Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinions from August 2

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

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

Wills v. Barnhart

Christopher Wills is a federal prisoner in Florence, Colorado serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. A jury convicted Wills of using a false job opportunity to lure Zabiuflah Alam to Virginia and then murdering him to prevent him from testifying against Wills in a burglary case. 

In February 2000, a grand jury charged Wills with kidnapping resulting in death in violation of the Federal Kidnapping Act and interstate stalking resulting in death. Prior to trial, Wills argued the jurisdictional requirement of the Federal Kidnapping Act couldn’t be established when the victim transports himself across state lines without accompaniment by the alleged perpetrator. The district court agreed with Wills and dismissed his indictment.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed and held that Wills’ conduct in causing Alam to travel unaccompanied across state lines did fulfill the jurisdiction requirement. On remand, in 2001, the jury convicted Wills of both charged offenses and the district court sentenced Wills to life in prison without parole.

A slew of direct and collateral challenges to Wills’s conviction and sentence followed. The Fourth Circuit affirmed his conviction and sentence on direct appeal. 

In 2005, Wills sought postconviction relief, alleging that the government violated his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel and his Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him. The district court denied his petition and the Fourth Circuit denied his request for a certificate of appealability. 

In 2009, Wills filed another petition in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, again arguing that his conduct failed to satisfy the jurisdictional element of the Federal Kidnapping Act because he hadn’t crossed state lines with the victim. This time, he also argued that a 2006 amendment to the Federal Kidnapping Act expanded jurisdiction to reach his conduct for the first time. Once more, the district court disagreed and dismissed his petition for lack of jurisdiction. The Third Circuit affirmed.

In 2020, Wills filed a habeas petition in the District of Colorado, contending the 2006 statutory amendments prove that at the time of his conviction, his conduct hadn’t satisfied the jurisdictional requirement that he cross state lines in connection with his criminal activity.

The district court, adopting the magistrate judge’s recommendation, dismissed the petition without prejudice. It explained it didn’t have statutory jurisdiction because Wills failed to show the inadequacy or ineffectiveness of the previous petitions. Additionally, the district court denied Wills leave to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal, certifying that an appeal wouldn’t be taken in good faith. This timely appeal and renewed motion to proceed in forma pauperis followed. 

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded Wills failed to demonstrate the previous remedies were inadequate or ineffective. As the 2006 amendments didn’t exist when Wills initially filed his motion, the precedent at the time doesn’t render the procedure ineffective or inadequate, according to the court.

Although Wills “suggests there is something unusual about barring a claim that rests on a correct and previously foreclosed [statutory amendment], the fact is that many other provisions of [the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act] limit the ability of prisoners to reap the benefit of unforeseeable but helpful new legal developments.” Under this principle, the 10th Circuit rejected the argument that he should be able to pursue an actual innocence argument based on a newly available precedent.

As Wills didn’t show he was unable to test his claim in the original motion and that the original remedy was inadequate or ineffective to address said claim, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s decision. But, as Wills correctly demonstrated “a financial inability to pay the required [filing] fees and the existence of a reasoned, nonfrivolous argument on the law and facts in support of the issues raised on appeal,” the court granted his in forma pauperis motion. 

Kidd v. Commissioner, SSA

Michelle Kidd applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits, alleging she was disabled from Dec. 31, 2011 through Dec. 31, 2015. Following a hearing, the administrative law judge determined that she wasn’t disabled and denied benefits. The Appeals Council reversed and remanded for the ALJ to consider Kidd’s residual functional capacity. On remand, Kidd amended the alleged onset date to Dec. 17, 2013. 

The ALJ conducted a second hearing. Using the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined Kidd had several medical conditions including sleep apnea.

The ALJ also noted “that in October 2015 [Kidd] sustained a left rotator cuff tear, which was surgically repaired on November 18, 2015. She subsequently underwent physical therapy… between January and June 2016, as well as [physical therapy and a series of injections] for problems with her left knee,” which developed in December 2015. Although the ALJ found that the knee and shoulder impairments weren’t severe because they didn’t meet the duration requirement, the ALJ considered them and their resulting limitations in assessing Kidd’s RFC.

At step four, the ALJ found that Kidd retained the RFC to perform a range of light work, with limitations. The ALJ concluded that Kidd wasn’t disabled because there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she could perform. The council denied review, the district court affirmed and Kidd appealed.

Kidd alleged the ALJ failed to include the appropriate limitations based on central sleep apnea in assessing her RFC, misinterpreted the duration requirement for her knee and shoulder impairments, erred in discounting a medical consultant’s opinion and erred in finding her reported symptoms as inconsistent with medical advice. 

Central Sleep Apnea 

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Kidd’s assertion the ALJ failed to include the appropriate limitations based on central sleep apnea in assessing her RFC.

In a consultative medical examination in October 2014, it was noted Kidd’s chief complaints were back pain, sleep apnea and stomach issues. The examiner noted Kidd “has been diagnosed with sleep apnea, both central and obstructive,” and because she gets only a few hours of sleep each night, she reported “feel[ing] tired all the time and has difficulty concentrating.” Although the examiner was aware of Kidd’s diagnosis and complaints of chronic fatigue, no limitations related to sleep apnea were listed. 

A different medical expert testified at the second administrative hearing in June 2019. That expert said Kidd had been diagnosed with both obstructive and central sleep apnea and used a BiPAP machine and supplemental oxygen at night. When the ALJ asked about environmental limitations relative to Kidd’s impairments, the expert said she should have “only occasional exposure to pulmonary irritants and probably no exposure to extreme cold.”  The expert also acknowledged sleep apnea can cause fatigue but didn’t identify any fatigue-related limitations. 

After reviewing all the evidence, the ALJ determined there were either no limitations based on central sleep apnea or only those identified by the medical expert in 2019. The 10th Circuit affirmed. 

Duration Requirement

Kidd argued that the ALJ misinterpreted the duration requirement for her knee and shoulder impairments.

The 10th Circuit asserted any such error was harmless. 

The 10th Circuit agreed Kidd can’t meet her burden to show the error prejudiced her because the ALJ included limitations in the RFC based on the impairments. The ALJ also found that limitations regarding Kidd’s shoulder impairment were appropriate. 

The circuit reviewed the transcript from the June 2019 hearing and determined Kidd’s argument the ALJ directed the medical expert to ignore her knee impairment lacked record support.

Consistency of Statements

Kidd also challenged the ALJ’s statement that her medical impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms and her statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms weren’t consistent with the medical evidence on record. 

The ALJ acknowledged Kidd’s complaints that her knee was painful and prevented her from walking more than a few blocks and that her sleep apnea caused fatigue, fogginess and difficulty concentrating. But in discounting the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms, the ALJ pointed to objective medical evidence and Kidd’s own testimony indicating her knee and apnea conditions improved with treatment. 

The 10th Circuit concluded that substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s credibility analysis and affirmed the district court’s judgment on all counts.

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