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Fox-Rivera v. Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

April 23, 2015

MITCHELL FOX-RIVERA, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
COLORADO DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH & ENVIRONMENT, LABORATORY SERVICES DIVISION; DAVID BUTCHER; CYNTHIA SILVA GURBACH, Defendants-Appellees.

(D. Colorado) (D.C. No. 1:14-CV-00737-RBJ)

Before GORSUCH, McKAY, and BACHARACH, Circuit Judges.

ORDER AND JUDGMENT [*]

Robert E. Bacharach Circuit Judge

This appeal arises from a dismissal for failure to state a valid claim. The plaintiff, Mr. Mitchell Fox-Rivera, worked at a government laboratory. After mistakes were made, laboratory supervisors allegedly blamed Mr. Fox-Rivera and fired him. If the firing impugned Mr. Fox-Rivera's reputation, his right to due process would be implicated. See McDonald v. Wise, 769 F.3d 1202, 1212 (10th Cir. 2014). In this case, we must decide: Did the State impugn Mr. Fox-Rivera's reputation when firing him for failure to carry out his job duties? We conclude that the State did not impugn Mr. Fox-Rivera's reputation and affirm the dismissal.

I. The Mistakes, the Firing, and the Suit

Mr. Fox-Rivera's laboratory was responsible for testing blood samples from individuals suspected of drunk driving. Authorities learned of mistakes in the testing process and fired Mr. Fox-Rivera. The press covered these testing errors and quoted authorities who had pinned the blame on Mr. Fox-Rivera. These press reports led Mr. Fox-Rivera to sue under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming a deprivation of due process. The district court dismissed the suit, and Mr. Fox-Rivera appealed. On appeal, Mr. Fox-Rivera argues that the allegations were sufficient to state a claim for a liberty interest in his reputation.

II. Claim Against the Laboratory

The laboratory itself was one of the defendants. The district court held that the laboratory was an arm of the state, entitled to dismissal based on Eleventh Amendment immunity. Mr. Fox-Rivera has not challenged this part of the ruling.

III. Claim Against the Two Individual Defendants

Mr. Fox-Rivera also sued two individuals: Mr. David Butcher and Ms. Cynthia Gurbach. The claims against these two individuals were based on a denial of due process.

To survive a motion to dismiss, Mr. Fox-Rivera had to allege deprivation of a property interest or a liberty interest. Hill v. Ibarra, 954 F.2d 1516, 1524 (10th Cir. 1992). The district court dismissed the claims, holding that the individual defendants did not deprive Mr. Fox-Rivera of either right. He does not dispute the absence of a property interest, arguing instead that the defendants deprived him of a protected liberty interest. We disagree.

We review the dismissal de novo, focusing on whether Mr. Fox-Rivera's complaint states a plausible claim for relief. McDonald v. Wise, 769 F.3d 1202, 1210 (10th Cir. 2014). To determine the plausibility of the claim, we assume the truth of all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint. Albers v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs of Jefferson Cnty., Colo., 771 F.3d 697, 700 (10th Cir. 2014).

Applying this standard, we may assume that Mr. Fox-Rivera had a protected "liberty interest in his good name and reputation as they related to his continued employment." McDonald, 769 F.3d at 1212. With this assumption, however, Mr. Fox-Rivera would still need to plead facts indicating infringement of this liberty interest. To satisfy this pleading burden, he had to allege a statement impugning his good name, reputation, honor, or integrity. Id.

The district court determined that Mr. Fox-Rivera had failed to satisfy this burden. In challenging this determination, Mr. Fox-Rivera points to ...


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