Court Opinion: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion for Aug. 11

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Gonzalez De Gomez v. Adams County, et al.

Celia Gonzalez de Gomez, the surviving spouse of Luis Gomez Ciprez and the personal representative of his estate appealed the district court’s entry of judgment against her on claims arising from Gomez Ciprez’s death while incarcerated at the Adams County Detention Facility. Exercising jurisdiction the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Gomez Ciprez pleaded guilty to a criminal charge and was sentenced to a 120-day work-release program through the jail. On his application for the program, he listed prescription medications he was taking to treat liver cirrhosis, hepatic encephalopathy and hypertension. He also provided Adams County personnel with a schedule for his medications. According to the complaint in this action, county staff failed to properly administer Gomez Ciprez’s medications while he was on the work release program, causing his ammonia levels to rise, several hospitalizations, several surgeries and ultimately his death.

Gonzalez de Gomez asserted claims under 42 U.S. Code 983 alleging the denial of medical care violated the Eighth and 14th Amendments. She also asserted state-law claims for wrongful death and negligent failure to train or supervise. The medical provider at the jail, called “Wellpath” in the opinion, filed a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court adopted a magistrate judge’s recommendation to grant the motion and dismissed the claims against Wellpath. The remaining defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which the district court granted. The district court also denied Gonzalez de Gomez’s motion for leave to amend the complaint because the motion was untimely and she failed to show good cause to excuse its lateness, the opinion noted. This appeal followed.

The 10th Circuit addressed Gonzalez de Gomez’s appellate arguments by examining each of the district court’s rulings they concerned. It first discussed the ruling granting Wellpath’s motion to dismiss, then the denial of the motion to amend and finally the order granting the Adams County Defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

On April 22, while the motion for leave to amend was still pending, the district court ruled on the motion to dismiss. Noting the lack of objections to the magistrate judge’s recommendation, the court reviewed it for clear errors and found none. The court therefore adopted the recommendation as the court’s order, granted the motion to dismiss and dismissed the claims against Wellpath without prejudice.

According to the opinion, Gonzalez de Gomez failed to persuade the 10th Circuit Court to review the merits of the dismissal order in the interests of justice. First, her objection to the magistrate judge’s jurisdiction meant only the magistrate judge couldn’t issue rulings on dispositive matters. It didn’t preclude the magistrate judge from issuing a recommendation on a motion to dismiss. The opinion noted the 10th Circuit failed to see any role the non-finality of the recommendation plays in its consideration of the interests of justice exception, and Gonzalez de Gomez didn’t offer any persuasive contrary argument. Second, filing the motion for leave to amend the complaint didn’t explain or justify the failure to also file objections to the recommendation. Neither did the pendency of that motion at the time the district court granted Wellpath’s motion to dismiss. The 10th Circuit applied the firm waiver rule and declined to address Gonzalez de Gomez’s challenges to the order granting Wellpath’s motion to dismiss.

The magistrate judge concluded it was a clear error to deny the motion for leave to amend as moot and recommended it be reinstated. The magistrate judge then recommended denying the motion because it was filed well beyond the Oct. 16, 2020, deadline for amendments set out in the scheduling order, and Gonzalez de Gomez failed to address the good cause requirement applicable to such motions, as Rule 16(b)(4) and related case law requires.

Gonzalez de Gomez objected to the recommendation. The district court overruled the objection, affirmed and adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendation and denied the motion for leave to amend.

The 10th Circuit concluded the district court didn’t abuse its discretion in denying Gonzalez de Gomez’s motion for leave to amend her complaint.

The Adams County defendants moved for summary judgment on all claims against them. Their arguments for summary judgment relied in significant part on Gonzalez de Gomez’s failure to respond to requests for admission. 

Failure to respond to a request for admission can have significant adverse consequences. Rule 36(a)(1)(A) provides “[a] party may serve on any other party a written request to admit, for purposes of the pending action only, the truth” of certain matters including “facts, the application of law to fact, or opinions about either.” If the receiving party fails to respond to the request within 30 days, or within such other time as the court may allow, the matter is deemed admitted. “A matter admitted under [Rule 36] is conclusively established unless the court, on motion, permits the admission to be withdrawn or amended.” 

According to the opinion, Gonzalez de Gomez never responded to the requests for admission, nor did she seek extra time to respond. She also never filed a motion to withdraw the deemed admissions, the opinion added. The district court, therefore, deemed the admissions conclusively established and observed they “essentially eviscerate[d] [Ms. Gonzalez de Gomez’s] entire case.” The court then examined the Adams County defendants’ arguments for summary judgment in light of the admissions, concluding that summary judgment was proper on all of Gonzalez de Gomez’s claims.

Summary judgment is proper if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” The 10th Circuit reviewed de novo a district court’s decision to grant summary judgment, applying the same standard used by the district court, the opinion noted, citing the 10th Circuit decision Rivero v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of N.M.

Rule 28(a) lists the requirements for an appellant’s brief. One of those requirements is an “appellant’s brief must contain . . . the argument, which must contain . . . appellant’s contentions and the reasons for them, with citations to the authorities and parts of the record on which the appellant relies.” Consistent with Rule 28(a)(8)(A)’s requirements, “we routinely have declined to consider arguments that are not raised, or are inadequately presented, in an appellant’s opening brief,” the opinion noted, citing the 10th Circuit decision Bronson v. Swensen. Further, the local rule provides “[i]ncorporating by reference portions of lower court or agency briefs or pleadings is disapproved and does not satisfy the requirements of Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure 28(a).” 

Applying these rules, the 10th Circuit declined to consider arguments purportedly made “through incorporation by reference to . . . trial court papers or other materials,” the opinion noted, citing the 10th Circuit decision United States v. Gordon. The 10th Circuit also declined to consider arguments Gonzalez de Gomez purported to make by incorporating arguments she made in opposition to the Adams County defendants’ motion for summary judgment. According to the opinion, the 10th Circuit couldn’t discern, based on the incorporation-by-reference in Gonzalez de Gomez’s appellate briefing, why she thought the district court erred in ruling against the arguments she advanced in opposition to summary judgment.

Gonzalez de Gomez also contended the district court erroneously disregarded emails submitted with her response to the summary judgment motion. According to Gonzalez de Gomez, these emails showed, contrary to the deemed admissions, some of the defendants knew of Gomez Ciprez’s medical conditions. The 10th Circuit disagreed. The district court considered the emails but concluded even if they contradicted the deemed admissions, they came too late in the proceedings. Gonzalez de Gomez didn’t explain why that ruling was incorrect. 

The 10th Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.

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