Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinions for April 24

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

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

Valdez v. Macdonald et al.

On Jan. 16, 2013, Michael Valdez was walking to a bus stop in Denver when his childhood acquaintance pulled over and offered Valdez a ride in his red pickup truck. Valdez accepted and climbed into the bed of the truck. There were two passengers in the front seat and another passenger in the truck bed with Valdez. 

Soon after Valdez got into the truck, Denver police officers responding to an incident involving the truck earlier in the day, began chasing it in their patrol car. The driver and one of the passengers began shooting at the police. Fearing for his life, Valdez climbed into the cab, braced himself, and pushed down the other passenger to protect her. 

Sergeant Robert Motyka Jr. heard the gunshots and joined the chase. Seeing the truck approaching, he tried to make it flip or crash and when that failed, he made a U-turn to chase the truck. While behind the truck, Motyka was shot in the upper left arm, checked if he could use his left hand and decided to resume pursuit of the truck. He observed a man in the back of the truck shooting at him. 

The truck crashed into a tree, and one of the shooters jumped out of the cab and ran. Valdez and the other passenger crawled out of the passenger side of the truck and were lying on the ground with their hands above their heads. 

Motyka arrived at the scene and began shooting at Valdez. Motyka didn’t communicate with the officer who arrived first at the scene and who was accessing the situation or with officers who pulled up at the same time as him. Motyka’s supervisor, John Macdonald, seeing him firing, shot seven bullets at Valdez.

In the investigation conducted within days of the incident, Motyka admitted he didn’t see a gun in Valdez possession and issued no commands before shooting. He said his probable cause was the bullets shot from the truck. 

The bullets struck Valdez in his back and hand, severing his finger, shattering part of his spine and transecting his bowl leaving him temporarily paralyzed. A ballistic investigation concluded the bullet that hit Valdez’s back came from Motyka’s gun, but couldn’t determine whose bullet hit his finger. The investigation also determined Valdez wasn’t carrying a weapon and none of the guns from the truck had his DNA on them. 

Valdez initiated a suit in 2015, later filing an amended complaint that alleged claims against five officers, including Motyka and Macdonald, for excessive force, malicious prosecution, manufacture of inculpatory evidence, unreasonable seizure, false imprisonment and conspiracy. He also claimed Denver was liable for failing to properly hire, train, supervise and discipline its officers. 

The individual officers asserted qualified immunity defenses and moved to dismiss all but the excessive force claims. The officers were eventually granted qualified immunity on all but the excessive force claims.

Valdez voluntarily dismissed all individual defendants except Motyka and Macdonald, leaving only the excessive force claims against them and the municipal liability claim against Denver. The officers and Denver jointly moved for summary judgment and the officers claimed qualified immunity. Only Macdonald’s claim to qualified immunity was granted. In 2019 the judge assigned to the case died, and the case was reassigned and allowed Denver to move again for summary judgment, which was denied. 

In September 2021, the case went to trial on the excessive force claim against Motyka and the failure-to-train claim against Denver. The jury awarded Valdez $131,000 in compensatory damages from Motyka; $2,400,000 in compensatory damages from Denver; and $0 in punitive damages. The district court awarded Valdez $1,132,327 in attorney fees and $18,199 in costs. 

The district court proceedings produced three appeals: Denver challenging its municipal liability, Valdez cross-appealing Macdonald’s qualified immunity and Motyka and Denver appealing the award of attorney costs and fees.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed all of the district court’s rulings in each of the three appeals. 

In Denver’s municipal liability appeal, the 10th Circuit ruled the district court didn’t err in its denial of Denver’s second motion for summary judgment, its management of Valdez’s municipal liability claims and its handling of jury instructions.

The 10th Circuit found Valdez failed to show the district court erred in determining Valdez couldn’t establish a constitutional violation because he couldn’t show Macdonald caused him injury and failed to show Macdonald acted contrary to clearly established law.  

In Motyka and Denver’s appeal on attorney costs and fees, the 10th Circuit found the district court didn’t abuse its discretion on the attorney award, but did on the costs award. The 10th Circuit affirmed the attorney’s fees and reversed and remanded the award of nontaxable costs. 

United States v. Eddington

On July 1, 2020, outside a liquor store in Denver, Colorado, Lougary Eddington and Zyaire Williams were involved in a shootout, which resulted in a fellow member of the Eastside Crips gang being shot and killed. The shootout was a result of their encounter with a member of the Westwood HUD gang. 

Eddington, Williams and the Westwood HUD gang member were charged in a single indictment. Without entering a plea agreement, Eddington pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of ammunition. The presentence investigation report calculated his base offense level at 20 and included a four-level enhancement. 

Eddington objected to the offense-level computation, arguing the four-level enhancement shouldn’t apply because he was acting in self-defense and defense of others. The objection was overruled. At the sentencing hearing the district court concluded Eddington reasonably feared for his own life but nevertheless qualified as a mutual combatant and applied the enhancement. 

Eddington also argued the four-level enhancement would create a disparate sentence because Williams didn’t also receive the enhancement. The district court agreed it didn’t make sense for Eddington to have a longer sentence, but determined the place to take the disparity into account is in the sentencing, not in the calculation of the guidelines. 

The district court opted to apply the enhancement and determined Eddington’s guidelines range was 84 to 105 months of incarceration. The court imposed a sentence at the bottom of the range: 84 months. 

Eddington appealed, arguing the district court improperly applied the enhancement and failed to adequately account for unwarranted sentence disparities. 

The 10th Circuit found the district court committed a procedural error by applying the enhancement, but Eddington waived his argument the district court erred in not considering the disparate-sentencing factor. The 10th Circuit determined Eddington was prejudiced by the application of the enhancement, vacated Eddington’s sentence and remanded the case for resentencing.

Sgaggio v. Suthers, et al.

Candace Sgaggio owns property in Colorado Springs, Colorado, used by Green Faith Church. One night, officer Marcus Allen went to the church looking for a missing at-risk person. As he walked through the door, he told a church member to wait in his car for a minute. The man complied and ended up waiting in the car for at least 30 minutes. 

Allen approached the closed, locked door and demanded to open it, but the man running the door refused to let him in. To the side of the door, the owners posted a notice stating no trespassing without authorization, including any and all government agents. 

Sgaggio received a call from the doorman, who said there was a cop telling him to open the door and had arrested a church member. In response to Allen’s actions, the church was “placed on lock down” and at some point, Sgaggio got into a verbal altercation with Allen.

Allen’s supervisor showed up and Sgaggio’s husband told the supervisor that Allen had been “waving members off.” The supervisor allowed the man, who Allen told to wait in his car, to go outside. 

Sgaggio raised the claim that Allen violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizures, violated her First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and retaliated against her for engaging in activity protected by the First Amendment. 

Allen moved to dismiss the claims, asserting qualified immunity. The district court granted the motion to dismiss after concluding Sgaggio failed to allege facts that Allen violated her constitutional rights. Sgaggio moved to alter or amend the judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), and submitted video recordings depicting the interactions. The district court concluded the recordings showed no clear error in its dismissal order and denied the motion. 

The 10th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, finding Allen didn’t conduct a search or seizure, Sgaggio didn’t allege facts that could show Allen burdened her free exercise of religion and Allen’s actions didn’t cause her to suffer an injury that would stop someone from practicing their religion.

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