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McDonnell v. City and County of Denver

United States District Court, D. Colorado

February 22, 2017

NAZLI MCDONNELL, and ERIC VERLO, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY AND COUNTY OF DENVER, DENVER POLICE COMMANDER ANTONIO LOPEZ, in his individual and official capacity, and DENVER POLICE SERGEANT VIRGINIA QUIÑONES, in her individual and official capacity, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION IN PART

          William J. Martínez United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs Nazli McDonnell (“McDonnell”) and Eric Verlo (“Verlo”) (together, “Plaintiffs”) sue the City and County of Denver (“Denver”), Denver Police Commander Antonio Lopez (“Lopez”) and Denver Police Sergeant Virginia Quiñones (“Quiñones”) (collectively, “Defendants”) for allegedly violating Plaintiffs' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights when they prevented Plaintiffs from protesting without a permit in the Jeppesen Terminal at Denver International Airport (“Airport” or “Denver Airport”). (ECF No. 1.) Currently before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion for Preliminary Injunction, which seeks to enjoin Denver from enforcing some of its policies regarding demonstrations and protests at the Airport. (ECF No. 2.) This motion has been fully briefed (see ECF Nos. 2, 20, 21, 23) and the Court held an evidentiary hearing on February 15, 2017 (“Preliminary Injunction Hearing”).

         For the reasons explained below, Plaintiffs' Motion is granted to the following limited extent:

• Defendants must issue an expressive activity permit on twenty-four hours' notice in circumstances where an applicant, in good faith, seeks a permit for the purpose of communicating topical ideas reasonably relevant to the purposes and mission of the Airport, the immediate importance of which could not have been foreseen seven days or more in advance of the commencement of the activity for which the permit is sought, or when circumstances beyond the control of the permit applicant prevented timely filing of the application;
• Defendants must make all reasonable efforts to accommodate the applicant's preferred demonstration location, whether inside or outside of the Jeppesen Terminal, so long as the location is a place where the unticketed public is normally allowed to be;
• Defendants may not enforce Denver Airport Regulation 50.09's prohibition against “picketing” (as that term is defined in Denver Airport Regulation 50.02-8) within the Jeppesen Terminal; and
• Defendants may not restrict the size of a permit applicant's proposed signage beyond that which may be reasonably required to prevent the impeding of the normal flow of travelers and visitors in and out of Jeppesen Terminal; and specifically, Defendants may not enforce Denver Airport Regulation 50.08-12's requirement that signs or placards be no larger than one foot by one foot.

         Any relief Plaintiffs seek beyond the foregoing is denied at this phase of the case. In particular, the Court will not require the Airport to accommodate truly spontaneous demonstrations (although the Airport remains free to do so); the Court will not require the Airport to allow demonstrators to unilaterally determine the location within the Jeppesen Terminal that they wish to demonstrate; and the Court will not strike down the Airport's usual seven-day notice-and-permit requirement as unconstitutional in all circumstances.

         I. FINDINGS OF FACT

         Based on the parties' filings, and on the documentary and testimonial evidence received at the evidentiary hearing, the Court makes the following findings of fact for purposes of resolving Plaintiffs' Motion.

         A. Regulation 50

         Pursuant to Denver Municipal Code § 5-16(a), Denver's manager of aviation may “adopt rules and regulations for the management, operation and control of [the] Denver Municipal Airport System, and for the use and occupancy, management, control, operation, care, repair and maintenance of all structures and facilities thereon, and all land on which [the] Denver Municipal Airport System is located and operated.” Under that authority, the manager of aviation has adopted “Rules and Regulations for the Management, Operation, Control, and Use of the Denver Municipal Airport System.” See https://www.flydenver.com/about/administration/rulesregulations (last accessed Feb. 16, 2017). Part 50 of those rules and regulations governs picketing, protesting, soliciting, and similar activities at the Airport. See https://www.flydenver.com/sites/ default/files/rules/50leafleting.pdf (last accessed Feb. 16, 2017). The Court will refer to Part 50 collectively as “Regulation 50.”

         The following subdivisions of Regulation 50 are relevant to the parties' current dispute:

Regulation 50.03: “No person or organization shall leaflet, conduct surveys, display signs, gather signatures, solicit funds, or engage in other speech related activity at Denver International Airport for religious, charitable, or political purposes, or in connection with a labor dispute, except pursuant to, and in compliance with, a permit for such activity issued by the CEO [of the Airport] or his or her designee. . . .”
Regulation 50.04-1: “Any person or organization desiring to leaflet, display signs, gather signatures, solicit funds, or engage in other speech related activity at Denver International Airport for religious, charitable, or political purposes, or in connection with a labor dispute, shall complete a permit application and submit it during regular business hours, at least seven (7) days prior to the commencement of the activity for which the permit is sought and no earlier than thirty (30) days prior to commencement of the activity. The permit application shall be submitted using the form provided by the Airport. The applicant shall provide the name and address of the person in charge of the activity, the names of the persons engaged in the activity, the nature of the activity, each location at which the activity is proposed to be conducted, the purpose of the activity, the hours during which the activity is proposed to be conducted, and the beginning and end dates of such activity. A labor organization shall also identify the employer who is the target of the proposed activity.”
Regulation 50.04-3: “Upon presentation of a complete permit application and all required documentation, the CEO shall issue a permit to the applicant, if there is space available in the Terminal, applying only the limitations and regulations set forth in this Rule and Regulation . . . . Permits shall be issued on a first come-first served basis. No permits shall be issued by the CEO for a period of time in excess of thirty-one (31) days.”
Regulation 50.04-5: “In issuing permits or allocating space, the CEO shall not exercise any discretion or judgment regarding the purpose or content of the proposed activity, except as provided in these Rules and Regulations. The issuance of a permit is a strictly ministerial function and does not constitute an endorsement by the City and County of Denver of any organization, cause, religion, political issue, or other matter.”
Regulation 50.04-6: “The CEO may move expressive activity from one location to another and/or disperse such activity around the airport upon reasonable notice to each affected person when in the judgment of the CEO such action is necessary for the efficient and effective operation of the transportation function of the airport.”
Regulation 50.08-12: “Individuals and organizations engaged in leafleting, solicitation, picketing, or other speech related activity shall not: * * * [w]ear or carry a sign or placard larger than one foot by one foot in size . . . .” (underscoring in original).
Regulation 50.09: “Picketing not related to a labor dispute is prohibited in all interior areas of the Terminal and concourses, in the Restricted Area, and on all vehicular roadways, and shall not be conducted by more than two (2) persons at any one location upon the Airport.”
Regulation 50.02-8: “Picketing shall mean one or more persons marching or stationing themselves in an area in order to communicate their position on a political, charitable, or religious issue, or a labor dispute, by displaying one or more signs, posters or similar devices” (underscoring in original).

         The Airport receives about forty-five permit requests a year. No witness at the Preliminary Injunction Hearing (including Airport administrators who directly or indirectly supervise the permit process) could remember an instance in which a permit had been denied.

         Although there is no formal written, prescribed procedure for requesting expedited treatment of permit requests, the Airport not infrequently processes such requests and issues permits in less than seven days. Last November, less than seven days before Election Day, the Airport received a request from “the International Machinists”[1] to stage a demonstration ahead of the election. The Airport was able to process that request in two days and thereby permit the demonstration before Election Day.

         B. The Executive Order

         On Friday, January 27, 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13769 (“Executive Order”). See 82 Fed. Reg. 8977. The Executive Order, among other things, established a 90-day ban on individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, a 120-day suspension of all refugee admissions, and an indefinite suspension of refugee admissions from Syria. Id. §§ 3(c), 5(a), 5(c). “The impact of the Executive Order was immediate and widespread. It was reported that thousands of visas were immediately canceled, hundreds of travelers with such visas were prevented from boarding airplanes bound for the United States or denied entry on arrival, and some travelers were detained.” Washington v. Trump, F.3d.,, 2017 WL 526497, at *2 (9th Cir. Feb. 9, 2017). As is well known, demonstrators and attorneys quickly began to assemble at certain American airports, both to protest the Executive Order and potentially to offer assistance to travelers being detained upon arrival.

         C. The January 28 Protest at the Denver Airport

         Shortly after 1:00 p.m. on the following day-Saturday, January 28, 2017- Airport public information officer Heath Montgomery e-mailed Defendant Lopez, the police commander responsible for Denver's police district encompassing the Airport. Lopez was off-duty at the time. Montgomery informed Lopez that he had received media inquiries about a protest being planned for the Airport later that day, and that no Regulation 50 permit had been issued for such a protest.

         Not knowing any details about the nature or potential size of the protest, and fearing the possibility of “black bloc” and so-called “anarchist activities, ” Lopez coordinated with other Denver Police officials to redeploy Denver Police's gang unit from their normal assignments to the Airport. Denver Police also took uniformed officers out of each of the various other police districts and redeployed them to the Airport. Lopez called for these reinforcements immediately in light of the Airport's significant distance from any other police station or normal patrol area. Lopez knew that if an unsafe situation developed, he could not rely on additional officers being able to get to the Airport quickly.

         Through his efforts, Lopez was eventually able to assemble a force of about fifty officers over “the footprint of the entire airport, ” meaning inclusive of all officers already assigned to the Airport who remained on their normal patrol duties. Lopez himself also came out to the Airport.

         In the meantime, Montgomery had somehow learned of an organization known as the Colorado Muslim Connection that was organizing protesters through Facebook. Montgomery reached out to this organization through the Airport's own Facebook account and informed them of Regulation 50's permit requirement. (Ex. 32.) One of the Colorado Muslim Connection's principals, Nadeen Ibrahim, then e-mailed Montgomery “to address the permit.” (Ex. 30.) Ibrahim told Montgomery:

The group of people we have will have a peaceful assembly carrying signs saying welcome here along with a choir and lots of flowers. Our goal is to stand in solidarity with our community members that have been detained at the airports since the signing of the executive order, though they do have active, legal visas/green cards. Additionally, we would like to show our physical welcoming presence for any newly arriving Middle Eastern sisters and brothers with visas. We do not intend to block any access to [the Airport].

(Id.) Montgomery apparently did not construe this e-mail as a permit request, or at least not a properly prepared one, and stated that “Denver Police will not allow a protest at the airport tonight. We are willing to work with you like any other group but there is a formal process for that.” (Id.)

         Nonetheless, protesters began to assemble in the late afternoon and early evening in the Airport's Jeppesen Terminal, specifically in the multi-storied central area known as the “Great Hall.” The Great Hall is a very large, rectangular area that runs north and south. The lower level of the Great Hall (level 5) has an enormous amount of floor space, and is ringed with offices and some retail shops, but the floor space itself is largely taken up by security screening facilities for departing passengers. The only relatively unobstructed area on level 5 is the middle third, which is currently designed primarily as a location for “meeters-and-greeters, ” i.e., individuals waiting for passengers arriving from domestic flights who come up from the underground train connecting the Jeppesen Terminal with the various concourses. There is a much smaller meeters-and-greeters waiting area at the north end of level 5, where international arrivals exit from customs screening.

         The upper level of the Great Hall (level 6) has much less floor space than level 5 given that it is mostly open to level 5 below. It is ringed with retail shops and restaurants. At its north end is a pedestrian bridge to and from the “A” concourse and its separate security screening area.

         Given this design, every arriving and departing passenger at the Airport (i.e., all passengers except those only connecting through Denver), and nearly every other person having business at the airport (including employees, delivery persons, meeters- and-greeters, etc.), must pass through some portion of the Great Hall. In 2016, the Airport served 58.3 million passengers, making it the sixth busiest airport in the United States and the eighteenth busiest in the world. Approximately 36, 000 people also work at the airport.

         The protesters who arrived on the evening of January 28 largely congregated in the middle third of the Great Hall (the domestic-arrivals meeter-and-greeter area). The protesters engaged in singing, chanting, praying, and holding up signs. At least one of them had a megaphone.

         The size of the protest at its height is unclear. The witnesses at the evidentiary hearing gave varying estimates ranging from as low as 150 to as high as 1, 000. Most estimates, however, centered in the range of about 200. Lopez, who believed that the protest eventually comprised about 300 individuals, did not believe that his fifty officers throughout the Airport were enough to ensure safety and security for that size of protest, even if he could pull all of his officers away from their normal duties.

         Most of the details of the January 28 protest are not relevant for present purposes. Suffice it to say that Lopez eventually approached those who appeared to be the protest organizers and warned them multiple times that they could be arrested if they continued to protest without a permit. Airport administration later agreed to allow the protest to continue on “the plaza, ” an area just outside the Jeppesen Terminal to its south, between the Terminal itself and the Westin Hotel. Protesters then moved to that location, and the protest dispersed later in the evening. No one was arrested and no illegal activity stemming from the protest (e.g., property damage) was reported, nor was there any report of disruption to travel operations or any impeding of the normal flow of travelers and visitors in and out of Jeppesen Terminal.

         D. The January 29 Protest at the Denver Airport

         Plaintiffs disagree strongly with the Executive Order and likewise wished to protest it, but, due to their schedules, were unable to participate in the January 28 protest. They decided instead to go to the Airport on the following day, Sunday, January 29. They came that afternoon and stationed themselves at a physical barrier just outside the international arrival doors at the north end of the Great Hall, level 5. They each held up a sign of roughly poster board size expressing a message of opposition to the Executive Order and solidarity with those affected by it. (See Exs. 2, 4, M.)

         Plaintiffs were soon approached by Defendant Quiñones, who warned them that they could be arrested for demonstrating without a permit. Plaintiffs felt threatened, as well as disheartened that they could not freely exercise their First Amendment rights then and there. Plaintiffs felt it was important to be demonstrating both at that particular time, given the broad news coverage of the effects of the Executive Order, and at that particular place (the international arrivals area), given a desire to express solidarity with those arriving directly from international destinations-whom Plaintiffs apparently assumed would be most likely to be affected by the Executive Order in some way.

         Plaintiffs left the Airport later that day without being arrested, and without incident. They have never returned to continue their protest, nor have they applied for a permit to do so.

         E. Permits Since Issued

         The airport has since issued permits to demonstrators opposed to the Executive Order. At least one of these permits includes permission for four people to demonstrate in the international arrivals area, where Plaintiffs demonstrated on January 29.

         II. REQUESTED INJUNCTION

         Plaintiffs have never proposed specific injunction language. In their Motion, they asked for “an injunction prohibiting their arrest for standing in peaceful protest within Jeppesen Terminal and invalidating Regulation 50 as violative of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.” (ECF No. 2 at 4.) At the Preliminary Injunction Hearing, Plaintiffs' counsel asked the Court to enjoin Defendants (1) “from arresting people for engaging in behavior that the plaintiffs or people similarly situated were engaging in, ” (2) from enforcing Regulation 50.09 (which forbids non-labor demonstrators from holding up signs within the Jeppesen Terminal), and (3) from administering Regulation 50 without an “exigent circumstances exception.” Counsel also argued that requiring a permit application seven days ahead of time is unconstitutionally long in any circumstance, exigent or not.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. The Various Standards

         In a sense, there are at least three preliminary injunction standards. The first, typically-quoted standard requires: (1) a likelihood of success on the merits, (2) a threat of irreparable harm, which (3) outweighs any harm to the non-moving party, and (4) that the injunction would not adversely affect the public interest. See, e.g., Awad v. Ziriax, 670 F.3d 1111, 1125 (10th Cir. 2012).

         If, however, the injunction will (1) alter the status quo, (2) mandate action by the defendant, or (3) afford the movant all the relief that it could recover at the conclusion of a full trial on the merits, a second standard comes into play, one in which the movant must meet a heightened burden. See O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal v. Ashcroft, 389 F.3d 973, 975 (10th Cir. 2004) (en banc). Specifically, the proposed injunction “must be more closely scrutinized to assure that the exigencies of the case support the granting of a remedy that is extraordinary even in the normal course” and “a party seeking such an injunction must make a strong showing both with regard to the likelihood of success on the merits and with regard to the balance of harms.” Id.

         On the other hand, the Tenth Circuit also approves of a

modified . . . preliminary injunction test when the moving party demonstrates that the [irreparable harm], [balance of harms], and [public interest] factors tip strongly in its favor. In such situations, the moving party may meet the requirement for showing [likelihood of] success on the merits by showing that questions going to the merits are so serious, substantial, difficult, and doubtful as to make the issue ripe for litigation and deserving of more deliberate investigation.

Verlo v. Martinez, 820 F.3d 1113, 1128 n.5 (10th Cir. 2016). This standard, in other words, permits a weaker showing on likelihood of success when the party's showing on the other factors is strong. It is not clear how this standard would apply if the second standard also applies.

         In any event, “a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy, ” and therefore “the right to relief must be clear and unequivocal.” Greater Yellowstone ...


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