Justia Colorado Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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The four truckers who initiated this action regularly drove more than forty hours per week for their employer, JP Trucking, Inc., a Colorado transport company. The question they presented for the Colorado Supreme Courts review concerned whether they were entitled to overtime pay for hours exceeding forty hours per week or twelve hours per day. The Court surmised the answer depended on the meaning of a state regulation that exempted “interstate drivers” from overtime compensation. The truck drivers and JP Trucking both urged the Supreme Court to declare that the term “interstate drivers” was unambiguous: the truck drivers argued the term referred to drivers whose work predominantly took them across state lines; JP Trucking argued that “interstate drivers” were drivers involved in the transportation of goods in interstate commerce, even if their work never took them across state lines. A division of the Colorado court of appeals determined that “interstate drivers” was unambiguous from JP Trucking’s understanding of the term. The Supreme Court concluded the term was ambiguous, and consistent with a different appellate court division, held that “interstate drivers” refers to drivers whose work takes them across state lines, regardless of how often. Hence, the state exemption from overtime compensation was triggered the first time a driver crosses state lines during a work trip. The case was remanded for further proceedings, namely to allow the appeals court to consider JP Trucking’s remaining contentions regarding the calculation of damages. View "Gomez v. JP Trucking" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review was whether the “McHaffie Rule” applied even where the plaintiff chooses not to assert vicarious liability for an employee’s negligence and, instead, asserts only direct negligence claims against the employer. Here, Erica Murphy Brown and Steven Brown (collectively, “Brown”) sued Denver Center for Birth and Wellness (“DCBW”) for negligence and negligent hiring. Brown also sued Shari Long Romero, a DCBW employee and certified nurse-midwife, for wrongful death. The suit arose from the death of Brown’s child during labor at DCBW. After acknowledging vicarious liability for Long Romero’s negligence - by admitting, in its Answer, that Long Romero’s alleged acts and omissions occurred within the course and scope of her employment - DCBW moved for partial judgment on the pleadings under C.R.C.P. 12(c) on Brown’s negligent hiring claim. The trial court, citing the McHaffie Rule, granted DCBW’s motion and dismissed Brown’s negligent hiring claim—even though Brown had chosen not to assert vicarious liability for Long Romero’s negligence. The Supreme Court held that a plaintiff’s direct negligence claims against an employer are not barred where the plaintiff does not assert vicarious liability for an employee’s negligence. Thus, the trial court erred in granting DCBW’s motion for partial judgment on the pleadings and dismissing Brown’s negligent hiring claim. The Court vacated the trial court's grant of partial judgment on the pleadings, and remanded with directions to reinstate Brown's negligent hiring claim. View "Brown v. Long Romero" on Justia Law

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William Scholle worked for United Airlines, Inc., driving luggage tugs from the terminal to waiting planes, loading or unloading the bags, and returning to the terminal. In June 2012, Scholle was stopped at a stop sign on a return trip to the terminal when he was rear-ended by Daniel Moody, an employee of Delta Air Lines, Inc. Scholle applied for and received workers’ compensation insurance benefits from United, a self-insured employer. United covered all medical expenses resulting from Scholle’s on-the-job injuries, as well as a portion of his lost wages. Scholle’s medical providers produced bills for the services he received that reflected costs in excess of what is permitted by the workers’ compensation fee schedule, though they never tried to collect amounts beyond those permitted by statute. United exercised its subrogation right and sued Delta and Moody to recover the payments it made to and on behalf of Scholle. Scholle separately sued Delta and Moody for negligence, seeking to recover compensation for damages as a result of the collision. Eventually, Delta settled United’s subrogation claim; Scholle’s claims against Moody were later dismissed, leaving only Scholle and Delta as parties. Delta admitted liability for the accident, and the case went to trial on damages. In pretrial motions in limine, Scholle argued that the collateral source rule should preclude Delta from admitting evidence of the amount paid by Scholle’s workers’ compensation insurance to cover the medical expenses arising from his injuries. Instead, Scholle contended, the higher amounts billed by his medical providers reflected the true reasonable value of the medical services provided to him and should have been admissible at trial. The trial court disagreed, reasoning that when Delta settled with United, it effectively paid Scholle’s medical expenses, such that amounts paid for those expenses were no longer payments by a collateral source. The court further noted that, under the workers’ compensation statute, any amount billed for medical treatment in excess of the statutory fee schedule was “unlawful,” “void,” and “unenforceable.” The Colorado Supreme Court concluded that when, as here, a workers’ compensation insurer settles its subrogation claim for reimbursement of medical expenses with a third-party tortfeasor, the injured employee’s claim for past medical expenses is extinguished completely. "Because the injured employee need not present evidence of either billed or paid medical expenses in the absence of a viable claim for such expenses, the collateral source rule is not implicated under these circumstances. The court of appeals therefore erred in remanding for a new trial on medical expenses based on a perceived misapplication of that rule." View "Delta Air Lines, Inc. v. Scholle" on Justia Law

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In December 2015, Joseph Gill was injured in an on-the-job car accident when he was struck by a truck owned by Swift Transportation Company, LLC (“Swift”), driven by Christopher Waltz. As a result of the injuries he suffered in the accident, Gill obtained workers’ compensation benefits through Pinnacol Assurance (“Pinnacol”) to cover his medical expenses. Gill’s medical providers produced bills totaling $627,809.76 for the services he received. However, because Colorado’s workers’ compensation scheme caps the amount that medical providers can charge, Pinnacol satisfied all of Gill’s past medical expenses for significantly less. Pinnacol then pursued, and ultimately settled, its subrogation claim with Swift. Gill and his wife subsequently sued Swift and Waltz for damages resulting from the accident, and the case was removed from state court to the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. Swift sought partial summary judgment , relying on case law which, in applying Colorado’s workers’ compensation law, concluded that an injured employee lacked standing to pursue damages for services that were covered by workers’ compensation after the insurer had settled its subrogated claims with the third-party tortfeasor. While the federal district court was considering Swift’s motion, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Scholle v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 2019 COA 81M, in which a divided court disagreed with the case law. Instead, it determined that a plaintiff-employee could seek damages for medical services covered by workers’ compensation insurance if the billed amounts were higher than the paid amounts, even after the insurer had settled its subrogation claim. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed, finding that a settlement between a workers’ compensation insurer and a third-party tortfeasor for all past medical expenses paid as a result of an on-the-job injury extinguished the plaintiff-employee’s claim to recover damages for those past medical expenses from the third-party tortfeasor. "As a result, while Joseph Gill may still pursue his claims for noneconomic damages and any economic damages not covered by his workers’ compensation insurer, he no longer has any claim to recover economic damages based on services paid for by workers’ compensation. There is consequently no reason to present evidence of either the amounts billed or the amounts paid for those services, and the collateral source rule is not implicated in this case." View "Gill v. Waltz" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on whether an injured passenger riding in a vehicle negligently driven by one co-worker and owned by another co-worker, when all three were acting within the course and scope of their employment, could recover UM/UIM benefits under the vehicle owner’s insurance policy. Although the parties disputed the meaning of the phrases “legally entitled to recover” and “legally entitled to collect” under section 10-4-609, C.R.S. (2020) the Court did not resolve that dispute here because, assuming without deciding that plaintiff Kent Ryser’s interpretation was correct, the Court concluded that he still could not prevail. Specifically, the Court found an injured co-worker was barred by operation of the Workers’ Compensation Act's (“WCA”) exclusivity and co-employee immunity principles from recovering UM/UIM benefits from a co-employee vehicle owner’s insurer for damages stemming from a work-related accident in which another co-employee negligently drove the owner’s vehicle and the injured party was an authorized passenger. Though the Court's reasoning differed from the appellate court's judgment, it affirmed the outcome: summary judgment was properly entered in favor of the insurance company. View "Ryser v. Shelter Mutual Insurance" on Justia Law

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In 2012, the Denver Health and Hospital Authority hired Brent Houchin as an Employee Relations Specialist and promoted him to Employee Relations Manager. Throughout Houchin’s time at Denver Health, his supervisor consistently rated his performance as “successful” and “exceptional.” In an employee relations matter concerning the suspected diversion of controlled substances, a former in-house lawyer for Denver Health advised that using an employee’s medical records from off-duty medical care in connection with an internal investigation would violate the privacy requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”). Houchin objected to this interpretation of HIPAA because he (1) felt that it prevented him from investigating suspected employee diversions of controlled substances and (2) believed that HIPAA permitted the use of such employee information to detect health care fraud and abuse. This disagreement in interpretation would come into play when Houchin's employment was terminated, based on two alleged HIPAA violations relating to an investigation. Following his termination, Houchin appeared to have commenced Denver Health’s “Concern Resolution” process to address what he believed to be the discriminatory circumstances of his termination. Houchin then filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, alleging discrimination based on his sexual orientation and retaliation for using Denver Health’s “Concern Resolution” process to address such discrimination. The Civil Rights Division ultimately issued a Notice of Right to Sue, and Houchin filed a complaint against Denver Health. The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on the interplay between the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act ("CADA") and the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA"). Denver Health moved to dismiss Houchin’s complaint, arguing, among other things, that Houchin’s discrimination and retaliation claims under CADA lie in tort and were therefore barred by the CGIA. The Supreme Court concluded: (1) claims for compensatory relief under CADA were not claims for “injuries which lie in tort or could lie in tort” for purposes of the CGIA and therefore public entities were not immune from CADA claims under the CGIA; (2) “the state,” as used in subsection 24-34-405(8)(g), included political subdivisions of the state. The appellate court's judgment dismissing Houchin's claims was reversed, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Denver Health v. Houchin" on Justia Law

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Between the date he was hired and June 2015, Mark Stiles had some difficulties with punctuality and managing his paid leave balance, but he was never subject to corrective or disciplinary action and his evaluations consistently rated him as a competent Department of Corrections ("DOC") employee. Stiles was fired by the DOC for using marijuana outside of work hours. After a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) acting on behalf of the Colorado State Personnel Board issued an initial decision reinstating Stiles and imposing a less severe sanction. The Board then adopted that initial decision, and a division of the court of appeals affirmed the Board’s ruling. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed to take DOC’s appeal in the hopes of shedding light on the standard of review that governed an appeal to the Board by a certified state employee following an appointing authority’s disciplinary action. The Supreme Court held that, while an ALJ conducting a hearing on behalf of the Board must afford the disciplined employee an opportunity to present evidence and must then make findings of fact, the ALJ’s review of the appointing authority’s disciplinary action was governed by the statutorily mandated “arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to rule or law” standard, not de novo review. Because the appellate division misapprehended the standard of review that controlled hearings held by or on behalf of the Board, and because the Supreme Court couldn't discern whether the ALJ applied the arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to rule or law standard or de novo review, the Court reversed the division’s judgment and remand with instructions to return the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. View "DOC v. Stiles" on Justia Law

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Timothy Williams began working at the El Paso County, Colorado Sheriff’s Office in 2002 and, after multiple promotions over the course of his career, reached the rank of lieutenant. In March 2016, Sheriff Bill Elder ordered a mandatory survey requesting, among other things, retirement eligibility dates from all employees. Williams, who then would have been eligible for full retirement benefits June 1, 2018, completed this survey and reported that he expected to retire within the next five years. Thereafter, Williams was assigned to a team that conducted investigations into alleged misconduct by personnel in his office. Apparently, Sheriff Elder was unhappy with Williams’s investigation and the sanctions that Williams recommended, and he confronted Williams in a meeting about it. This lead to a demotion to senior deputy, which carried a significant change in rank, pay, and duties that resulted in substantial adverse retirement benefit consequences for Williams. To avoid these consequences, Williams retired the following day, ultimately to be replaced by a younger and purportedly less qualified employee. Williams thereafter filed age discrimination and retaliation charges El Paso County Sheriff’s Office with the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on the interplay between the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act ("CADA") and the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA"). As applied to this case, the Supreme Court concluded: (1) claims for compensatory relief under CADA were not claims for “injuries which lie in tort or could lie in tort” for purposes of the CGIA and therefore public entities were not immune from CADA claims under the CGIA; (2) “the state,” as used in subsection 24-34-405(8)(g), included political subdivisions of the state and thus political subdivisions were not immune from claims for compensatory damages based on intentional unfair or discriminatory employment practices; and (3) front pay was equitable and not compensatory in nature under CADA, and age discrimination and retaliation claims seeking front pay did not lie and could not lie in tort for CGIA purposes. View "Elder v. Williams" on Justia Law

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Susan Burren was injured at work, and she received temporary workers’ compensation benefits after her employer admitted liability. Many months passed, with many efforts to treat her injuries, but none of her authorized treating physicians (“ATPs”) placed her at “Maximum medical improvement” (“MMI”). Her employer and her employer’s insurer sought a second opinion regarding Burren’s MMI status, and Burren subsequently underwent a Division Independent Medical Examination (“DIME”). The DIME doctor who examined Burren also declined to place her at MMI. The employer and insurer then challenged the DIME doctor’s opinion under section 8-42-107(8)(b)(III), C.R.S. (2019), of the Workers’ Compensation Act (“Act”). An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) concluded that the employer and insurer had overcome the DIME doctor’s finding. The ALJ then placed Burren at MMI with a finding of no permanent impairment, making Burren ineligible to receive permanent disability benefits. An administrative panel agreed with the ALJ. Burren appealed. A division of the court of appeals concluded that the ALJ had no authority to place Burren at MMI. Instead, Burren should have been allowed to resume treatment with her ATPs until either an ATP or a DIME doctor placed her at MMI. The employer and its insurer petitioned the Colorado Supreme Court for review, and the Supreme Court reversed: once an ALJ concludes that an employer or an employer’s insurer has overcome a DIME doctor’s MMI opinion under section 8-42-107(8)(b)(III), the ALJ may determine the claimant’s MMI status and permanent impairment rating as questions of fact. View "Destination Maternity v. Burren" on Justia Law

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The United States District Court for the District of Colorado certified a question of law to the Colorado Supreme Court. The question centered on proof of equitable estoppel. In 2017, a group of current and former exotic dancers sued the owners of clubs where they performed and the club owners’ corporate parent companies alleging the defendants acted in concert to wrongfully deprive the dancers of basic protections provided by law to employees. The plaintiffs contended they were misclassified as nonemployee “independent contractors” or “lessees” pursuant to “Entertainment Lease” agreements that identified the club-owner defendants as “landlords” rather than employers. According to the plaintiffs’ pleadings, the club-owner and corporate-parent defendants were jointly and severally liable for denying the dancers earned minimum wages and overtime pay, confiscating or otherwise misallocating their gratuities, charging them fees to work, and subjecting them to onerous fines. The club-owner defendants have successfully compelled arbitration of the plaintiffs’ claims based on the arbitration clause included in the agreements the dancers signed with the club owners. The corporate-parent defendants sought to do the same, but because they were not parties to the agreements or to any other written contract with the dancers, they had to find a different hook to compel the dancers into arbitration: that the dancers should be equitably estopped from litigating their claims against one set of defendants because they were in compelled arbitration of the same claims against the other set of defendants. The Colorado Supreme Court held Colorado’s law of equitable estoppel applied in the same manner when a dispute involves an arbitration agreement as it did in other contexts. Thus, a nonsignatory to an arbitration agreement could only assert equitable estoppel against a signatory in an effort to compel arbitration if the nonsignatory can demonstrate each of the elements of equitable estoppel, including detrimental reliance. View "Santich v. VCG Holding Corp." on Justia Law