The federal appeals court based in Colorado has reinstated the lawsuit of former Denver mayoral candidate Lisa Calderón against the city, in which she alleged the Hancock administration ended her organization’s offender-services contract after she made critical comments about the sheriff's department.
The decision comes 18 months after a lower court judge dismissed Calderón’s claims on the grounds that she did not directly suffer from any injury as a result of the contract's termination. However, as a result of the termination, the program Calderón directed, the Community Reentry Program, shut down at the end of 2017.
Earlier that year, she publicly raised the issues of discrimination in the Denver Sheriff Department, overcrowding in the city jail and a need to address diversity.
“The major injury is that her speech has been chilled. She has a very direct and personal interest in being able to criticize the city without the ramifications, without losing her employment," Calderón's attorney, Patricia S. Bangert, told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit during oral arguments over her lawsuit.
Denver created the Transition from Jail to Community Program in 2007 for adults transitioning from incarceration to life in the community. Calderón's Community Reentry Program had a contract in excess of $500,000 with the city to administer the initiative. Between 2007 and 2017, the city renewed her contract every year.
However, in the summer of 2017, Calderón "personally offended" and "stung" Mayor Michael Hancock through her critical comments, which he told her in a private meeting, her complaint alleged. A letter from the Colorado Latino Forum, of which Calderón was a co-chair, had said there "seems to be a pattern and practice of discriminatory and differential treatment in your Department that you refuse to acknowledge or address," in reference to then-Sheriff Patrick Firman.
The complaint also detailed that around this time, various city officials allegedly spoke of ending Calderón’s contract, with one public safety employee saying Calderón had brought the termination of the Community Reentry Program's contract on herself.
When the city opened up the contract to other bidders in July 2017, it reportedly did not notify Calderón, and sheriff department employees actively recruited other organizations. When she did apply, she was the only woman to do so, her complaint stated. A committee eventually recommended the contract go to a coalition of organizations, which included Servicios De La Raza, the Urban League of Metro Denver and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Multiple city council members questioned the bidding process, but the council ended up approving the contract recommendation.
Calderón then sued the city, as well as Hancock and Firman, alleging retaliation for exercising her First Amendment rights and for sex-based discrimination. The city’s non-renewal of her contract made her experience “lost wages and benefits and lost reputation, as well as emotional and physical suffering,” she alleged.
At the time, a spokesperson for the city's Department of Human Services said it was "unfortunate that Ms. Calderón has been trying to impact the competitive bid process by inserting politics into the decision making process... . This contracting team consistently works to ensure rules are thoroughly followed and equality and fairness exists in all contracting processes."
Attorneys for Denver pointed out that city rules required a competitive selection for the contract every three to five years, and also argued Calderón did not have standing to sue based on the financial arrangement in which the Community Reentry Program participated in the contract.
Calderón countered that the reentry program was a Denver initiative, not an independent entity. Because the city could not enter into a contract with itself, it arranged for a fiscal sponsor, the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center, to do so. However, the center was only responsible for human resources and billing for the program.
In September 2019, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer threw out Calderón’s claim, finding no evidence she was a city employee and therefore “any economic injury suffered by plaintiff as a result of the nonrenewal was derivative of CNDC’s loss of the TJC contract” – meaning she did not have the ability to take Denver to court herself.
On Tuesday, a three-member panel of the 10th Circuit did not explicitly determine Calderón’s employment status with Denver, but agreed there was a direct relationship between her alleged injuries and the termination of the contract. Therefore, it reversed Brimmer’s dismissal.
“The contracts between Denver and CNDC do not indicate CNDC is anything other than what is described in Calderón’s complaint: a fiscal agent that distributes money from Denver to CRP and, in exchange for a fee, provides human-resource services to CRP,” wrote Senior Judge Michael R. Murphy in the appellate panel’s opinion. “[I]t is plausible to read Calderón’s complaint as alleging that CRP is nothing more than a Denver project, not an independent entity or business, and that she, as CRP’s executive director, is charged with implementing and providing the services of the TJCP.”
"It's just a first step, and achieving justice is a long road," said Bangert, Calderón's lawyer, on Tuesday. The Denver City Attorney's Office said it respected the 10th Circuit decision and would reserve its comments on the lawsuit for the trial court.
Calderón was one of several unsuccessful challengers to Hancock's bid for a third term as mayor in 2019. She subsequently became the chief of staff to Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca.
The case is Calderón v. Denver et al.