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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Collegeamerica Denver, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

September 5, 2017

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
COLLEGEAMERICA DENVER, INC., n/k/a Center for Excellence in Higher Education, Inc., d/b/a CollegeAmerica, Defendant-Appellee.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado (D.C. No. 1:14-CV-01232-LTB-MJW)

          Susan R. Oxford (P. David Lopez, General Counsel, Jennifer S. Goldstein, Associate General Counsel, James L. Lee, Deputy General Counsel, Margo Pave, Assistant General Counsel, and Paul D. Ramshaw, Attorney, on the briefs), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Office of General Counsel, Washington, D.C, for Plaintiff-Appellant Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

          Raymond W. Martin (Craig R. May, with him on the brief), Wheeler Trigg O'Donnell LLP, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellee CollegeAmerica Denver, Inc.

          Before KELLY, MURPHY, and BACHARACH, Circuit Judges.

          BACHARACH, Circuit Judge.

         This appeal grew out of a dispute between a company and its former employee. In that dispute, the company asserted certain legal positions that an agency viewed as unlawful. In light of this view, the agency sued the company in part for unlawful interference with statutory rights. Responding to this suit, the company disavowed the legal positions known to concern the agency. The company's disavowal of these legal positions led the district court to dismiss the agency's unlawful-interference claim as moot.

         For the sake of argument, we may assume that this ruling was correct at the time. But the company then asserted a new theory against the former employee, which the agency regarded as a continuation of the unlawful interference with statutory rights. This development leads us to ask: Did the agency's unlawful-interference claim remain moot after the parties disputed whether the company could lawfully assert its new theory against the former employee? We think not and reverse the dismissal.

         I. CollegeAmerica's Assertion of a New Theory After Obtaining Dismissal

         The company is CollegeAmerica Denver, Inc., and the former employee is Ms. Debbi Potts. CollegeAmerica and Ms. Potts resolved a dispute by entering into a settlement agreement. But CollegeAmerica later came to believe that Ms. Potts had breached the settlement agreement. This belief led CollegeAmerica to sue Ms. Potts in state court.

         That suit sparked the interest of an agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC believed that CollegeAmerica's interpretation and enforcement of the settlement agreement was unlawfully interfering with statutory rights enjoyed by Ms. Potts and the EEOC. Based on this belief, the EEOC sued CollegeAmerica in federal court. The EEOC's claims included one for unlawful interference with statutory rights.

         Seeking to blunt the unlawful-interference claim, CollegeAmerica disavowed the legal positions known to trouble the EEOC. As a result, the district court dismissed the unlawful-interference claim as moot.

         But the EEOC also had a retaliation claim, which remained for trial. Defending against this claim, CollegeAmerica presented a new theory against Ms. Potts: that she had breached the settlement agreement by reporting adverse information to the EEOC without notifying CollegeAmerica. The EEOC believed that by presenting this new theory, CollegeAmerica was continuing to interfere with Ms. Potts's and the EEOC's statutory rights.

         The EEOC appealed the dismissal of the unlawful-interference claim, arguing that the claim is not moot in light of CollegeAmerica's new theory. We agree.

         II. ...


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