Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinions for Sept. 11

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

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

United States v. Leon

Luis Leon was stopped by law enforcement after he was observed illegally driving in a passing lane. During the traffic stop, the officer began to suspect Leon was trafficking drugs. A search of his vehicle uncovered 76 pounds of methamphetamine, and Leon was charged with one count of possessing methamphetamine with intent to distribute. Following a failed motion to suppress, he pled guilty and was sentenced to 70 months imprisonment. 

On appeal, Leon challenged the denial of his suppression motion, arguing the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the stop and investigate the suspected drug trafficking. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and reversed.

On Dec. 28, 2017, Leon was traveling eastbound on I-70 in Colorado when Colorado State Patrol Trooper Shane Gosnell observed him driving in the left lane while not passing another vehicle in violation of Colorado Revised Statute 42-4-1013(1). Gosnell began to follow Leon’s 2006 Honda Ridgeline truck and noticed it had a Minnesota license plate. Gosnell initiated a traffic stop, which was captured on his dashboard camera.

As he approached the truck, Gosnell made several observations. First, he noticed disorganized boxes and clothing in the backseat. Second, he observed food wrappers, a soda bottle, an energy drink can and religious pamphlets in the front. Based on these conditions, he believed the vehicle had “a lived-in or hard-traveled look.” Finally, he saw a single key in the ignition.

Leon acknowledged the traffic violation, apologized and explained he was tired. He produced an Arizona driver’s license after Gosnell asked for his “license, registration and stuff.” Leon then went into a backpack to get a manila envelope, fumbled documents from the envelope and asked Gosnell if he wanted to look. Gosnell took the envelope and found Leon’s insurance card and an expired registration with another person’s name. Gosnell also located the title which confirmed Leon had recently purchased the vehicle.

Gosnell asked where Leon was headed that day. Leon responded he was going to stop in Denver at the International Society for Krishna Consciousness to pick up religious books, and he might stay for an event if ISKCON was hosting one. Gosnell then asked if Leon was from Arizona. Leon answered affirmatively but told Gosnell he was transitioning to Minnesota. About a minute later, Gosnell asked if Leon was traveling from Phoenix, Arizona. When Leon responded he was, Gosnell asked how long Leon had been living there. Leon responded he received his legal permanent residency in 2014, but had lived there as a young child. Gosnell then expressed curiosity about Leon’s ties to Minnesota and asked how he came into possession of the truck. Leon stated he went to Minnesota for a woman, but had most recently been living with a friend named Marco. He explained he got a good deal on the truck when purchasing it from Marco’s friend, a coreligionist, and everything had been transferred over in his name. Upon questioning, Leon told Gosnell he had purchased the truck about two weeks prior.

During this interaction, Gosnell believed Leon was “overly cooperative” and “super nervous.” He found Leon’s answers to his questions to be indirect and felt Leon was attempting to control the conversation.

A combination of these circumstances led Gosnell to suspect Leon was involved in drug trafficking and to ask for the mileage on the truck. After running some checks and returning Leon’s documents, Gosnell asked for Leon’s consent to search the vehicle. Leon refused consent, but Gosnell decided to conduct a dog sniff of the vehicle’s exterior. The K-9 alerted to the odor of narcotics, and Gosnell and another officer searched the vehicle. The officers found 76 pounds of methamphetamine and placed Leon under arrest.

Leon was indicted on one count of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S. Code 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A)(viii). Leon filed a motion to suppress evidence discovered during the search of his vehicle. A magistrate judge heard arguments on the motion, and the district court adopted the magistrate’s recommendation to deny the motion. The case was subsequently dismissed without prejudice on Speedy Trial Act grounds.

Leon was indicted again and his case was assigned to a new district judge. Leon filed a new motion to suppress evidence discovered and statements made during the December 2017 traffic stop, arguing in relevant part Gosnell unlawfully extended the stop. The district court held a hearing on the motion, during which Gosnell testified. The court noted the denial of Leon’s suppression motion in the first case and skimmed the transcript from that hearing, but asked the government to present all the evidence needed to decide the motion de novo. The court denied the motion and, following additional cross-examination of the government’s witnesses denied a motion for reconsideration.

Leon pleaded guilty pursuant to a conditional plea agreement, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. The court found Leon was eligible for the safety valve under 18 U.S.C. 3553(f) and sentenced him to 70 months’ imprisonment.

After evaluation, the 10th Circuit held Gosnell didn’t have reasonable suspicion to extend the stop. The 10th Circuit reversed the denial of Leon’s motion to suppress and remanded with instructions to vacate his conviction.

Waetzig v. Halliburton Energy Services

Gary Waetzig commenced an age discrimination lawsuit in the District of Colorado against his former employer, Halliburton Energy Services, Inc.

Because he was contractually bound to arbitrate his claim, he voluntarily dismissed his suit without prejudice under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a) and commenced arbitration. The arbitrator sided with Halliburton. Dissatisfied with the outcome, Waetzig returned to federal court. But instead of filing a new lawsuit challenging arbitration, he moved to reopen his age discrimination case and vacate the arbitration award. Relying on Rule 60(b), the district court concluded it had jurisdiction to consider Waetzig’s motion, reopened the case and vacated the award.

Because the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the district court couldn’t reopen the case under Rule 60(b) after it had been voluntarily dismissed without prejudice, it reversed. According to the opinion, under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 41(a) and 60(b), a court can’t set aside a voluntary dismissal without prejudice because it’s not a final judgment, order or proceeding.

Wilson v. Schlumberger Technology

Mark Wilson claimed his former employer, Schlumberger Technology Corporation, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by classifying him as exempt from overtime pay for hours worked beyond the 40-hour workweek. At trial, the jury agreed with Wilson and awarded him nearly $40,000 in overtime back pay.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the district court shouldn’t have instructed the jury to determine whether Wilson’s salary was exempt under regulations guiding the application of the Fair Labor Standards Act. That was a legal issue for the court to determine. Because the instruction caused the jury to find in Wilson’s favor, the 10th Circuit vacated the judgment and remanded for a new trial.

From 2009 to 2016, Wilson worked as a measurement-while-drilling operator for Schlumberger, a company that provides oilfield services. Wilson was well paid for his work, according to the opinion. His compensation consisted of the following: a fixed bi-weekly salary of $924 ($462 per week); for time spent on a drilling rig, a rig-rate bonus of $205 per hour; for time on-call, but not physically present on a rig, a standby rate of $102.50 per hour; vehicle and meal allowances; and various other bonuses, including remote ops-crew bonus, reduced crew incentive, a key-tech bonus and a lead bonus. Wilson earned over $100,000 per year from 2009 through 2014. 

Wilson’s rig-rate pay typically made up the largest portion of his earnings. For example, in 2014, Wilson’s rig-rate payments totaled $72,150, while his bi-weekly salary payments totaled $28,812.90. From February 2015 to October 2016, Wilson’s pay was less than $100,000 per year due to a decline in oil exploration.

Schlumberger classified measurement-while-drilling operators, including Wilson, as exempt employees for Fair Labor Standards Act purposes. As an exempt employee, Wilson didn’t receive overtime pay even though he regularly worked shifts that lasted longer than 12 hours and often worked more than 40 hours a week.

In 2017, Wilson sued Schlumberger on behalf of himself and two other measurement-while-drilling operators, alleging Schlumberger violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by not paying them an overtime rate for hours worked beyond the 40-hour workweek. The case was tried before a jury over five days in October 2020. At the conclusion of the plaintiffs’ case, Schlumberger moved for judgment as a matter of law. The court granted the motion on several claims, but denied it as to Wilson’s individual overtime claim.

Over Schlumberger’s objection, the district court instructed the jury to determine whether the Fair Labor Standards Act exemption for salaried employees applied to measurement-while-drilling operators under Schlumberger’s compensation scheme. The jury found Schlumberger failed to prove it paid Wilson on a salary basis, and therefore Wilson didn’t qualify for the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime-pay exemption. Because the jury also found Wilson worked more than 40 hours during certain workweeks, the jury awarded him back pay overtime compensation of $39,129.

The 10th Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded for a new trial.

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