Ark. Dep't of Human Servs. v. Mitchell

Decision Date03 February 2021
Docket NumberNo. CV-19-62,CV-19-62
Citation2021 Ark. App. 43,616 S.W.3d 289
Parties ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, Appellant v. Steven MITCHELL, Appellee
CourtArkansas Court of Appeals

Ellen K. Howard, Jonesboro, Ark. Dep't of Human Services, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellant.

Steven D. Mitchell, pro se appellee.

ROBERT J. GLADWIN, Judge

In separate administrative appeals, the Circuit Court of Izard County reversed the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ findings that the appellee, Steven Mitchell, sexually abused two minors, B.T. and J.C., while he was a teacher at Melbourne High School in 2004. In both cases, the circuit court determined that reversal was warranted because the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) failed to timely notify Mitchell of its true findings against him.

DHS has separately appealed the circuit court's orders. We decide both appeals in separate opinions that we issue today. See Ark. Dep't of Human Servs. v. Mitchell , 2021 Ark. App. 53, ––– S.W.3d ––––. This case concerns the true finding that the administrative law judge (ALJ) made with respect to the minor B.T.

On appeal, DHS contends that the administrative decision should be upheld because substantial evidence supports the true finding. The agency also asserts that the untimely notice and delayed administrative appeal did not violate the state and federal guarantees of due process, as the circuit court ruled. Finally, DHS contends that the administrative decision should be upheld because Mitchell failed to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by the agency's failure to follow statutory procedure requiring timely notice and administrative hearings.

We agree that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Mitchell sexually abused B.T. In addition, while we do not condone the long and unexplained delay in notifying Mitchell of the true finding regarding B.T., we agree that DHS's failure to follow statutory procedure did not violate Mitchell's right to due process or otherwise prejudice his substantial rights. Accordingly, we reverse the circuit court's decision.

I. Facts and Procedural History

On June 4, 2004, the Arkansas State Police Child Abuse Hotline received a report that Mitchell was sexually abusing students at Melbourne High School, where he taught agriculture and supervised out-of-state field trips for the Future Farmers of America. The report alleged that Mitchell committed sexual abuse through indecent exposure and sexual contact with six of his minor students. The Arkansas State Police Crimes Against Children Division (CACD) investigated and determined that the allegations regarding J.C., B.T., R.C., and another student were "true." As a consequence of that finding, Mitchell's name was placed on the Child Maltreatment Central Registry (the Registry).

In August 2005, Mitchell pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree sexual assault regarding J.C. and B.T. Several charges involving other minors were dropped. A few years later, in 2009, Mitchell was acquitted of related charges in federal court, including one charge of transporting J.C. over state lines for sexual purposes. In 2010, the Arkansas Department of Correction Sex Offender Screening and Risk Assessment (SOSRA) determined that Mitchell's offenses warranted Level 3 community notification.

In late 2017, Mitchell applied to Sex Offender Community Notification Assessment (SOCNA)1 for a reassessment of his community-notification level. As he gathered documentation for that process, Mitchell learned for the first time that his name had been placed on the Registry and there were true findings against him. DHS thereafter formally notified Mitchell of the true findings and his right to an administrative hearing. Those notices were dated December 27, 2017.

After receiving Mitchell's timely request, DHS's Office of Appeals and Hearings scheduled an in-person hearing regarding all the true findings on April 18, 2018. Mitchell filed several motions prior to the hearing. Among other things, he argued that he was "denied his procedural and substantive due process rights when the State failed to [timely] notify him of the true findings." More specifically, he contended in relevant part that

[t]he fundamental requirement of due process is the opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner. [Citation omitted.] The meaningful time would have obviously been during the pendency of this matter, not nearly fourteen years later when [Mitchell's] liberty, property, and privacy interests have been deprived by an arbitrary abuse of government powers.
As a direct result, [Mitchell's] employment was terminated and his teaching license was revoked. He was coerced into pleading guilty, assessed as a level 3 sex offender, which resulted in a substantial loss of substantial rights and imposed restrictions, and endured a heavy financial burden of over $525,000 in legal fees and the loss of at least $700,000 in compensation. Mitchell had a substantial liberty and property interest that was prejudiced by this adverse finding. [Citation omitted.]

The ALJ denied all of Mitchell's pretrial motions, including those alleging his due-process claim. The ALJ had no authority, he said, to "make rulings on constitutional issues."

At the hearing, Mitchell introduced evidence that cast doubt on the credibility of the CACD's investigation, including a federal court transcript in which one of the lead investigators, Jeannette Cooper, acknowledged having used questionable interview techniques to elicit information from the boys. There was also evidence that Cooper and her supervisor were later dismissed from their positions at the CACD because of poor job performance.

Mitchell also repeated his argument that the untimely notice and hearing, occurring approximately fourteen years after the conclusion of the investigation, violated due process. He argued, in particular, that he was prevented from calling J.C., B.T., R.C., and another student as witnesses at a 2004 hearing in which "at the very least, [he] would have received impeachment material that then could have been used in [his] criminal trial."

The ALJ addressed the true findings regarding J.C., R.C., and B.T. in two separate orders that were issued on May 1, 2018. In DHS case number 2018-0456, the ALJ found that there was insufficient evidence to support the CACD's conclusion that Mitchell sexually abused B.T. by indecent exposure. The ALJ found that B.T.’s inconsistent statements, as well as the CACD's questionable investigative methods and failure to produce contemporaneous recordings of the interviews, could not credibly establish that Mitchell exposed himself to B.T. The ALJ also found, however, that B.T.’s statements that he and Mitchell had sexual contact, as well as Mitchell's admissions regarding B.T. in the sex-offender assessment and in the criminal case, established that he sexually abused B.T. Considering also the attendant circumstances of the contact, the ALJ concluded that the CACD met its burden of proving that Mitchell sexually abused B.T. and that his name warranted placement on the Child Maltreatment Central Registry.

Mitchell followed the administrative order with a motion for reconsideration. Among other things, he invoked the law of collateral estoppel to argue that the ALJ improperly considered his guilty plea in the criminal case as an admission of child maltreatment. Mitchell also argued that Arkansas Code Annotated section 12-12-917(b)(4)(B) (Supp. 2019), which affords immunity for any prior sexual misconduct disclosed during a sex-offender assessment, barred the ALJ's consideration of any admissions that he made there. In addition, he reiterated his constitutional arguments based on the untimely notice that DHS provided. The ALJ denied both motions, ruling that Mitchell failed to raise any "clear error of law for [him] to decide," and stating, once again, that the ALJ did not "have the authority to make decisions on constitutional arguments."

On May 31, 2018, Mitchell filed a timely petition for judicial review, and after hearing argument, the circuit court reversed the ALJ's decision. The circuit court found, in particular, that the agency decision was "based on unlawful procedures and violated Mitchell's constitutional rights of due process" because "[t]he State failed to follow its own procedures and did not properly notify Mitchell of the true finding fourteen years ago." After unsuccessfully moving for reconsideration, DHS now appeals that decision.

II. Standards of Review

"Review of administrative-agency decisions by both the circuit court and the appellate court is limited in scope." Shaw v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs. , 2018 Ark. App. 322, at 5, 550 S.W.3d 925, 928. The standard of review is "whether there is substantial evidence to support the agency's findings." Shaw , 2018 Ark. App. 322, at 5, 550 S.W.3d at 928–29. The appellate court's review, moreover, is directed toward the agency, rather than the circuit court, "because administrative agencies are better equipped by specialization, insight through experience, and more flexible procedures than courts to determine and analyze legal issues affecting their agencies." Seiz Co. v. Ark. State Highway & Transp. Dep't , 2009 Ark. 361, at 2, 324 S.W.3d 336, 338. This court also

may reverse or modify an agency decision if the substantial rights of [the appellee] [have] been prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions, or decisions are:
(1) In violation of constitutional or statutory provisions;
(2) In excess of the agency's statutory authority;
(3) Made upon unlawful procedure;
(4) Affected by other error or law;
(5) Not supported by substantial evidence of record;
(6) Arbitrary, capricious, or characterized by abuse of discretion.

Ark. Code Ann. § 25-15-212(h) (Repl. 2014).

"Substantial evidence is valid, legal, and persuasive evidence that a reasonable mind might...

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2 cases
  • Ark. Dep't of Human Servs. v. Mitchell
    • United States
    • Arkansas Court of Appeals
    • February 3, 2021
    ...order and affirm the ALJ's true finding of sexual abuse.Reversed. Gladwin and Murphy, JJ., agree.1 See Ark. Dep't of Human Servs. v. Mitchell , 2021 Ark. App. 43, 616 S.W.3d 289.2 Since Mitchell's first assessment in 2010, Sex Offender Screening and Risk Assessment (SOSRA) was renamed Sex O......
  • Lewis v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs.
    • United States
    • Arkansas Court of Appeals
    • September 1, 2021
    ...v. Ark. Dep't of Hum. Servs., CV-18-466 (Sept. 20, 2018). [6] Ark. Dep't of Hum. Servs. v. Mitchell, 2021 Ark.App. 43, 616 S.W.3d 289. [7] Id. [8] Id. [9] Ark. Code Ann. § 25-15-212(h) (Repl. 2014). [10] Shaw v. Ark. Dep't of Hum. Servs., 2018 Ark.App. 322, 550 S.W.3d 925. [11] Id. [12] Id.......

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