Court Opinion: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion for June 27

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

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

Del Carmen Ponce v. Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake

Luz Del Carmen Ponce appealed the district court’s order dismissing with prejudice her first amended complaint, which asserted claims for discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Exercising jurisdiction, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Ponce was a peace officer with the Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake. In August 2015, she was terminated for dereliction of duty, insubordination, misrepresentation and altering a firearm. Following an unsuccessful intradepartment appeal, Ponce appealed to the Peace Office Merit Commission. 

POMC held a hearing in December 2015 at which both UPD and Ponce were represented by counsel. In January 2016, POMC issued a decision that sustained the violations, except the charge that Ponce altered her firearm. It also sustained the decision to terminate her employment. The POMC found the violations for dereliction of duty, insubordination and misrepresentation were supported by substantial evidence and the decision to terminate Ponce’s employment wasn’t an abuse of discretion. Ponce filed a motion for reconsideration, which was denied. The parties agreed Ponce didn’t raise any claims or arguments regarding discrimination or retaliation during either the department or POMC proceedings.

Ponce could have, but didn’t, appeal POMC’s decision to the Utah Court of Appeals. Instead, following the disciplinary proceedings, Ponce filed a charge of discrimination with the Utah Labor Commission. Eventually, she filed suit under Title VII for gender and national origin discrimination and retaliation for reporting discrimination and a hostile work environment.

UPD moved to dismiss the FAC on two grounds: the claims were barred by the doctrine of issue preclusion and the FAC failed to state plausible claims for relief. At a hearing on the motion, UPD argued the claims were precluded under a 1993 10th Circuit decision in Atiya v. Salt Lake County, which holds “a federal district court in a proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 must give a state agency’s fact-finding the same preclusive effect to which it would be entitled in the state’s court if the state agency: (1) was acting in a judicial capacity; (2) resolved disputed issues of fact properly before it; and (3) the parties had an adequate opportunity to litigate the issues in dispute.” 

UPD acknowledged that “Atiya is a [§] 1983 case, not a Title VII case,” but nonetheless urged the district court to apply Atiya’s rule of preclusion because “both [Atiya and Ms. Ponce’s cases are] about termination and retaliation.” 

The district court didn’t decide whether Ponce’s Title VII claims were precluded under Atiya, and if not, whether the FAC stated plausible claims for relief. The court decided to dismiss the FAC for its own reason, ruling Ponce failed to exhaust her remedies when she decided not to appeal POMC’s decision to the Utah Court of Appeals and it therefore lacked jurisdiction to consider her claims. 

The district court directed UPD “to prepare and submit a suggested form of order in reference to the matter.” The order was eventually signed but didn’t mention Ponce’s failure to exhaust her administrative remedies as the grounds for dismissal. The court granted the motion “[f]or the reasons set forth at oral argument and in [UPD’s] Motion to Dismiss,” even though the court never addressed or ruled on the arguments raised by UPD in its motion.

According to the 10th Circuit, the district court erred as a matter of law in dismissing the FAC on the grounds Ponce was required to exhaust state administrative remedies before filing suit under Title VII. Congress imposed the requirements for exhausting a claim arising under federal law—not the state of Utah, the 10th Circuit noted.

The 10th Circuit held Ponce’s Title VII claims were not precluded under these facts. In deciding whether “a common-law rule of preclusion would be consistent with Congress’ intent in enacting Title VII,” and after examining “the language and legislative history of Title VII,” the Supreme Court held “Congress did not intend unreviewed state administrative proceedings to have preclusive effect on Title VII claims,” according to an excerpt from University of Tennessee v. Elliott.

According to the opinion, UPD urged the 10th Circuit to affirm the district court’s order on the alternate grounds the FAC failed to state plausible claims for relief. According to UPD, this issue was resolved in its favor when the court dismissed the FAC “[f]or the reasons set forth at oral argument and in [UPD’s] Motion to Dismiss.” For the reasons stated below, the 10th Circuit remanded the issue to the district court for its consideration.

According to the 10th Circuit, the district court’s order contained no rationale from which the 10th Circuit could discern that the court determined that the FAC failed to state plausible claims for relief. The 10th Circuit noted, this is not to say the lack of any reasoning necessarily precludes the 10th Circuit’s review. 

Other circumstances counsel against deciding the issue on appeal—namely, Ponce hasn’t briefed the issue, the 10th Circuit explained. The 10th Circuit declined review in similar circumstances where there was a lack of adversarial briefing and no reasoned decision from the court. 

UPD argued the issue was waived because Ponce failed to brief it on appeal. Given the vagaries of the district court’s order, the 10th Circuit exercised its discretion to overlook the alleged waiver and concluded the best course is to let the district court address this issue in the first instance on remand. 

The judgment of the district court was reversed and the case was remanded.

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