Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

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Benjamin Grice suffered severe burns after an oil pump exploded at the refinery where he worked. He and his wife brought suit against the refinery’s two parent corporations, CVR Energy and CVR Refining, alleging the parent companies assumed responsibility for workplace safety at the oil refinery by entering into a services agreement for the benefit of Grice’s employer, Coffeyville Resources. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the parent companies, concluding that the agreement did not obligate them to provide safety services to the oil refinery. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit concluded: (1) CVR Refining should have been dismissed as a party under 28 U.S.C. 1332, to preserve complete diversity of citizenship; and (2) the company did not have a duty to Grice to maintain the oil pump since the services agreement was for administrative and legal services and not for safety services that would subject CVR Energy to liability under Kansas law. View "Grice v. CVR Energy" on Justia Law

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Lou Hodges submitted a claim for long-term-disability (LTD) benefits to Life Insurance Company of North America (LINA) through his employer’s group-insurance plan. Although LINA approved his claim, Hodges contended LINA should have classified him as a “sales” employee under the policy, which would have entitled him to more benefits. This led Hodges to sue LINA. The district court remanded for further factfinding, but LINA once again reached the same result. The district court then reversed LINA’s decision, concluding that Hodges qualified as a salesperson under the policy. LINA appealed, but finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed that ruling. View "Hodges v. Life Insurance Co." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-Appellant Jerud Butler was a government employee, a supervisor for the San Miguel County, Colorado, Road and Bridge Department. He alleged his supervisors violated his First Amendment freedom of speech when they demoted him for testifying truthfully in state court as a character witness for his sister-in-law. The state-court proceeding concerned a domestic child custody dispute between Butler’s sister-in-law and her ex-husband, who also worked for the County’s Road and Bridge Department. The district court dismissed Butler’s First Amendment claim with prejudice under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), concluding at step two of the Garcetti/Pickering analysis that Butler’s testimony at the custody hearing, given as a private citizen, was not on a matter of public concern. The Tenth Circuit rejected Butler’s assertion that any truthful sworn testimony given by a government employee in court as a citizen was per se always a matter of public concern. The Tenth Circuit employed a case-by-case approach, considering whether, in this particular case, the content of Butler’s testimony, as well as its form and context, made it speech involving a matter of public concern. After applying such an analysis here, the Court concluded Butler’s testimony during the child custody proceeding was not on a matter of public concern. "Although Butler’s testimony involved a matter of great significance to the private parties involved in the proceeding, it did not relate to any matter of political, social or other concern of the larger community." View "Butler v. Board of County Commissioners" on Justia Law

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John Teets, a participant in an employer retirement plan, invested money in Great-West Life Annuity and Insurance Company’s investment fund which guaranteed investors would never lose their principal or the interest they accrued. The investment fund was offered to employers as an investment option for their employees’ retirement savings plans, which were governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”). Teets later sued Great-West under ERISA, alleging Great-West breached a fiduciary duty to participants in the fund or that Great-West was a nonfiduciary party in interest that benefitted from prohibited transactions with his plan’s assets. After certifying a class of 270,000 plan participants like Mr. Teets, the district court granted summary judgment for Great-West, holding that: (1) Great-West was not a fiduciary; and (2) Mr. Teets had not adduced sufficient evidence to impose liability on Great-West as a non-fiduciary party in interest. Finding no reversible error in that judgment, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment. View "Teets v. Great-West Life" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-Appellant Karna Sacchi obtained an unpaid internship with Defendant-Appellee IHC Health Services, Inc. (the “Hospital”), but her internship was terminated by Defendant-Appellee Joy Singh before it was scheduled to finish. Sacchi filed a complaint alleging: (1) associational discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); (2) sex and religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act; (3) age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA); (4) breach of contract; and (5) defamation against Singh. The district court dismissed Sacchi’s federal claims because it concluded that she was not an employee and therefore not protected under the antidiscrimination statutes. The district court also declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over her non-federal claims and dismissed them without prejudice. On appeal to the Tenth Circuit, Sacchi argued that, in an internship setting, access to professional certification, a path to employment, or both could constitute indirect, significant job-related benefits and thereby satisfy the “threshold-remuneration” test if those benefits are substantial and not incident to the internship. In the alternative, Sacchi argued most unpaid interns were “employees” under federal antidiscrimination statutes. On the facts alleged in Sacchi’s complaint, the Tenth Circuit concluded the benefits claimed were too attenuated and speculative to constitute sufficient remuneration for purposes of the Tenth Circuit's threshold-remuneration test. Accordingly, the Court affirmed dismissal of her case. View "Sacchi v. IHC Health Services" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Anupama Bekkem filed suit against her employer, the Department of Veterans Affairs, based on numerous instances of discrimination and retaliation she allegedly experienced while working as a primary care physician for the VA in the Oklahoma City area. The district court dismissed some of her claims under Rule 12(b)(6) and granted summary judgment in favor of Defendant on the remaining claims. Plaintiff appealed. Finding no reversible error in the trial court's grant of summary judgment on Plaintiff’s claims of discrimination based on unequal pay and retaliation based on her non-selection for the position as North May clinic medical director, and dismissal of her claim of discrimination based on a reprimand she received, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. However, the Court reversed summary judgment as to Plaintiff's claim of retaliation relating to the reprimand, and remanded that claim for further proceedings at the district court. View "Bekkem v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Jason Dean, director of the Labor Relations Division of the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions (“DWS”), appealed a district court's denial of qualified immunity against the claim that he violated Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to substantive due process by failing to issue prevailing rates for wages and fringe benefits as required by New Mexico law. Plaintiffs were individuals who worked on public works projects in New Mexico, who filed claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983 on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated. As a result of this failure, from 2009 to 2015 plaintiffs alleged they did not receive the rates to which they were entitled under the Act. Defendants moved to dismiss, claiming qualified immunity. The district court granted it in part and denied it in part. Specifically, the district court granted the motion in its entirety as to Secretary Bussey, and as to Plaintiffs’ procedural due-process claim against Director Dean. However, the court denied the motion with respect to Director Dean on Plaintiffs’ substantive due-process claim. The Tenth Circuit dismissed plaintiffs' cross-appeal for lack of jurisdiction, and reversed and remanded the denial of qualified immunity as to Director Dean. View "Cummings v. Dean" on Justia Law

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Dennis Woolman, former president of The Clemens Coal Company, challenged a district court’s determination that Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company didn’t breach a duty to him by failing to procure for Clemens Coal an insurance policy with a black-lung disease endorsement. Clemens Coal operated a surface coal mine until it filed for bankruptcy in 1997. Woolman served as Clemens Coal’s last president before it went bankrupt. Federal law required Clemens Coal to maintain worker’s compensation insurance with a special endorsement covering miners’ black-lung disease benefits. Woolman didn’t personally procure insurance for Clemens Coal but instead delegated that responsibility to an outside consultant. The policy the consultant ultimately purchased for the company did not contain a black-lung-claim endorsement, and it expressly excluded coverage for federal occupational disease claims, such as those arising under the Black Lung Benefits Act (the Act). In 2012, a former Clemens Coal employee, Clayton Spencer, filed a claim with the United States Department of Labor (DOL) against Clemens Coal for benefits under the Act. After some investigation, the DOL advised Woolman that Clemens Coal was uninsured for black-lung-benefits claims as of July 25, 1997 (the last date of Spencer’s employment) and that, without such coverage, Woolman, as Clemens Coal’s president, could be held personally liable. Woolman promptly tendered the claim to Liberty Mutual for a legal defense. Liberty Mutual responded with a reservation-of-rights letter, stating that it hadn’t yet determined coverage for Spencer’s claim but that it would provide a defense during its investigation. Then in a follow-up letter, Liberty Mutual clarified that it would defend Clemens Coal as a company (not Woolman personally) and advised Woolman to retain his own counsel. Liberty Mutual eventually concluded that the insurance policy didn’t cover the black-lung claim, and sued Clemens Coal and Woolman for a declaration to that effect. In his suit, Woolman also challenged the district court’s rejection of his argument that Liberty Mutual should have been estopped from denying black-lung-disease coverage, insisting that he relied on Liberty Mutual to provide such coverage. Having considered the totality of the circumstances, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the district court didn’t err in declining Woolman’s extraordinary request to expand the coverages in the Liberty Mutual policy. “Liberty Mutual never represented it would procure the coverage that Woolman now seeks, and the policy itself clearly excludes such coverage. No other compelling consideration justifies rewriting the agreement— twenty years later—to Woolman’s liking.” View "Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance v. Woolman" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-Appellant DTC Energy Group, Inc., sued two of its former employees, Adam Hirschfeld and Joseph Galban, as well as one of its industry competitors, Ally Consulting, LLC, for using DTC’s trade secrets to divert business from DTC to Ally. DTC moved for a preliminary injunction based on its claims for breach of contract, breach of the duty of loyalty, misappropriation of trade secrets, and unfair competition. The district court denied the motion, finding DTC had shown a probability of irreparable harm from Hirschfeld’s ongoing solicitation of DTC clients, but that DTC could not show the ongoing solicitation violated Hirschfeld’s employment agreement. After review, the Tenth Circuit determined the district court did not abuse its discretion when denying DTC's motion for a preliminary injunction, and affirmed. View "DTC Energy Group v. Hirschfeld" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-Appellant Rhonda Nesbitt was a former massage therapy student who attended a for-profit vocational school operated by Defendants-Appellees (“Steiner”).On behalf of a class of former students, Nesbitt brought suit claiming the students qualified as employees of Steiner under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and alleging Steiner violated the FLSA by failing to pay minimum wage. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Steiner, holding that the students were not employees of the schools under the FLSA. Finding no reversible error in the district court’s judgment, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Nesbitt v. FCNH" on Justia Law