Saturday, October 31, 2015

Where do we go now?

Moran v. Vermont State Retirement Board, 2015 VT 119

By Andrew Delaney

As has been said once or twice before, “The devil is in the details.” Not that we ever let that slow us down ‘round here.

No exciting facts in this one, folks. At some time there may’ve been, but we’re down to the vagaries of administrative law and appellate procedure at this point.

Ms. Moran stopped working at the Vermont State Hospital and applied for ordinary disability-retirement benefits. The Medical Review Board denied benefits, and Ms. Moran requested an evidentiary hearing (pursuant to this statute). The Board again denied benefits. Ms. Moran then filed a Rule 75 complaint in superior court (V.R.C.P. 75 is a rule that allows review of “governmental action” “if such review is otherwise available by law” when the situation doesn’t fit into other rules). The superior court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. It concluded that Ms. Moran’s case was a “contested case” under the Vermont Administrative Procedure Act (VAPA), and that the proper forum for her appeal was the SCOV, due in part to this statute.

So Ms. Moran appeals and here we are. Ms. Moran argues that the superior court did have jurisdiction. Alternatively, she argues that her timely filed superior court complaint was sufficient to preserve the SCOV’s jurisdiction. The State responds to her arguments and also files a motion to dismiss the complaint-in-superior-court-preserved-the-appeal part of the appeal as untimely.

The SCOV basically says, “We’ll get to that as part of the decision.” Because we’re dealing with conclusions of law, the standard of review here is “nondeferential and plenary.” Or, in plain English, the SCOV can do whatever the heck it wants.

The SCOV notes that the hearing officer’s decision after evidentiary hearing is a “final administrative action” for purposes of appeal. That means that the appeal goes—or should go under the statutory scheme—straight to the SCOV. As we already know, that didn’t happen in this case.

A quick aside about administrative law. The basic idea is that in administrative actions, all administrative remedies have to be exhausted before one can go to “regular” court. It can get a little complicated trying to determine what a “final” decision is and where things are supposed to go from where. It can be—as this case illustrates—an unforgiving area of the law.

The SCOV runs through the framework of VAPA, distinguishes this case (primarily on grounds that a city retirement board’s decision doesn’t fall under VAPA), and concludes—as did the trial court—that this case should’ve gone to the SCOV after the hearing officer’s decision and not to the superior court.

We’re not done yet, though. Ms. Moran’s second argument is that her timely filed Rule 75 action should have served as a timely appeal (under Appellate Rules 3 and 4). The SCOV opines that this is an attempt to appeal straight to the SCOV from the hearing officer’s decision.

And the SCOV just ain’t havin’ it. A notice of appeal puts the court and parties on notice that it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. The notice has to be filed within thirty days of the decision appealed from and the court being appealed to must be named. The naming of the court is essential. And the SCOV reasons that because there was no indication in the Rule 75 complaint that things were headed to the SCOV: “The complaint fails to notify the opposing party and this Court of a proceeding here.” The attempt was to invoke superior court jurisdiction, so the SCOV isn’t going to allow the switch to the SCOV this late in the game.

Ms. Moran cites a couple cases, but the SCOV isn’t swayed. Though the SCOV found “functional” equivalents of a notice of appeal in those cases, Ms. Moran’s actions in this case didn’t achieve the level of notice required. The SCOV holds, “A Rule 75 complaint in superior court does not afford sufficient notice of an appellate proceeding in this Court, and therefore cannot initiate appellate proceedings here.”

Accordingly, the SCOV affirms and dismisses the State’s motion to dismiss as moot.

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