Hayse v. Wyo. Bd. of Coroner Standards

Decision Date08 January 2020
Docket NumberS-19-0109
Citation455 P.3d 267
Parties Bruce HAYSE, M.D. and Paul Cassidy, Appellants (Petitioners), v. WYOMING BOARD OF CORONER STANDARDS, Appellee (Respondent).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Representing Appellants: Frank R. Chapman and Patrick J. Lewallen, Chapman Valdez & Lansing, Casper, Wyoming; Deidre J. Bainbridge, Attorney at Law, Jackson, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Lewallen.

Representing Appellee: Bridget L. Hill, Attorney General; Michael J. McGrady, Deputy Attorney General. Argument by Mr. McGrady.

Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, and GRAY, JJ.

FOX, Justice.

[¶1] This case arises from an ongoing dispute over the Teton County Coroner’s alleged misconduct during a coroner’s inquest. We affirmed the district court’s dismissal of a related action seeking to set aside the coroner’s inquest verdict in In re Birkholz , 2019 WY 19, 434 P.3d 1102 (Wyo. 2019). While that action was pending, Paul Cassidy and Dr. Bruce Hayse requested that the Board of Coroner Standards (Board) investigate the coroner’s alleged misconduct. The Board refused to investigate, and the district court affirmed its refusal. We also affirm.

ISSUE

[¶2] We decide the following dispositive issue:

Does the Board of Coroner Standards have authority to review complaints alleging that a coroner committed misconduct while conducting an inquest?
FACTS

[¶3] In their previous action, Paul Cassidy and Dr. Bruce Hayse alleged that Teton County Coroner, Dr. Brent Blue, committed misconduct during a coroner’s inquest into the death of Anthony Lee Birkholz. See generally In re Birkholz , 2019 WY 19, 434 P.3d 1102. They also sought to have the Board of Coroner Standards investigate Dr. Blue’s alleged misconduct. The Board refused to investigate the inquest, concluding that it did not have statutory authority to do so. The Board asserted that under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 7-4-211 its "narrow purpose ... is to develop and promulgate training standards" and "enforce compliance with those standards." Mr. Cassidy and Dr. Hayse responded, arguing that "the Board is charged with establishing coroner’s standards dealing with the investigation of coroner’s cases" and "has the authority to enforce those standards[.]" The Board again declined to investigate the inquest. On petition for judicial review, the district court affirmed the Board’s refusal to investigate. Mr. Cassidy and Dr. Hayse timely appealed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶4] We review an agency decision "as if it came directly from the administrative agency" and give no deference to the district court’s decision on appeal. State ex rel. Dep’t of Workforce Servs. v. Williams , 2018 WY 10, ¶ 23, 409 P.3d 1219, 1226 (Wyo. 2018) (citing Price v. State ex rel. Dep’t of Workforce Servs., Workers’ Comp. Div. , 2017 WY 16, ¶ 7, 388 P.3d 786, 789 (Wyo. 2017) ). We review an agency’s conclusions of law de novo. Casiano v. State ex rel. Wyo. Dep’t of Transp. , 2019 WY 16, ¶ 8, 434 P.3d 116, 120 (Wyo. 2019) (citing Lietz v. State ex rel. Dep’t of Family Servs. , 2018 WY 127, ¶ 11, 430 P.3d 310, 314 (Wyo. 2018) ). The issue of whether the Board has authority to review complaints that a coroner committed misconduct while conducting an inquest requires us to interpret Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 7-4-211. "Statutory interpretation raises questions of law, which we review de novo ." Camacho v. State ex rel. Dep’t of Workforce Servs., Workers’ Comp. Div. , 2019 WY 92, ¶ 17, 448 P.3d 834, 841 (Wyo. 2019) (quoting State ex rel. Wyo. Workers’ Safety & Comp. Div. v. Smith , 2013 WY 26, ¶ 9, 296 P.3d 939, 941-42 (Wyo. 2013) ).

DISCUSSION

[¶5] Mr. Cassidy and Dr. Hayse argue that Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 7-4-211(c)(vi) requires the Board to review complaints of coroner misconduct, and presumably to take some sort of action in response to any misconduct. The Board responds that the "Legislature limited the Board’s authority to investigating whether a coroner has completed basic education and training requirements, it did not authorize the Board to investigate the day-to-day actions of a duly elected county official."

[¶6] Our goal in interpreting statutes is to give effect to the legislature’s intent. Wyo. Jet Ctr., LLC v. Jackson Hole Airport Bd. , 2019 WY 6, ¶ 12, 432 P.3d 910, 915 (Wyo. 2019) (citing PacifiCorp, Inc. v. Wyo. Dep’t of Rev. , 2017 WY 106, ¶ 10, 401 P.3d 905, 908-09 (Wyo. 2017) ). We attempt to determine legislative intent based primarily on the plain and ordinary meaning of the words used in the statute. Wyo. Jet Ctr. , 2019 WY 6, ¶ 12, 432 P.3d at 915. "Where legislative intent is discernible a court should give effect to the ‘most likely, most reasonable, interpretation of the statute, given its design and purpose.’ " Id. (quoting Adekale v. State , 2015 WY 30, ¶ 12, 344 P.3d 761, 765 (Wyo. 2015) ). Further, we

construe each statutory provision in pari materia , giving effect to every word, clause, and sentence according to their arrangement and connection. To ascertain the meaning of a given law, we also consider all statutes relating to the same subject or having the same general purpose and strive to interpret them harmoniously. We presume that the legislature has acted in a thoughtful and rational manner with full knowledge of existing law, and that it intended new statutory provisions to be read in harmony with existing law and as part of an overall and uniform system of jurisprudence. When the words used convey a specific and obvious meaning, we need not go farther and engage in statutory construction.

Wyo. Jet Ctr. , 2019 WY 6, ¶ 12, 432 P.3d at 915. Applying these rules, we conclude that the Board does not have authority to investigate allegations of coroner misconduct.1

[¶7] Mr. Cassidy and Dr. Hayse rely on Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 7-4-211 for their assertion the Board has that authority. Section 211 creates the Board of Coroner Standards and outlines its duties. Subsection (c) directs the Board to promulgate various standards, nearly all of which relate to education and training.

(c) The board shall:
(i) Meet at least biannually and at the call of the chairman or of a majority of the membership;
(ii) Promulgate standards dealing with the investigation of coroner’s cases;
(iii) Promulgate educational and training requirements for coroner basic and continuing education requirements and review those requirements annually;
(iv) Cooperate with the peace officer standards and training commission in developing basic and continuing education courses for coroners;
(v) Promulgate employment standards for deputy coroners and coroner employees. The standards may include the requirement that deputy coroners and coroner employees provide to the employing coroner fingerprints and other information necessary for a state and national criminal history record background check and release of information as provided in W.S. 7-19-106(k)(ii) and federal P.L. 92-544 and consent to the release of any criminal history information to the employing coroner;
(vi) Promulgate rules and regulations to provide for the review of complaints if a coroner or deputy coroner has failed to comply with any provision of W.S. 7-4-103 or this subsection or has failed to meet any educational or training requirement provided under this section. The board shall make recommendations to the peace officer standards and training commission regarding revocation of certifications based on these investigations;
(vii) Provide for a system to offer educational programs to assist coroners and deputy coroners in meeting educational and training requirements provided under this section.

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 7-4-211(c) (LexisNexis 2019).

[¶8] Subsection (c)(vi) directs the Board to provide for the review of complaints regarding a coroner’s compliance "with any provision of W.S. 7-4-103 or this subsection[.]" Mr. Cassidy and Dr. Hayse assert that, read in conjunction with subsection (c)(ii), this provision requires the Board to investigate allegations that a coroner has violated Board-promulgated rules "dealing with the investigation of coroner’s cases." This view is flawed. First, subsection (c)(vi) authorizes Board investigation for failure to comply with "this subsection." It makes no reference to authority to investigate for alleged failure to comply with Board standards. The legislature has incorporated standards or rules violations as a basis for professional discipline in many other contexts and could have done so here, but did not.2 Second, the Board standard upon which Appellants rely lacks the specificity required to form the basis for any discipline, instead setting forth a general and vague rule of conduct: "the Coroners shall conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the highest standards of professionalism, compassion, and respect." Board of Coroner Standards Rules and Regulations, ch. 6, § 2. See Bd. of Trustees, Laramie Cty. Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. Spiegel , 549 P.2d 1161, 1171 (Wyo. 1976) (stated reasons for termination of employment contract were too "vague and indefinite" to allow appellee to defend against them).

[¶9] Further, Appellants’ isolated reading of subsection (c)(vi), is undercut by the limited action that section authorizes the Board to take in response to complaints against coroners. The second sentence of section (c)(vi) authorizes the Board to "make recommendations to the peace officer standards and training commission [ (POST) ] regarding revocation of certifications[.]" Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 7-4-211(c)(vi). It provides the Board no other course of action for a coroner’s alleged violation of section 7-4-211(c). Id. POST is a commission charged with establishing and enforcing training and educational standards for various law enforcement officers. See generally Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 9-1-701 through 711 (LexisNexis 2019); see also POST Rules, ch. 1, § 2 ("The purpose of [POST] is to raise and maintain the level of competence within the law enforcement community."). It would be absurd to conclude that the Board must "make recommendations" to a commission designed to...

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