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Lisa Calderón’s Denver retaliation lawsuit could be decided by a jury

3 min read

Former Denver mayoral candidate and activist Lisa Calderón says she’s eager to take her case to a jury as she presses a five-year-old case alleging that top city officials trampled on her free speech rights when her community reentry program lost its contract.

Cleared to proceed toward trial by a court ruling last week, the lawsuit — over a program that served inmates leaving jail —  predates Calderón’s two runs for mayor. She first ran in 2019 against then-Mayor Michael Hancock, whose administration had selected a competing group for the reentry contract, and then again in this year’s crowded open mayoral race, which Mike Johnston ultimately won. Both times, Calderón ran on a progressive platform and came in third.

Through those candidacies, the lawsuit simmered as attorneys for Hancock and the city fought for its dismissal.

Even with Hancock out of office, Calderón says it’s important to see the case through.

“This is an important First Amendment case for not just me but any city employee or contractor who has been retaliated against for being critical of our city government,” she said in an interview.

Calderón first sued the city, Hancock and a handful of administration staffers in 2018. She alleged the defendants intentionally sought the end of the Community Re-entry Project, the organization she ran. The city declined to renew the city’s longstanding $550,000-a-year contract with a parent organization and selected a competing group through a new bid process.

She has claimed city officials conspired to retaliate against her for criticizing the administration over issues that included a lack of diversity in leadership positions in the Denver Sheriff Department. At the time, a city spokeswoman disputed the retaliation claim, saying it was time to put the contract through a new bidding process rather than simply renewing it again.

Chief U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer initially dismissed Calderón’s suit in 2019, finding she lacked standing to sue because the primary damages were to her employer, not herself.

But the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision.

Last week, Brimmer issued a 33-page order largely denying the city’s latest motion to dismiss the case. He found that Calderón’s most recent complaint contains sufficient allegations to move forward on First Amendment and conspiracy grounds.

Calderón said she looks forward to the discovery phase of the case, which could provide more information about city officials’ discussions. She wants to show the city ended her program not because it wasn’t effective, she said, but because she was a public critic of city leadership.

“I have had to really work hard to counter that narrative. … There was this pervasive mischaracterization and outright lies about my work,” Calderón said. “Fundamentally, my case is a whistleblower case.”

In last week’s order, the judge dismissed claims against former Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman, noting that Calderón never alleged any connection between Firman’s actions and a violation of her constitutional rights.

The Denver City Attorney’s Office declined to respond to questions about the case on Tuesday citing a policy against commenting on pending litigation.

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