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In re Worker's Compensation Claim of McCallister

Supreme Court of Wyoming

May 7, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF THE WORKER'S COMPENSATION CLAIM OF: BLAINE M. McCALLISTER, Appellant (Petitioner),
v.
STATE OF WYOMING, ex rel. DEPARTMENT OF WORKFORCE SERVICES, WORKERS' COMPENSATION DIVISION, Appellee (Respondent).

          Representing Appellant: James R. Salisbury, The Salisbury Firm, P.C., Cheyenne, Wyoming.

          Representing Appellee: Peter K. Michael, Wyoming Attorney General; Daniel E. White, Deputy Attorney General; J.C. DeMers, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Kelly D. Mullen, Assistant Attorney General.

          Appeal from the District Court of Campbell County The Honorable John R. Perry, Judge

          Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, and GRAY, JJ.

          KAUTZ, Justice.

         [¶1] Appellant Blaine M. McCallister's physicians requested Appellee Wyoming Workers' Compensation Division (the Division) to preauthorize the purchase of several unique items to treat Mr. McCallister's work-related injury. The Division denied the requests, and after a contested case hearing, the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) upheld the Division's determinations. Mr. McCallister filed his petition for review in the district court of the county where he was injured (Campbell County, Wyoming). We conclude the statute which provides for judicial review of the OAH decision, Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 16-3-114(a) (LexisNexis 2017), placed jurisdiction in the district court of the county where the administrative action was taken (Laramie County, Wyoming) or the district court of the county where Mr. McCallister resided (Albany County, Wyoming).

         [¶2] Since Mr. McCallister filed his petition for review in a district court that did not have jurisdiction, we, likewise, lack jurisdiction. Consequently, we must dismiss this case and vacate the district court's order.

         ISSUE

         [¶3] The dispositive issue in this case is:

Whether, under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 16-3-114(a), the district court for Campbell County had jurisdiction over Mr. McCallister's petition for review?

         FACTS

         [¶4] Mr. McCallister injured his cervical and thoracic spine in 2012 while working for Robinson Grinding & Profiling, LLC in Campbell County. In 2016, Mr. McCallister's physicians requested that the Division preauthorize the purchase of several non-typical items to help him manage his condition at his home in rural Albany County. The Division refused to pay for the items, and Mr. McCallister objected and requested a hearing. An "in-person contested case hearing" was held before an OAH hearing examiner in Laramie County on May 4, 2017. On June 5, 2017, the hearing examiner issued her "Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order" upholding the Division's determinations.[1] The signature line indicated the hearing examiner's office was located in Laramie County.

         [¶ 5] The Division's notices of referral of the claims to the OAH for a contested case hearing did not specify any county in a heading. The OAH, however, responded with a document which did include such a heading. Thereafter in the administrative proceedings, the Division's pleadings and the OAH orders, including its final decision, were captioned as follows:

         IN THE OFFICE OF ADMINISTRATIVE HEARINGS

         STATE OF WYOMING COUNTY OF CAMPBELL IN THE MATTER OF THE WORKER'S COMPENSATION CLAIM OF BLAINE M. McCALLISTER, AN EMPLOYEE OF ROBINSON GRINDING & PROFILING, LLC: BLAINE M. McCALLISTER, Claimant, vs.

         ROBINSON GRINDING & PROFILING, LLC, and STATE OF WYOMING ex rel. DEPARTMENT OF WORKFORCE SERVICES, WORKERS' COMPENSATION DIVISION, Respondents.

         WC CASE NUMBER 2012-12075, C101, C102, C103

         [¶6] Mr. McCallister filed a petition for judicial review of the OAH decision in the Campbell County district court on June 30, 2017. In his petition for review, Mr. McCallister stated:

This Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to Wyoming Statutes §§ 16-3-114(a), 27-14-602, and 27-16-612 (sic) and Wyo. R. App. P. 12. All administrative remedies have been exhausted prior to the filing of this petition. Venue is proper in this Court as the Petitioner was employed by Robinson Profiling & Grinding, LLC . . . in Campbell County, Wyoming at the time of the injury.

         [¶7] On July 31, 2017, the Division filed a motion to dismiss Mr. McCallister's petition for review, asserting he should not have filed in the Campbell County district court. Mr. McCallister responded to the motion to dismiss, stating: "From the onset of this multi-year administrative proceeding, the Division has consistently and routinely captioned (and venued) this workers' compensation claim in Campbell County, Wyoming, despite the Petitioner residing in Albany County, Wyoming, and the Division being located in Laramie County, Wyoming". He continued, "the administrative action, by the Division's choosing, occurred in Campbell County, Wyoming, despite the location of the hearing(s) associated with this workers' compensation claim." In the alternative, Mr. McCallister requested that his case be transferred to one of the counties where venue was proper because a dismissal would result in his appeal being "time-barred."

         [¶8] The district court denied the Division's motion to dismiss and affirmed the OAH decision on the merits. Mr. McCallister appealed to this Court.

         DISCUSSION

         [¶9] The Division asserts the district court in Campbell County did not have subject matter jurisdiction over Mr. McCallister's appeal. It claims that he was required by § 16-3-114(a) to file his petition for judicial review in either the district court for the county in which the administrative action was taken or the district court in the county where he resided. Mr. McCallister counters that, while he may have filed his petition for review in the wrong venue, the Campbell County district court had jurisdiction to hear and decide his case. He further argues that the Division waived the right to challenge venue because it did not appeal the district court's order denying its motion to dismiss.

         A. Standard of Review and General Rules of Jurisdiction and Venue

         [¶10] The determination of whether a court has subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law subject to de novo review. Vance v. City of Laramie, 2016 WY 106, ¶ 10, 382 P.3d 1104, 1106 (Wyo. 2016). Subject matter jurisdiction is defined as "the power to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong." Granite Springs Retreat Ass'n, Inc. v. Manning, 2006 WY 60, ¶ 5, 133 P.3d 1005, 1009 (Wyo. 2006) (quoting Mutual of Omaha Ins. Co. v. Blury-Losolla, 952 P.2d 1117, 1119-20 (Wyo. 1998)). A challenge to the Court's subject matter jurisdiction can be raised at any time by any party or by the Court sua sponte. TC v. Dep't of Family Servs. (Matter of Adoption of L-MHB), 2018 WY 140, ¶ 9, 431 P.3d 560, 564 (Wyo. 2018); Vance, ¶ 10, 382 P.3d at 1106. "'A lack of subject matter jurisdiction constitutes a fundamental defect in the proceeding which cannot be cured by waiver or consent by the parties.'" TC, ¶ 9, 431 P.3d at 564 (quoting Weller v. Weller, 960 P.2d 493, 496 (Wyo. 1998)). "If a lower court acts without jurisdiction, 'this [C]ourt will notice the defect and have jurisdiction on appeal, not on the merits, but merely for the purpose of correcting the error of the lower court in maintaining the suit.'" Popick v. State ex rel. Wyo. Workers' Safety & Comp. Div., 2005 WY 110, ¶ 13, 118 P.3d 993, 996 (Wyo. 2005) (quoting Gookin v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Ins. Co., 826 P.2d 229, 232 (Wyo. 1992)). See also, W.R.A.P. 1.04(c); Vance, ¶ 10, 382 P.3d at 1106; Edsall v. Moore, 2016 WY 71, ¶ 10, 375 P.3d 799, 801 (Wyo. 2016); Platte Dev. Co. v. State, Envtl. Quality Council, 966 P.2d 972, 974 (Wyo. 1998).

         [¶11] Subject matter jurisdiction and venue are distinct concepts. Linch v. Linch, 2015 WY 141, ¶ 27, 361 P.3d 308, 315 (Wyo. 2015). Jurisdiction "connotes the power to decide a case on the merits, while venue denotes locality, the place where the suit should be heard." State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Kunz, 2008 WY 71, ¶ 14, 186 P.3d 378, 382 (Wyo. 2008) (citations omitted). Venue is a modern legal concept that refers to the county, district, or other geographical location where, "'for the sake of fairness, convenience, or other commanding policy considerations, a cause is to be tried.'" Sundance Mt. Resort, Inc. v. Union Tel. Co., 2007 WY 11, ¶ 9, 150 P.3d 191, 195 (Wyo. 2007) (quoting 77 Am. Jur. 2d Venue § 1 (2006)). When an action is filed in a court that has jurisdiction but is the wrong venue, the court has the authority to render a binding judgment. Bourke v. Grey Wolf Drilling Co., 2013 WY 93, ¶ 27, 305 P.3d 1164, 1170 (Wyo. 2013) (citing Matter of Larsen, 770 P.2d 1089, 1092 (Wyo. 1989)).

         [¶12] Venue is subject to waiver, while jurisdiction is not. Hronek v. St. Joseph's Children's Home, 866 P.2d 1305, 1310 (Wyo. 1994) (citing Matter of Larsen, 770 P.2d at 1092). The distinction is important to this case because the Division did not cross-appeal from the district court's denial of its motion to dismiss. As we explained in GOB, LLC v. Rainbow Canyon, Inc., 2008 WY 157, ¶ 10, 197 P.3d 1269, 1271-72 (Wyo. 2008), a party must cross-appeal if it seeks a change in the judgment. The Division is requesting that the district court's judgment be changed from affirmance of the OAH decision to dismissal of Mr. McCallister's petition for judicial review. See, e.g., Sutherland v. Meridian Granite Co., 2012 WY 53, 273 P.3d 1092 (Wyo. 2012) (Meridian prevailed on the merits but cross-appealed the district court's denial of its motion to dismiss for failure to join an indispensable party). Consequently, the Division can raise the issue of subject matter jurisdiction even though it did not appeal the district court's denial of its motion to dismiss because that issue in not subject to waiver. However, the Division waived its right to contest the district court's denial of its motion to dismiss for improper venue by failing to cross-appeal.

         B. Is the Location for Filing a Petition for Judicial Review in § 16-3-114(a) a Matter of Jurisdiction or Venue?

         [¶13] Wyoming district courts are courts of general jurisdiction. George v. Allen (In re Estate of George), 2003 WY 129, ¶ 18, 77 P.3d 1219, 1225 (Wyo. 2003). See also, Linch, ¶ 28, 361 P.3d at 315; Bourke, ¶ 27, 305 P.3d at 1170. District courts "have inherent subject matter jurisdiction over any and all cases in which jurisdiction is not specifically vested in some court of limited jurisdiction. Wyoming Constitution, Art. 5, § 10." George, ¶ 18, 77 P.3d at 1225 (quoting Larsen, 770 P.2d at 1092) (other citations omitted). Under this general jurisdiction, authority to enter a binding judgment exists in any and all of the district courts in the state. Id. "That authority does not reside only in the court in which proper venue is found." Id.

         [¶14] Cases like George, Bourke and Linch state the general rule for Wyoming district courts' original jurisdiction, but that rule does not apply to administrative appeals. "'The right to judicial review of administrative decisions is entirely statutory.'" Casper Iron & Metal, Inc. v. Unemployment Ins. Comm'n, 845 P.2d 387, 391 (Wyo. 1993) (quoting Sellers v. Employment Sec. Comm'n, 760 P.2d 394, 395 (Wyo. 1988)). That means, "judicial review of an administrative decision is not available unless made so by statute." Vance, ¶ 11, 382 P.3d at 1106. If a petitioner fails to comply with statutory jurisdictional requirements, the district court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over the petition for judicial review. See, e.g., Pritchard v. Div. of Vocational Rehab., 540 P.2d 523, 526-27 (Wyo. 1975); Roe v. Bd. of County Comm'rs, Campbell County, 997 P.2d 1021, 1023 (Wyo. 2000).

         [¶15] However, "'[a] statutory requirement is jurisdictional only where there is 'clear' indication that [the legislature] wanted the requirement to be 'jurisdictional.'" TC, ¶ 10, 431 P.3d at 565 (quoting Harmon v. Star Valley Med. Ctr., 2014 WY 90, ¶ 48, 331 P.3d 1174, 1188 (Wyo. 2014)). We recognized in TC that statutory requirements may be mandatory and the failure to follow them may be fatal to a claim, but that does not necessarily make them jurisdictional. Id., ¶ 16, 431 P.3d at 566. See also, Linch, ¶ 32, 361 P.3d at 316 ("a court does not lose subject matter jurisdiction over an action for failure to comply with statutory procedural requirements unless the statute contains an 'unequivocal expression' that failure to comply shall result in a loss of jurisdiction"). Therefore, unless there is a clear indication in the statute that the legislature intended the location for filing a petition for judicial review to be jurisdictional, it is only a matter of venue.

         [¶16] Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 27-14-602(b)(iii) (LexisNexis 2017) states that an appeal from a decision rendered after a contested case hearing on a workers' compensation claim may be taken by "any affected party to the district court as provided by the Wyoming Administrative Procedure Act" (W.A.P.A.), Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 16-3-101 through 16-3-115 (LexisNexis 2017). Section 16-3-114(a) governs judicial review of agency decisions and states in relevant part:

(a) [A]ny person aggrieved or adversely affected in fact by a final decision of an agency in a contested case . . . is entitled to judicial review in the district court for the county in which the administrative action . . . was taken, or in which any real property affected by the administrative action or inaction is located, or if no real property is involved, in the district court for the county in which the party aggrieved or adversely affected by the administrative action . . . resides or has its principal place of business. The procedure to be followed in the proceeding before the district court shall be in accordance with rules heretofore or hereinafter adopted by the Wyoming supreme court.

(emphasis added).

         [¶17] Our case law establishes that certain requirements of § 16-3-114(a) are jurisdictional. In Pritchard, 540 P.2d at 525-28, we ruled the district court did not have jurisdiction over the petition for review because the petitioner was a state agency and did not meet the statutory definition of "person." See also, Basin Elec. Power Co-op, Inc. v. Dep't of Rev.,970 P.2d 841, 847-48 (Wyo. 1998) (county commission was not a "person" entitled to review of Board of Equalization decision; consequently, the court was without jurisdiction to hear its administrative appeal). In Roe, 997 P.2d at 1023, the district court did ...


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