaratory-judgment action, contending that it had no duty to defend or indemnify RW Trucking or Metz, and seeking reimbursement of its paid portion of Garza’s settlement. On cross motions for summary judgment, the district court ruled: (1) that Carolina owed a duty to defend but not a duty to indemnify; (2) Burlington owed a duty to indemnify (and so implicitly, also a duty to defend); (3) that Carolina paid its share of the settlement as a volunteer, disabling itself from recovering its portion of the settlement payment from Burlington; and (4) that Carolina owed Burlington for half the total defense costs. After review, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court as to the duty-to-defend and voluntary-payment issues, and affirmed on the duty-to-indemnify issue. The Court remanded with the instruction that the district court vacate its judgment granting Burlington reimbursement of half its defense costs. View "Carolina Casualty Ins. Co. v. Burlington Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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In the early morning hours of March 10, 2012, as hundreds of people emptied out of bars and concert venues in Wichita’s Old Town neighborhood at closing time, two Wichita Police Officers fatally shot Marquez Smart. Smart’s estate and heirs sued the City of Wichita, along with Officers Lee Froese and Aaron Chaffee, alleging the officers used excessive force. Smart. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Officers Froese and Chaffee on the basis of qualified immunity, reasoning that although the jury could find that the officers had violated Smart’s right to be free from excessive force, the officers had not violated clearly established law under the facts presented. The district court also granted summary judgment in favor of the City. After review, the Tenth Circuit determined there was evidence from which the jury could conclude that the officers were mistaken in their belief that Smart was an active shooter. And there was also evidence from which the jury could conclude, with the benefit of hindsight, their mistake was not reasonable. The court affirmed summary judgment as to all defendants on the first two claims of violation of constitutional rights, and as to Officer Froese and the City with respect to the third claim. But the Court reversed judgment as to Officer Chaffee on Smart’s claim that Officer Chaffee fired the final shots after it would have been apparent to a reasonable officer that Smart was no longer a threat. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Smart v. City of Wichita" on Justia Law

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In an earlier appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Wyoming’s anti-indemnity statute would not defeat possible insurance coverage to an additional insured. In this second appeal and cross-appeal, the issue presented for the Court's review centered on whether the district court correctly ruled that additional-insured coverage existed under the applicable insurance policies; whether the district court entered judgment for the additional insured in an amount greater than the policy limits; and whether the district court correctly ruled that the additional insured was not entitled to prejudgment interest and attorneys’ fees. Ultra Resources, Inc. held a lease for a Wyoming well site. In January 2007, Ultra contracted with Upstream International, LLC under a Master Service Agreement to manage the well site. The Ultra-Upstream contract required Upstream to obtain insurance policies with a stated minimum amount of coverage for Ultra and Ultra’s contractors and subcontractors. To do so, Upstream obtained two policies from Lexington Insurance Company - a General Liability Policy (“General Policy”) and a Commercial Umbrella Policy (“Umbrella Policy”). Lexington issued and delivered the two policies in Texas. Ultra contracted with Precision Drilling (“Precision”) to operate a drilling rig at the well site. Precision maintained a separate insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London (“Lloyd’s”), covering Precision for primary and excess liability. Upstream employed Darrell Jent as a contract management of some Ultra well sites. Jent assumed that Precision employees had already attached and tightened all A-leg bolts on a rig platform. In fact, Precision employees had loosened the A-leg bolts (which attach the A-legs to the derrick) and had not properly secured these bolts. After supervising the pin removal, Jent had just left the rig floor and reached “the top step leading down from the rig floor” when the derrick fell because of the “defectively bolted ‘A- legs’ attaching the derrick to the rig floor.” Jent was seriously injured after being thrown from the steps, and sued Precision for negligence. Precision demanded that Ultra defend and indemnify it as required by the Ultra-Precision drilling contract. Ultra, in turn, demanded that Upstream defend Precision under the insurance policies required by the Ultra-Upstream Contract. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court ruled correctly on each issue presented, so it affirmed. View "Lexington Insurance Company v. Precision Drilling Company" on Justia Law

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A district court dismissed Plaintiff–Appellant Lawrence Smallen and Laura Smallen Revocable Living Trust’s securities-fraud class action against Defendant–Appellee The Western Union Company and several of its current and former executive officers (collectively, “Defendants”). Following the announcements of Western Union’s settlements with regulators in January 2017 and the subsequent drop in the price of the company’s stock shares, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on behalf of itself and other similarly situated shareholders. In its complaint, Plaintiff alleged Defendants committed securities fraud by making false or materially misleading public statements between February 24, 2012, and May 2, 2017 regarding, among other things, Western Union’s compliance with anti-money laundering and anti-fraud laws. The district court dismissed the complaint because Plaintiff failed to adequately plead scienter under the heightened standard imposed by the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (“PSLRA”). While the Tenth Circuit found the complaint may have given rise to some plausible inference of culpability on Defendants' part, the Court concurred Plaintiff failed to plead particularized facts giving rise to the strong inference of scienter required to state a claim under the PSLRA, thus affirming dismissal. View "Smallen Revocable Living Trust v. Western Union Company" on Justia Law

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Dr. Dennis Rivero appealed the grant of summary judgment awarded in favor of the University of New Mexico Board of Regents (Defendant). Dr. Rivero was employed full-time by the University of New Mexico Hospital (UNMH) from 1992 until early 2007, when he voluntarily decreased his workload to one day per month while he worked full-time in Oklahoma. After several months on this schedule, Rivero asked the chair of the UNMH orthopedics department, Dr. Robert Schenck, if he could return to full-time or three-quarter-time employment. For several years nothing came of this request, and Rivero continued to work in Oklahoma while spending only one day per month performing surgeries at UNMH. In December 2010, Schenck and Rivero agreed that Rivero could gradually reach a three-quarter-time position if he complied with certain conditions, namely that Rivero “attend four counseling sessions” before his workload would be increased. UNMH sent Rivero an addendum to his employment contract (the Addendum) to formalize the terms of the agreement. Rivero was “shocked by the requirements of the Addendum” and sought access to his personnel files. The University refused to turn over his files and withdrew the Addendum about two weeks later. Rivero continued to work one day a month at UNMH. After UNMH refused to let his see his personnel files, Rivero petitioned for a writ of mandamus in New Mexico state court seeking an order that UNMH provide him access to the files. The court ordered production of the files, and by January 2014 Rivero had received his complete files. He resigned from his position with UNMH a few months later, and pursued relief with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After receiving a right-to-sue letter from the Agency, Rivero filed the underlying suit, alleging UNMH violated the Rehabilitation Act by requiring psychiatric evaluations and constructively discharging him on the basis of a perceived disability. After review, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded summary judgment was appropriate: (1) Rivero’s claim relating to the Rehabilitation Act was untimely; and (2) his claim that he was constructively discharged was not supported by the evidence presented. View "Rivero v. Univ. N.M. Board of Regents" on Justia Law

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Under Colorado law, employers must pay all employees time-and-a-half wages for overtime hours, with certain exemptions. Employers need not pay overtime wages to “companions, casual babysitters, and domestic employees employed by households or family members to perform duties in private residences.” The question this case presented for the Tenth Circuit’s review was whether “companions” working for third-party employers (rather than for households or family members) fell within the companionship exemption. The Court determined they do. Accordingly, it reversed the district court’s judgment concluding otherwise. View "Jordan v. Maxim Healthcare Services" on Justia Law

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In 2013, a Wyoming court declared Andrew Johnson actually innocent of crimes for which he was then incarcerated. In 2017, after his release, Johnson brought suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against the City of Cheyenne, Wyoming, the Estate of Detective George Stanford (“the Estate”), and Officer Alan Spencer, alleging they were responsible for violations of his constitutional rights that contributed to his conviction. While incarcerated, however, Johnson had unsuccessfully brought similar suits against Cheyenne and Detective Stanford in 1991 (“1991 Action”) and against Officer Spencer in 1992 (“1992 Action”). The central question before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was what effect the judgments against Johnson in his 1991 and 1992 Actions had on his 2017 Action. Answering this question required the Court to resolve two primary issues: (1) in addition to filing the 2017 Action, Johnson moved the district court under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) for relief from the judgments in the 1991 and 1992 Actions, which Johnson contended the district court erred in denying; and (2) Cheyenne, the Estate and Officer Spencer each successfully moved to dismiss the 2017 Action because its claims were precluded by judgments in the 1991 and 1992 Actions, and Johnson likewise contended the court’s decision was made in error. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court erred by denying Rule 60(b)(6) relief, and so those orders were vacated for reconsideration under the correct legal rubric. Because of the Court’s remand of Johnson’s Rule 60(b)(6) motions did not actually grant such relief (Rule 60(b)(6) relief is discretionary), the Tenth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s dismissal of the 2017 Action. Specifically, the Tenth Circuit affirmed dismissal of claims against Cheyenne and the Estate because the judgment in the 1991 action was entitled to claim--reclusive effect. The Court reversed, however, dismissal of the claims against Officer Spencer because the judgment in 1992 was not on the merits, and thus, was not entitled to claim--reclusive effect. View "Johnson v. Spencer" on Justia Law