Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion for Feb. 17

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

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

Lamb v. Montrose County Sheriff’s, et al.        

Former deputy sheriff Brad Lamb asserts retaliation claims against his former employer, the Montrose County Sheriff’s Office, and certain former colleagues under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act and the First Amendment. 

The issue arose after Lamb reported racist comments made by a deputy in 2014. Eventually, the deputy and his supervisor, who was also Lamb’s supervisor, were subject to disciplinary action for the comments. Later in 2014, Lamb sent several text messages about the issue to a “close friend” and chief of police at the department where Lamb used to work. Lamb said in a deposition that the texts were meant to just be a private message communicating a statement and said that it wasn’t a complaint. The chief shared the text with an employee at Lamb’s previous department who then shared the text with a member of MCSO. 

MCSO Sheriff Rick Dunlap initiated an investigation in February 2015 based on a report that Lamb might have violated MCSO policies “by contacting another law enforcement agency and communicating defamatory opinions of the [MCSO].” As a part of the MCSO investigation, Lamb submitted a statement detailing the racist and sexist conduct by the other deputy and referencing his earlier report about the racist comments. The next day, Undersheriff Adam Murdie issued Lamb a disciplinary report, stating that Lamb had violated MCSO policy by engaging in unbecoming conduct and by publicly criticizing the MCSO. Lamb was suspended for a day, and a copy of the disciplinary report was placed in his personnel file.

Over the course of the next several months, Lamb was subject to other disciplinary action from Deputy Jason Grundy, including issues with his reports, improperly filing an affidavit and various accounts of insubordination. In September 2015, the MCSO terminated Lamb’s employment, finding he could “no longer be an effective, trustworthy employee.” Lamb sued the MCSO.

On Lamb’s Title VII and CADA retaliation claims, the district court granted summary judgment to the MCSO, concluding that Lamb failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation and failed to show pretext. On Lamb’s First Amendment claims, the district court granted summary judgment to Deputy Jason Grundy in his individual capacity, concluding Lamb had offered no evidence establishing that the text message was a substantial factor in Grundy’s decision to discipline Lamb or that Grundy would not have written him up anyway. It also dismissed the claim against Grundy in his official capacity, finding Lamb had waived such claim by failing to make an argument on that front. Finally, the district court granted summary judgment to Dunlap in his individual capacity, concluding that Lamb’s disciplinary infractions were sufficient reason to terminate him and rejecting Lamb’s contention that Dunlap would not have terminated him in the absence of the text message. Given its conclusion that Dunlap committed no underlying constitutional violation, the district court also granted summary judgment on the First Amendment claim in Dunlap’s official capacity

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. It held that Lamb’s private text message to a friend — vaguely alleging racism and a lack of professionalism at the MCSO — didn’t oppose an employment practice made unlawful by Title VII and wasn’t protected activity, so his Title VII and CADA claims also failed. It further held that Lamb’s First Amendment claims fail because the content, form and context of his text message demonstrate it didn’t involve a matter of public concern, a concept the 10th Circuit said that courts construe very narrowly in the context of First Amendment retaliation claims. The 10th Circuit also found the defendants sued in their individual capacities are entitled to qualified immunity because the law was not clearly established that the message involved a matter of public concern.

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