Justia Colorado Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Rights

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In May 2014, Woodmen Hills Metropolitan District (“Woodmen Hills”) held an election to fill vacant positions on its board of directors, and Ron Pace was one of the candidates. Several months before the election, a group of Woodmen Hills residents formed Alliance for a Safe and Independent Woodmen Hills (“Alliance”), a non-profit organization headed by Sarah Brittain Jack, to educate Woodmen Hills residents about issues affecting their community. Alliance subsequently undertook efforts advocating Pace’s defeat in the upcoming election, including creating direct mailings to Woodmen Hills residents, and the creation of a Facebook page “sharply critical” of Pace. The issues this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court’s review in this case centered on two questions regarding the meaning of article XXVIII, section 9(2)(a) of the Colorado Constitution. The first called for the definition of “violation” was, and whether section 9(2)(a)’s one-year statute of limitations for private campaign finance enforcement actions was triggered and could extend beyond the dates adjudicated and penalized in the decision being enforced. The second issue called for a decision of whether the attorney fees provision in section 9(2)(a) was self-executing or whether it had to be read together with section 13-17-102(6), C.R.S. (2019), to limit attorney fee awards against a pro se party. With regard to the first question, the Supreme Court concluded the term “violation,” referred to the violation as adjudicated and penalized in the decision being enforced. Accordingly, the division erred in perceiving a possible continuing violation under section 9(2)(a). Therefore, the enforcement action in this case was barred by the one-year statute of limitations. With regard to the second question, the Court concluded section 9(2)(a)’s language stating that “[t]he prevailing party in a private enforcement action shall be entitled to reasonable attorneys fees and costs” was indeed self-executing and that section 13-17-102(6) could not be construed to limit or nullify section 9(2)(a)’s unconditional award of attorney fees to the prevailing party. The Court reversed the trial court’s judgment to the contrary and concluded Alliance and Jack, as prevailing parties, were entitled to an award of the reasonable attorney fees that they incurred in the district and appellate courts in this case. View "Alliance for a Safe and Independent Woodmen Hills v. Campaign" on Justia Law

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T.T. sought to ensure that his name was not linked to the record of his earlier short-term commitment for treatment of a mental health condition. Under section 27-65-107(7), C.R.S. (2018), when a person is released from short-term treatment for a mental health condition, the clerk of the district court shall seal the record in the case and omit the name of the person from the court’s “index of cases.” The key question in this case was whether “Eclipse,” the user interface of the Colorado judicial branch’s computerized case management system, was an “index of cases” as contemplated by section 27-65-107(7). The Colorado Supreme Court concluded the reference to “index of cases” in section 27-65-107(7) contemplated a list of matters before the court that could be used to locate the actual court records for those matters. The Eclipse user interface itself contained no data, and neither Eclipse nor its underlying database, ICON, functioned as an “index” or list of cases. Thus, contrary to the court of appeals’ ruling, section 27-65-107(7) did not require the court clerk to remove T.T.’s name from the ICON/Eclipse case management system. Moreover, to remove an individual’s name from this case management system would thwart the court’s statutory obligations to link the record of a short-term mental health case with subsequent cases involving that individual and to share certain information with the federal government. Because the district court cannot comply with the relief directed by the court of appeals, the Supreme Court discharged the rule to show cause. View "In re People in the Interest of T.T." on Justia Law

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Gordon Roy Butt sought to run for Colorado senate for the Libertarian Party in a 2013 recall election. The Secretary of State denied his request to circulate a petition because his request came after the deadline as then set by section 1-12-117(1). Butt and the Libertarian Party (collectively, “the Party”) sued the Secretary under section 1-1-113, C.R.S. (2017), alleging that the statutory deadline conflicted with the Colorado Constitution. Within the section 1-1-113 proceeding, the Party also raised a claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. 1983 (2012), and an accompanying request for an award of attorney’s fees under 42 U.S.C. 1988 (2012), alleging, inter alia, a First Amendment violation. The district court found for the Party on the state constitutional claim, and did not address the section 1983 claim. After the Colorado Supreme Court denied appellate review on a split vote, further proceedings occurred before the district court. The case was appealed once again, and the Supreme Court denied review again. Nine months later, the Party returned to district court seeking summary judgment on its section 1983 claim and, in the alternative, an attorney’s fee award under section 1988 on the ground that the Party had been successful on its state constitutional claim. The district court denied the Party’s request for attorney’s fees, finding that it had not pursued fees in a timely manner. It also dismissed the section 1983 claim as moot due to the General Assembly’s 2014 amendment of section 1-12-117(1). The court of appeals reversed the district court, holding that although the Party’s section 1983 claim was moot, the request for attorney’s fees under section 1988 was appropriate so long as the section 1983 claim was substantial, stemmed from the same nucleus of operative facts as the state constitutional claim, and was reasonably related to the plaintiff’s ultimate success. The court remanded the case to the district court to apply this test to determine whether the Party was entitled to fees. The Colorado Secretary of State appealed, and the Supreme Court reversed: a section 1983 claim may not be brought in a section 1-1-113 proceeding. The language of that section repeatedly refers to "this code," meaning the Colorado Election Code. Therefore, a section 1-1-113 proceeding is limited to allegations of a “breach or neglect of duty or other wrongful act” under the election code itself. § 1-1-113(1). We emphasize that Colorado courts remain entirely open for adjudication of section 1983 claims, including on an expedited basis if a preliminary injunction is sought, and that therefore section 1-1-113 does not run afoul of the Supremacy Clause. View "Williams v. Libertarian Party" on Justia Law

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Ryan Frazier ran as a Republican candidate for United States Senate. After the Colorado Secretary of State determined that Frazier had not gathered enough sufficient signatures to appear on the ballot, Frazier challenged the Secretary’s determination under section 1-1-113, C.R.S. (2017), arguing that the Secretary improperly invalidated hundreds of signatures that substantially complied with the Colorado Election Code. Frazier also brought a claim under 42 U.S.C. 1983 (2012) arguing that certain Colorado statutes prohibiting non-resident circulators from gathering signatures violated the First Amendment. Frazier filed an accompanying request for attorney’s fees as authorized by 42 U.S.C. 1988 (2012). The district court ruled that the Secretary had properly invalidated certain signatures such that Frazier could not appear on the primary ballot. Frazier then appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, which remanded for reconsideration of a number of signatures under the appropriate standard. On remand, the district court found that additional signatures substantially complied with the code, providing Frazier with sufficient signatures to appear on the Republican primary ballot for United States Senate. No ruling was made on Frazier’s section 1983 claim. Frazier then sought attorney’s fees pursuant to section 1988. The Secretary opposed the fee request, arguing that federal claims such as section 1983 may not be brought in summary proceedings under section 1-1-113. The district court disagreed, finding Frazier was entitled to an award of attorney’s fees. The Colorado Supreme Court held that where the language of section 1-1-113 allows a claim to be brought against an election official who has allegedly committed a "breach or neglect of duty or other wrongful act" under the Colorado Election Code, it refers to a breach of duty or other wrongful action under the Colorado Election Code, not a section 1983 claim. "Colorado courts remain entirely open for the adjudication of section 1983 claims, including on an expedited basis if a preliminary injunction is sought, and that therefore section 1-1-113 does not run afoul of the Supremacy Clause." View "Frazier v. Williams" on Justia Law

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Upon obtaining information that Steven Bleck was suicidal and possibly armed, officers with the Alamosa Police Department, including petitioner Jeffrey Martinez, entered Bleck’s hotel room. Bleck did not respond to the officers’ command to show his hands and lie down on the floor. Martinez approached him, and, without holstering his weapon, attempted to subdue him. In the process, the firearm discharged, injuring Bleck. As relevant here, Bleck brought suit against Martinez in federal court, alleging excessive force and a state law battery claim. The federal court granted summary judgment and dismissed Bleck’s federal claim, concluding that there was no evidence that the shooting was intentional. After the federal district court declined to assert supplemental jurisdiction over the state law battery claim, Bleck refiled the claim in state district court. Martinez then moved to dismiss the state law claims against him, arguing he was immune from suit and that his actions were not "willful and wanton." The trial court denied the motion, reasoning that Martinez should have known the situation would have been dangerous by not holstering his weapon prior to subduing Bleck. The court of appeals determined it lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeal, and did not consider Martinez' claim that the trial court applied the wrong "willful and wanton" standard before deciding his motion to dismiss. The Supreme Court agreed that the trial court applied the wrong standard, and that the court of appeals erred in not hearing the appeal. Furthermore, the Supreme Court found the trial court erred by not determining all issues relating to Martinez' immunity claim. View "Martinez v. Estate of Bleck" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Fabian Sebastian filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 (2014) action against Douglas County, the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, the Douglas County Sheriff David Weaver, and Deputy Greg Black. Petitioner alleged his Fourth Amendment right was violated when he was attacked by a K-9 police dog. The dog was released by the deputy to seize two suspects who fled a vehicle and climbed a fence; petitioner was sitting with his hands up, in the vehicle's backseat. Petitioner failed to respond to the County's motion to dismiss, then moved to set aside the resulting dismissal, claiming excusable neglect. The trial court denied petitioner's motion, and petitioner appealed. The court of appeals reversed and remanded the case for a full three-factor analysis under "Goodman Assocs., LLC v. Mountain Properties, LLC." The trial court performed the analysis, again denied petitioner's motion. On appeal, petitioner argued the appellate court erred in its conclusion that he did not allege a meritorious claim. The Supreme Court affirmed, but on narrower grounds: petitioner failed to allege a meritorious claim because his allegations regarding an intentional seizure consisted only of legal conclusions. View "Sebastian v. Douglas County" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit certified a question of Colorado law to the Colorado Supreme Court. The issue centered on whether the City of Englewood's Ordinance 34 (effectively barring sex offenders from residing within the city) was preempted by Colorado law. The federal district court in this case concluded that such a conflict did exist because Colorado had generally opted for a policy of individualized treatment of sex offenders, and the ordinance acted as a bar to residency. The Colorado Supreme Court disagreed with the federal district court and found no conflict. With no conflict between state law and the ordinance, the Colorado Court concluded Ordinance 34 was not preempted. The case was returned to the Tenth Circuit for further proceedings. View "Ryals v. City of Englewood" on Justia Law

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Respondents Jason Rodgers and James Hazel brought a 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim against the Summit County Board of County Commissioners alleging the County violated the Equal Protection Clause of the federal Constitution when it denied them a certificate of occupancy to their newly built home. The trial court issued partial directed verdicts against respondents on three of the four allegedly discriminatory actions they named in their complaint. On appeal, the court of appeals reversed, concluding C.R.C.P. 50 did not permit partial directed verdicts, and that the trial court improperly considered the County' actions as separate issues rather than a pattern of conduct. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed the appellate court's ruling, finding that because Rule 50 is close to the summary judgment rule (C.R.C.P. 56) which permits partial judgments, the two rules should be interpreted in tandem. The Court could find "no convincing justification . . . for permitting partial summary judgments but not partial directed verdicts." The Court also disagreed with the court of appeals' additional rationale that the trial court misunderstood the nature of respondents' claim, as respondents requested the trial court to consider the four allegedly discriminatory actions as separate acts, rather than a pattern of conduct. View "Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs of Summit Cty. v. Rodgers" on Justia Law

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In an original proceeding, the issue before the Supreme Court in this case was whether an indigent alleged juvenile offender was entitled as of right to a second competency evaluation at the State's expense. Upon receiving an competency evaluation report, the trial court made a preliminary finding that "W.P." was competent to proceed. However, citing ongoing concerns about her client's mental health, W.P.'s public defender objected, requesting a hearing and filing a motion for a second competency evaluation at the State's expense. At the motion hearing, the public defender stated that because the juvenile code was silent, the statutory authority relied upon referred to the adult code which entitled the second evaluation at the State's expense. Concluding that the Children's Code was "specifically silent on that issue," the district court determined that the adult provisions did not apply and denied the request for a second evaluation. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied the public defender's request for a second evaluation. View "In re People in the Interest of W.P." on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the Supreme Court reviewed a court of appeals' opinion in "Churchill v. Univ. of Colo. at Boulder," whereby the underlying civil action involved claims brought by Professor Ward Churchill pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 after his tenured employment was terminated by the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado. Churchill alleged that the Regents violated his constitutionally protected free speech rights by initiating an investigation into his academic integrity and by terminating his tenured employment in retaliation for his publication of a controversial essay. Churchill sought both compensatory and equitable relief. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's dismissal of Churchill's termination claim on grounds that the Regents' quasi-judicial actions were entitled to absolute immunity. It also affirmed the trial court's dismissal of Churchill's claim for equitable remedies because it concluded that such remedies were not available in a Section 1983 action against quasi-judicial officials. Lastly, based on its determination that allegedly retaliatory employment investigations are not actionable under Section 1983, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court's directed verdict in favor of the University on Churchill's bad faith investigation claim. Upon review, the Supreme Court affirmed, but on different grounds: (1) the Court held that the Regents' decision to terminate Churchill's employment was a quasi-judicial action functionally comparable to a judicial process, and that the Regents were entitled to absolute immunity concerning their decision; (2) the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it ruled that Churchill was not entitled to the equitable remedies of reinstatement and front pay; and (3) Churchill’s bad faith investigation claim was barred by qualified immunity because the Regents' investigation into Churchill's academic record does not implicate a clearly established statutory or constitutional right or law. View "Churchill v. University of Colorado at Boulder" on Justia Law