John Kuhni & Sons Inc. v. Labor Comm'n

Decision Date05 January 2018
Docket NumberNo. 20160953-CA,20160953-CA
Citation414 P.3d 952
CourtUtah Court of Appeals
Parties JOHN KUHNI & SONS INC., Petitioner, v. LABOR COMMISSION, OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH DIVISION, Respondent.

Jeremy C. Reutzel, Ryan M. Merriman, and Jarom R. Jones, Attorneys for Petitioner

Sean D. Reyes, David M. Wilkins, and Brent A. Burnett, Attorneys for Respondent

Judge Ryan M. Harris authored this Opinion, in which Judges David N. Mortensen and Jill M. Pohlman concurred.

Opinion

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1 This case requires us to examine the term "certified mail," as used in Utah Code section 34A-6-303(1). Specifically, we are asked to determine whether that term is broad enough to include any delivery—whether by public or private courier service—that provides proof of mailing and receipt, or whether that term is intended to include only items sent as certified mail through the United States Postal Service. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the narrower interpretation is the correct one.

¶2 In this case, the implications of that conclusion are as follows: the Occupational Safety and Health Division of the Utah Labor Commission (the State) did not give John Kuhni & Sons, Inc. (Kuhni) proper statutory notice of the State's citation and proposed assessment for Kuhni's alleged violation of various safety regulations, and therefore Kuhni's efforts to contest the State's citation are not untimely. Accordingly, we set aside the Labor Commission's order declaring untimely Kuhni's efforts to contest the citation.

BACKGROUND

¶3 On February 22, 2016, the State issued a Citation and Notification of Penalty (the Citation) against Kuhni, setting forth its belief that Kuhni had violated various safety regulations. On February 23, 2016, the State sent a copy of the Citation to Kuhni by FedEx, with return receipt requested. There is no dispute that FedEx successfully delivered the Citation to Kuhni; indeed, one of Kuhni's employees signed a receipt acknowledging delivery of the Citation on February 25, 2016, at 11:54 a.m.

¶4 Under a bolded heading in all capital letters entitled "The Right to Contest This Citation," the Citation contained language informing Kuhni that the Citation could be contested "within 30 calendar days of receipt of this Citation." The Citation also contained an underlined reiteration informing Kuhni that the Citation would become a final order of the Utah Labor Commission if not contested within thirty calendar days of its receipt.

¶5 The State purported to deliver the Citation pursuant to section 303 of the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Act, which states as follows:

(1)(a) If the [State] issues a citation ... it shall within a reasonable time after inspection or investigation, notify the employer by certified mail ... that the employer has 30 days to notify the Division of Adjudication that the employer intends to contest the citation ....
(b) If, within 30 days from the receipt of the notice ..., the employer fails to notify the Division of Adjudication that the employer intends to contest the citation ..., the citation ... is final and not subject to review by any court or agency.

Utah Code Ann. § 34A-6-303(1)(a)(b) (LexisNexis 2015).

¶6 Despite accepting delivery of the Citation on February 25, 2016, Kuhni did not notify the Division of Adjudication (the Division) until June 6, 2016 that it intended to contest the Citation. In response, the State asked the Division to dismiss Kuhni's objection, arguing that the objection was untimely because Kuhni had failed to file it within thirty days of receiving notice of the Citation. Kuhni opposed the State's motion, arguing that the thirty-day clock never started ticking because the State sent the Citation via FedEx rather than by "certified mail" through the United States Postal Service. Kuhni asserted that the governing statute, Utah Code section 34A-6-303(1), required that the notice be sent through the United States Postal Service.

¶7 The Division disagreed, concluding that service through FedEx was sufficient to comply with the statute, and therefore dismissed Kuhni's objection as untimely. Kuhni subsequently appealed the Division's determination to the Appeals Board of the Utah Labor Commission (the Appeals Board), advancing the same arguments. The Appeals Board affirmed the Division's conclusions. Kuhni now seeks review in this court.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶8 Kuhni contends that the State did not provide it with notice sufficient to trigger the thirty-day statute of limitations set forth in the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Act, see Utah Code section 34A-6-303(1), because the State sent the Citation through FedEx and not through the "certified mail" service offered by the United States Postal Service.1 We review an administrative agency's interpretation of a statute for correctness. Hughes Gen. Contractors, Inc. v. Utah Labor Comm'n , 2014 UT 3, ¶ 25 n.5, 322 P.3d 712.

ANALYSIS

¶9 Kuhni argues that the State did not provide Kuhni with notice of the Citation in the manner required by the governing statute. While Kuhni's argument is perhaps fairly classified as a technical one, it is not wrong. We are persuaded that Kuhni is correctly interpreting the relevant statute.

¶10 That statute requires, through the use of mandatory language, that the State "shall ... notify the employer by certified mail" of any assessment against it. See Utah Code Ann. § 34A-6-303(1)(a) (emphasis added). In case there were any doubt about the meaning of the word "shall," our legislature has defined it for us: " [s]hall’ means that an action is required or mandatory." See id. § 68-3-12(1)(j) (LexisNexis 2016); see also Barnard v. Mansell , 2009 UT App 298, ¶ 7, 221 P.3d 874 (noting that "shall" is a "mandatory word" requiring strict compliance with its directive); Diener v. Diener , 2004 UT App 314, ¶ 12, 98 P.3d 1178 (stating that, "[o]rdinarily, the use of the word ‘shall’ in a statute creates a mandatory condition, eliminating any discretion"). Kuhni argues that the State does not comply with this mandate when it sends a notice by FedEx, a delivery service that Kuhni maintains is not equivalent to "certified mail." Kuhni asserts that "certified mail," as used in the relevant statute, refers to a specific service offered by the United States Postal Service. Kuhni argues that, because the State did not send Kuhni notice via certified mail, the thirty-day statute of limitations for filing an objection never began to run, and therefore its objection was not untimely.

¶11 The State disagrees, and asserts that it met the requirements of the statutory mandate when it sent the Citation to Kuhni via FedEx, because FedEx is a delivery service that provides proof of mailing and receipt. The State asserts that the statutory command is fulfilled if the mailing was sent through any delivery service—public or private—that offers the same basic features as certified mail, such as proof of mailing and receipt. The State maintains that the thirty-day statute of limitations began to run on February 25, 2016, when Kuhni received the Citation through FedEx, and that its objection, filed in June 2016, was too late.

¶12 In order to determine which party has the better of this argument, we must explore the definition of the statutory term "certified mail." See Utah Code Ann. § 34A-6-303(1)(a). If the relevant statute contained a specific definition of "certified mail," we would be obligated to apply that definition. See O'Hearon v. Hansen , 2017 UT App 214, ¶ 24, 409 P.3d 85. Here, however, the relevant statute does not contain a definition,2 and we are unaware of any other specialized meaning of the term that ought to apply. In such cases, "we must interpret the statutory language according to the plain meaning of its text." Id. (citations, internal quotation marks, and brackets omitted).

¶13 Our supreme court has recognized that the dictionary definition of a term is a "starting point" in determining the plain meaning of that term. See State v. Bagnes , 2014 UT 4, ¶ 14, 322 P.3d 719. "Certified mail" is defined in Black's Law Dictionary as "[m]ail for which the sender requests proof of delivery in the form of a receipt signed by the addressee." Mail, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014). The term "mail" is itself defined in that same dictionary as "[o]ne or more items that have been properly addressed, stamped with postage, and deposited for delivery in the postal system ." Id. (emphasis added). Whatever else FedEx might be, we agree with Kuhni that it is not a part of "the postal system," and that Black's Law Dictionary provides a definition of "certified mail" that appears to exclude private delivery services.

¶14 Other dictionaries provide similar definitions, defining "certified mail" as a subset of the mail delivered by a government's official postal system. See Certified Mail , Cambridge Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/certified-mail [https://perma.cc/L4JW-N874]; Mail , Cambridge Dictionary https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/mail [https://perma.cc/W6ZT-K923] (defining "certified mail" as "mail for which proof of delivery is obtained" and "mail" as "the letters and packages that are transported and delivered to your home or the place you work, esp[ecially] those delivered by the government's system ") (emphasis added); see also Certified Mail , Collins English Dictionary, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/certified-mail [https://perma.cc/Y8HJ-7LXC]; Mail , Collins English Dictionary, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/mail [https://perma.cc/78RD-ZWKD] (defining "certified mail" as "a postal service for recording the mailing and delivery of a piece of first-class mail" and "mail" as "the public service or system by which letters and parcels are collected and delivered") (emphasis added). Thus, applicable dictionary definitions of "certified mail," whether specialized legal dictionaries or more general English...

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