Boynton v. Kilgore

Decision Date13 January 2006
Docket NumberRecord No. 051041.
Citation623 S.E.2d 922
PartiesFrances BOYNTON, et al. v. Jerry W. KILGORE, Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia, et al.
CourtVirginia Supreme Court

David R. Simonsen, Jr., for appellants.

Guy W. Horsley, Jr., Special Assistant Attorney General (Judith Williams Jagdmann, Attorney General; Maureen Riley Matsen, Deputy Attorney General; Martha M. Parrish, Senior Assistant Attorney General, on brief), for appellees.

Present: All the Justices.

AGEE, Justice.

Frances Boynton and eleven other former employees of the Office of the Attorney General (collectively "the former employees") appeal from the judgment of the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond, which sustained a demurrer to their amended motion for judgment. At issue in this appeal is whether the Virginia Personnel Act, Code § 2.2-2900 et seq. ("VPA"), applies to employees of the Office of the Attorney General so that the twelve involuntarily separated employees qualify for severance benefits under the Workforce Transition Act of 1995, Code § 2.2-3201 et seq. ("WTA"). Because we find that the Virginia Personnel Act does not cover employees of the Office of the Attorney General, we will affirm the trial court's judgment.

I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEEDINGS BELOW

The former employees were full-time employees of the Office of the Attorney General until October 18, 2002, when they were involuntarily separated from employment due to budget constraints. Upon termination of employment, the former employees sought severance benefits provided under the WTA.

The Attorney General and the Comptroller of the Commonwealth denied their request, contending the former employees were ineligible for WTA severance benefits because they are not included in the list of employees eligible for benefits as set forth in Code § 2.2-3202.1

After exhausting their administrative remedies, the former employees filed a motion for judgment against the Attorney General and the Comptroller in the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond, seeking WTA severance benefits. The trial court sustained the demurrer of the Attorney General and the Comptroller, but permitted the former employees to file an amended motion for judgment. In the amended motion for judgment, the former employees allege they are eligible for WTA severance benefits under Code § 2.2-3202(A)(i) because they were full-time Commonwealth employees "covered by the Virginia Personnel Act."

The Attorney General and the Comptroller again demurred, arguing that the former employees are exempt from the VPA under Code § 2.2-2905(1) and therefore cannot be included within Code § 2.2-3202(A)(i).

The trial court sustained the demurrer in a letter opinion dated January 28, 2005, which was incorporated into an order dated February 24, 2005 that dismissed the amended motion for judgment with prejudice. The trial court's letter opinion held that "the autonomy of the Attorney General in personnel matters" would be disrupted if the VPA covered employees of the Office of the Attorney General and "that without coverage of the VPA extending to them, plaintiffs are not eligible to the severance benefits allowed by the WTA."

We awarded the former employees this appeal.

II. ANALYSIS

The former employees raise six assignments of error, which all center on a single dispositive issue: whether the provisions of Code § 2.2-2905(1), which exempt from the VPA all "[o]fficers and employees for whom the Constitution specifically directs the manner of selection," includes employees of the Office of the Attorney General.2 The parties agree that if the foregoing statute includes employees of the Office of the Attorney General, then the former employees are not covered by the VPA and are thus ineligible for the WTA benefits claimed.

The WTA provides that certain employees of the Commonwealth who are involuntarily separated from employment are eligible for transitional severance benefits. Code § 2.2-3201. Code § 2.2-3202 then lists those employees entitled to the WTA severance benefits. Employees of the Office of the Attorney General are not specifically named in the statutory list.3 The former employees contend, however, that Code § 2.2-3202(A)(i) includes them because each was a "full-time employee of the Commonwealth (i) whose position is covered by the Virginia Personnel Act (§ 2.2-2900 et seq.)."

The former employees argue they are covered by the VPA because the plain language of Code § 2.2-2905(1) lists those employees of the Commonwealth who are exempt from the VPA, and they are not among those exempted; therefore, they must be included within the VPA's coverage. In particular, the former employees contend they are not within the exemption group asserted by the Attorney General in Code § 2.2-2905(1) because they are neither officers nor employees "for whom the Constitution specifically directs the manner of selection" under the plain language of the statute.

The former employees note that the Constitution of Virginia makes no reference to employees of the Office of the Attorney General and the Attorney General cites to none. Because courts are obliged to apply the plain meaning of a statute unless doing so results in a "manifest absurdity" or irreconcilable statutory conflict, they argue that the trial court erred in failing to follow the plain language of the statute when it sustained the demurrer. The former employees aver that as the plain language of Code § 2.2-2905(1) does not exempt them from the VPA, and no manifest absurdity or statutory conflict exists to require an alternate construction of the statute's text, they must be covered by the VPA and therefore entitled to WTA severance benefits under Code § 2.2-3202(A)(i).

Anticipating the argument of the Attorney General and the Comptroller, the former employees further posit that VPA coverage of employees of the Office of the Attorney General for purposes of receiving WTA severance benefits does not create a conflict between the statutory authority given to the Governor and the Attorney General as to employees of the Office of the Attorney General. This is so, they contend, because involuntarily severed employees are no longer employees and therefore no longer subject to the Attorney General's control. Consequently, they argue that the facts of this case do not create a conflict in the respective authority of the Governor and the Attorney General; therefore, that issue need not be addressed in the case at bar. If a conflict between the Governor's authority and the Attorney General's were to arise in another context of VPA coverage, the former employees contend the courts could then determine how to harmonize the statutes in that future case.

In response, the Attorney General4 argues that employees of the Office of the Attorney General, including the former employees, are not covered by the VPA because the exemption under Code § 2.2-2905(1) for officers "for whom the Constitution specifically directs the manner of selection" includes individuals working under such an officer's control. Thus, because the Attorney General is exempt from the VPA under Code § 2.2-2905(1), individuals whose positions are controlled by the Attorney General are necessarily exempt as well.5

The Attorney General contends that to hold otherwise would establish conflicting authority over personnel decisions between the Governor and the Attorney General, and a direct and irreconcilable conflict between several statutes. Under Code § 2.2-103(B), the Governor is the "Chief Personnel Officer of the Commonwealth," and is charged with "direct[ing] the execution of" the VPA. The VPA establishes a "system of personnel administration" for Commonwealth employees.6 Code § 2.2-2900. It states, inter alia, that "[n]o establishment of a position or rate of pay, and no change in rate of pay shall become effective except on order of the appointing authority and approval by the Governor." Code § 2.2-2901(C).

While the Governor has final authority over personnel under the foregoing provisions of the VPA, Code §§ 2.2-501 and -502 give the Attorney General final authority over the personnel of the Office of the Attorney General.7 The Attorney General thus contends that if the VPA applies to employees of that Office, as asserted by the former employees, both the Governor and the Attorney General would have the same and contemporaneous authority over employees of the Office of the Attorney General. To avoid this conflict, the Attorney General argues that the proper construction of the VPA exemption in Code § 2.2-2905(1) includes not only the Attorney General, but also the employees under his control.

We find the Attorney General's arguments persuasive.

There is no statutory basis to support the contention that the former employees could be covered by the VPA solely for the purpose of qualifying for WTA severance benefits under Code § 2.2-3202(A) (i) as former employees, but not covered as VPA employees for other purposes. Consequently, contrary to the former employees' position, the VPA's applicability to all employees of the Office of the Attorney General must be examined in the case at bar. Although this case ultimately addresses eligibility for WTA severance benefits, our decision on that issue necessarily derives from resolving the predicate issue of whether employees of the Office of the Attorney General are exempt from the VPA under Code § 2.2-2905(1).

Because statutory interpretation presents a pure question of law, it is subject to de novo review by this Court. Ainslie v. Inman, 265 Va. 347, 352, 577 S.E.2d 246, 248 (2003). When interpreting statutes, courts "ascertain and give effect to the intention of the legislature." Chase v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 266 Va. 544, 547, 587 S.E.2d 521, 522 (2003). That intent is usually self-evident from the words used in the statute. Id. Consequently, courts apply the plain language of a statute unless the terms are ambiguous,8 Tiller v. Commonwealth, 193...

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