Cahill v. Mercer County Bd. of Educ.

Decision Date12 June 2000
Docket NumberNo. 26602.,26602.
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
PartiesSue CAHILL, Carolyn Donchatz and Sue Sommer, Petitioners Below, Appellees, v. MERCER COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Respondent Below, Appellant.

Kathryn Reed Bayless, Esquire, Bayless & McFadden, Princeton, West Virginia, Attorney for Appellant.

J.W. Barringer, Esquire, Feuchtenberger & Barringer, Princeton, West Virginia, William B. McGinley, Esquire, Attorneys for Appellees.

SCOTT, Justice:

The Mercer County Board of Education ("Board") appeals from the November 23, 1998, order of the Circuit Court of Mercer County following a remand by this Court1 in connection with the lower court's July 29, 1994, ruling, through which the circuit court reversed an administrative law judge's decision concerning an educational grievance. Our prior remand of this case was necessitated by the lower court's failure to include any factual bases for its conclusion that Appellees Sue Cahill, Carolyn Donchatz, and Sue Sommer were the more qualified2 applicants for three supervisory positions.3 Included in our previous decision was a directive that the lower court should not disregard the reevaluation committee and its results, upon which the circuit court relied, in part, in reversing the ALJ's decision in 1994.4 Ignoring this Court's instructions, the lower court summarily excluded the reevaluation results and, substituting its own judgment for that of the ALJ, again ruled in favor of Appellees. The Board seeks a reversal of the November 1998 order, both as to the lower court's ruling that Appellees should be instated to the supervisory positions, which no longer exist,5 and as to the award of prejudgment interest. Having fully reviewed the lower court's most recent order in conjunction with the prior opinion of this Court and the full record of this matter, we find the circuit court's ruling to be in error and accordingly, we reverse and remand for entry of an order consistent with this opinion.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

On May 9, 1989, job openings for four supervisory positions in the Mercer County school system were posted as required by law. The positions of Elementary Education Supervisors were awarded to Rick Ball, Anne Krout, and Bill Sherwood, and the position of Social Studies Supervisor was awarded to Carol Alley. Based on their non-selection for the positions, Appellees filed grievances pursuant to the procedures delineated in West Virginia Code §§ 18-29-1 to -11 (1999). By ruling dated September 17, 1990, ALJ Drew Crislip found the selection process flawed based on the fact that School Superintendent Baker had relied on his personal knowledge of some of the applicants in making the initial selection.6 ALJ Crislip recommended that a reevaluation of the qualifications of both the successful applicants and the grievants be conducted and suggested that an independent committee be appointed for the purpose of conducting the second review.

In compliance with ALJ Crislip's suggestion, Superintendent Baker asked Director of Personnel, Stephen Akers, to oversee the reevaluation process, which included the selection of an independent committee. Mr. Akers selected six individuals, who were either teachers or administrators, to comprise the committee suggested by the ALJ. Upon the conclusion of the committee's evaluation,7 the same three initially successful applicants were again determined to be the most qualified individuals for the positions. Appellees filed a second grievance on September 30, 1992, which proceeded through the various stages of the administrative review process and culminated with a ruling by ALJ Jerry Wright that Appellees had failed to demonstrate that the Board did not reasonably and adequately reevaluate the candidates or that it otherwise acted arbitrarily or capriciously. After noting that "[i]t was determined that all applicants met the requirements of the posting and were generally equal as to `paper' credentials," ALJ Wright found that Appellees had failed to show that they were more qualified as compared to those individuals who were awarded the supervisory positions.

By order dated July 29, 1994, Judge Booker Stephens reversed ALJ Wright's decision on three grounds: (1) the reviewing committee was not independent because of Mr. Akers' involvement in selecting the members;8 (2) the reviewing committee was not independent based on relationships between applicants and committee;9 and (3) the ALJ erred in not recognizing Dr. Viars as an expert in the "education field for certification."10 The lower court reversed ALJ Wright's decision to uphold the award of the positions to the three successful candidates, but failed to provide the rationale for its conclusion that the ALJ's ruling was clearly wrong as it pertained to the applicants' qualifications.11 Based on our conclusion that meaningful appellate review could not be accomplished in view of the lower court's failure to include the basis for its ruling that Appellees were the more qualified applicants, we found it necessary to remand this case. Cahill v. Mercer County Bd. of Educ. (Cahill I), 195 W.Va. 453, 458-59, 465 S.E.2d 910, 915-16 (1995). In Cahill I, this Court expressly reminded the lower court of its obligation to accord substantial discretion to the hiring decisions of a county board of education and specifically instructed the circuit court not to disregard the reevaluation of the candidates based on our determination that the reevaluation process "was not flawed or inadequate." Id. at 460, 465 S.E.2d at 917.

On remand, the lower court constructed out of whole cloth its own "objective, measurable criteria" for reviewing the candidates and then concluded, based on this newly-found standard, that Appellees were the most qualified applicants. The November 1998 order clearly reflects that Judge Stephens totally excluded the findings of the rereview committee in considering and ruling on the applicants' qualifications.

II. Standard of Review

In Martin v. Randolph County Board of Education, 195 W.Va. 297, 465 S.E.2d 399 (1995), we discussed at length the standards of review that apply to appeals taken from decisions of the West Virginia Educational Employees Grievance Board. See id. at 304, 465 S.E.2d at 406. Both this Court's review, as well as the lower court's review, are governed by the provisions of West Virginia Code § 18-29-7 (1999). Martin, 195 W.Va. at 304, 465 S.E.2d at 406. That statute permits reversal of a grievance board ruling upon a demonstration of certain enumerated grounds,12 which we summarily identified in Martin as "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or contrary to law." Ibid.

As we observed in Martin, grievance rulings involve a combination of both deferential and plenary review. Since a reviewing court is obligated to give deference to factual findings rendered by an administrative law judge,13 a circuit court is not permitted to substitute its judgment for that of the hearing examiner with regard to factual determinations. Credibility determinations made by an administrative law judge are similarly entitled to deference. Plenary review is conducted as to the conclusions of law and application of law to the facts, which are reviewed de novo. 195 W.Va. at 304, 465 S.E.2d at 406. Distillation of these principles has resulted in the following generalized standard of review for administrative rulings:

"A final order of the hearing examiner for the West Virginia Educational Employees Grievance Board, made pursuant to W.Va.Code, 18-29-1, et seq. (1985), and based upon findings of fact, should not be reversed unless clearly wrong." Syllabus Point 1, Randolph County Bd. of Ed. v. Scalia, 182 W.Va. 289, 387 S.E.2d 524 (1989).

Syl. Pt. 1, West Virginia Dep't of Health and Human Resources v. Blankenship, 189 W.Va. 342, 431 S.E.2d 681 (1993). With these principles in mind, we review the circuit court's decision to reverse ALJ Wright's decision.

III. Discussion

The Board argues that the lower court erred in failing to recognize the reevaluation results and in crafting its own standard for assessing qualifications. After expressly rejecting the reevaluation results, the circuit court identified the standard it was employing as "objective, measurable criteria of the applicants based upon a review of their qualifications as set out in their resumes, application letters, certifications, and hearings held." This de novo assessment of the applicants' qualifications, as the Board observes, demonstrates disdain for this Court's specific adjurations in Cahill I concerning the discretion accorded to school hiring decisions and the adequacy of the reevaluation process. See195 W.Va. at 459-60,465 S.E.2d at 916-17. Moreover, just as this Court is not permitted to reassess the qualifications of the applicants due to the constraints of appellate review, neither was the lower court free to engage in a wholesale reassessment of qualifications under sua sponte standards never employed during either the application or grievance processes.

Adamant in their contention that the lower court did not exclude the reevaluation results on remand, Appellees cite the lower court's inclusion of a reference to the "Re-Review Committee" in the November 1998, order, along with the introductory language indicating a review of the entire record as support for their position. The mere referencing of the committee in the order neither indicates an inclusion of the committee's results in the lower court's ruling, nor does it suffice to comply with our specific directives in Cahill I that "the conclusions of that committee should not be disregarded as unreliable or deficient on remand." 195 W.Va. at 460, 465 S.E.2d at 917. In addition, the lower court's conclusion that it found neither the "decision of the `Re-Review Committee'"14 or the opinion of Appellees' expert witness, Dr. Viars, "to be...

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