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Vance v. City of Laramie

Supreme Court of Wyoming

November 7, 2016

BRET VANCE, Appellant (Petitioner),
v.
CITY OF LARAMIE, Appellee (Respondent).

         Appeal from the District Court of Albany County The Honorable Jeffrey A. Donnell, Judge

          Representing Appellant/Petitioner: Charles F. Pelkey of Neubauer, Pelkey, and Goldfinger, LLP; A. Joe Hageman, Laramie, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Hageman.

          Representing Appellee/Respondent: Amanda F. Esch and Shaina A. Case of Davis & Cannon, LLP, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Argument by Ms. Esch.

          Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, KAUTZ, JJ., and CAMPBELL, D.J.

          KAUTZ, Justice.

         [¶1] Appellee/Respondent City of Laramie (City) discharged Appellant/Petitioner Bret Vance from his position as a firefighter after random breathalyzer tests performed while he was on duty detected alcohol in his system. He appealed the discharge, and after an evidentiary hearing, the Civil Service Commission (Commission) reduced his discipline from discharge to a suspension (Commission Decision #1). Both the City and Mr. Vance petitioned the district court for review of the Commission's decision. The district court reversed, concluding the Commission had applied the wrong legal standard and remanded the matter for further agency proceedings.

         [¶2] Upon remand, the Commission considered the same evidentiary record and ruled in favor of Mr. Vance, finding that the breathalyzer tests were invalid (Commission Decision #2). The City petitioned the district court for review, and it again reversed and remanded. The court concluded the record and the law did not support the Commission's determination that the tests were invalid.

         [¶3] Considering the matter for the third time, the Commission consented to Mr. Vance's discharge (Commission Decision #3). Mr. Vance petitioned the district court for review, but it dismissed his petition. Mr. Vance appealed to this Court, and we requested additional briefing on whether the district court had jurisdiction to consider the City's earlier petitions for review of the Commission decisions.

         [¶4] We conclude the legislature did not grant cities the right to judicial review of commission decisions refusing to consent to employee discharges. Consequently, the district court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to consider the City's petition for review of Commission Decision #2. Because the district court lacked jurisdiction to review the Commission's decision, it was final. We dismiss this appeal.

         ISSUE

         [¶5] The dispositive issue in this case is: Whether the district court had subject matter jurisdiction to consider the City's petition for review of Commission Decision #2, in which it refused to consent to Mr. Vance's discharge.

         FACTS

         [¶6] On December 5, 2012, Mr. Vance reported for work as a shift commander for the City's fire department and was notified that he had been randomly selected for alcohol detection testing. Two breathalyzer tests performed minutes apart detected a low level of alcohol in his blood stream. Mr. Vance had previously been disciplined for testing positive for cocaine in 2010. Under the City's policies, a second drug or alcohol violation could result in discipline up to and including termination of employment. The City issued a disciplinary order discharging Mr. Vance from the fire department, and he requested a hearing before the Commission.

         [¶7] The Commission held an evidentiary hearing, applied the civil service rules and the City's personnel rules, and determined in Commission Decision #1 that the reason for the City's discipline decision was "partially justified." It reduced the disciplinary action from discharge to a two-month unpaid suspension. The City petitioned the district court for review, and Mr. Vance cross-petitioned. The district court reversed Commission Decision #1, concluding the legal standard applied by the Commission did not comply with Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 15-5-112(b) (LexisNexis 2015), which required the Commission to determine whether the reason for discharge was "sufficient and established" and did not authorize it to determine that the reason was "partially justified." The district court remanded the matter to the Commission for application of the correct standard.

         [¶8] The Commission considered the same evidentiary record and, in Commission Decision #2, refused to consent to Mr. Vance's discharge. It ruled that the City's reason for discharging him was not sufficient and established because the breathalyzer tests did not comply with Department of Transportation (DOT) standards. The City petitioned the district court for review, and the court again reversed and remanded. The district court concluded the Commission's determination that the breathalyzer test results were invalid was not supported by the law or the evidence. The district court ordered the Commission to accept and consider the breathalyzer test results on remand. After deliberating the matter for a third time and in accordance with the district court's directive that it accept and consider the breathalyzer test results, the Commission ruled in Commission Decision #3 that the City properly discharged Mr. Vance because he violated the policy that prohibits employees from being on duty with "any detectable" blood alcohol concentration.

         [¶9] Mr. Vance filed a petition for review, and the district court dismissed his petition because, instead of raising issues about the Commission's most recent decision, Mr. Vance challenged the district court's previous order requiring the Commission to accept and consider the breathalyzer results. Mr. Vance appealed to this Court. We requested additional briefing on whether the district court had jurisdiction to consider the City's petitions for review of Commission Decisions #1 and #2.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         [¶10] We raised, on our own motion, the issue of whether the district court had jurisdiction to consider the City's petitions for review. "A challenge to subject matter jurisdiction may be asserted at any time by any interested party or sua sponte by the court at the trial or appellate level." Ahearn v. Anderson-Bishop P'ship, 946 P.2d 417, 422 (Wyo. 1997). See also SAS v. Dep't of Family Servs. (In re AGS), 2014 WY 143, ¶ 15, 337 P.3d 470, 476 (Wyo. 2014). If the district court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the City's petitions for review, we also lack jurisdiction. Edsall v. Moore, 2016 WY 71, ¶ 10, 375 P.2d 799, 801 (Wyo. 2016), citing Platte Dev. Co. v. State, Envtl. Quality Council, 966 P.2d 972, 974 (Wyo. 1998). The existence of subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law, subject to de novo review. Poignee v. State, 2016 WY 42');">2016 WY 42, ¶ 8, 369 P.3d 516, 518 (Wyo. 2016); Harmon v. Star Valley Med. Ctr., 2014 WY 90, ¶ 14, 331 P.3d 1174, 1178 (Wyo. 2014) (citations omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         A. Statutory Right to Judicial Review of Commission Decisions

         [¶11] "'The right to judicial review of administrative decisions is entirely statutory.'" Casper Iron & Metal, Inc. v. Unemployment Ins. Comm'n of Dep't of Employment, 845 P.2d 387, 391 (Wyo. 1993), quoting Sellers v. Employment Sec. Comm'n, 760 P.2d 394, 395 (Wyo. 1988). See also Lyles v. State ex rel. Div. of Workers' Comp., 957 P.2d 843, 846 (Wyo. 1998). Stated another way, judicial review of an administrative decision is not available unless made so by statute. Industrial Siting Council v. Chicago and North Western Transp. Co., 660 P.2d 776, 778 (Wyo. 1983). To determine whether the district court had jurisdiction over the City's petition for review, we must interpret the relevant statutes. Statutory interpretation is a question of law subject to de novo review. Albertson's, Inc. v. City of Sheridan, 2001 WY 98, ¶ 7, 33 P.3d 161, 164 (Wyo. 2001); Anderson Highway Signs and Supply, Inc. v. Close, 6 P.3d 123, 124 (Wyo. 2000).

         [¶12] Our focus, when interpreting statutes, is on determining the legislature's intent. Generally, we look to the "'ordinary and obvious meaning" of the statutory language. Albertson's, ¶ 7, 33 P.3d at 164, quoting Kirbens v. Wyoming State Board of Medicine, 992 P.2d 1056, 1060 (Wyo. 1999). In ascertaining the meaning of a given law, we consider and construe in harmony all statutes relating to the same subject or having the same general purpose. Thunderbasin Land, Livestock & Inv. Co. v. Laramie County, 5 P.3d 774, 779 (Wyo. 2000).

         [¶13] The Wyoming Administrative Procedure Act (WAPA), §§ 16-3-101 through 115 (LexisNexis 2015) governs proceedings involving administrative agencies. Section 16-3-114(a), which generally follows the Model State Administrative Procedures Act, provides for judicial review of agency action:

(a) Subject to the requirement that administrative remedies be exhausted and in the absence of any statutory or common-law provision precluding or limiting judicial review, any person aggrieved or adversely affected in fact by a final decision of an agency in a contested case, or by other agency action or inaction, or any person affected in fact by a ...

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