Jackson v. Employe Trust Funds Board, No. 98-3063

Citation602 N.W.2d 543,230 Wis.2d 677
Decision Date30 September 1999
Docket Number No. 97 CV 3190, No. 98-3063, No. 97 CV 3191
PartiesDale JACKSON, Special Administrator of the Estate of Agnes Jackson Holstein, Petitioner-Appellant, v. EMPLOYE TRUST FUNDS BOARD, Department of Employe Trust Funds, and Elizabeth Holstein Delgass, Respondents-Respondents. Keith SCHOFF, individually and in his capacity as Executor of the Estate of Gretchen Schoff, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. EMPLOYEE TRUST FUNDS BOARD, Department of Employe Trust Funds, Eric Stanchfield, in his capacity as Secretary of Employe Trust Funds Board, and Elizabeth Holstein Delgass, Defendants-Respondents.
CourtCourt of Appeals of Wisconsin

On behalf of the petitioner-appellant and plaintiff-appellant, the cause was submitted on the briefs of Waltraud A. Arts and Lauri Morris of Quarles & Brady LLP of Madison.

On behalf of the respondent-respondent/defendant-respondent, Elizabeth Holstein Delgass, the cause was submitted on the brief of Michael W. Wilcox of Stolper & Wilcox of Madison.

On behalf of the respondents-respondents/defendants-respondents, the cause was submitted on the brief of James Doyle, attorney general, with L. Jane Hamblen, assistant attorney general.

Before Dykman, P.J., Eich and Deininger, JJ.


This appeal involves challenges to two decisions of the Employe Trust Funds Board declaring Elizabeth Delgass to be entitled, as the sole surviving beneficiary, to Wisconsin Retirement System death benefits payable on the death of Delgass's sister, Gretchen Holstein Schoff. Both decisions were affirmed by the circuit court on certiorari review.

When Gretchen Schoff first joined the Wisconsin Retirement System in 1958, she was not yet married. She executed a WRS beneficiary form then known as a "Teacher's Affidavit," entering the names of her parents, "Mr. & Mrs. Floyd G. Holstein," as primary beneficiaries, and her sister, "Miss Betty Holstein" (now Elizabeth Delgass), as the secondary beneficiary. The following year, Gretchen married Keith Schoff. Gretchen's mother died in 1967 and, two years later, her father married Agnes Jackson (Holstein). Gretchen died in 1994 without ever having changed her WRS beneficiary designation.

Keith Schoff and Agnes Jackson Holstein2 each claim entitlement to all or a part of Gretchen's death benefits. Schoff argues that the decisions confirming Delgass as the beneficiary improperly ignored his marital-property interest in Gretchen's retirement assets. Holstein maintains that because she was "Mrs. Floyd G. Holstein" on the date of Gretchen's death, she fits the beneficiary designation in the 1978 affidavit and is thus entitled to the benefits. Finally, both Schoff and Holstein argue that the trial court erred in denying their motion for default judgment for respondents' failure to timely respond to their certiorari pleadings. We reject their arguments and affirm the judgment and orders in all respects.

I. Standard of Review


(A) Certiorari Actions Generally. Our standard of review in certiorari proceedings is identical to that of the circuit court, for we review the agency's decision, not the court's. State ex rel. Staples v. DH&SS, 136 Wis. 2d 487, 493, 402 N.W.2d 369, 373 (Ct. App. 1987); Sterlingworth Condominium Ass'n, Inc. v. DNR, 205 Wis. 2d 710, 720, 556 N.W.2d 791, 794 (Ct. App. 1996). On appeal, we are limited to determining: (1) whether the agency stayed within its jurisdiction; (2) whether it acted according to law; (3) whether the action was arbitrary, oppressive or unreasonable and represented the agency's will and not its judgment; and (4) whether the evidence was such that the agency might reasonably make the order or determination in question. See Nielsen v. Waukesha County Bd. of Supervisors, 178 Wis. 2d 498, 511, 504 N.W.2d 621, 626 (Ct. App. 1993)

; State ex rel. Whiting v. Kolb, 158 Wis. 2d 226, 233, 461 N.W.2d 816, 819 (Ct. App. 1990). The agency's findings will not be disturbed if any reasonable view of the evidence sustains them. See Snyder v. Waukesha County Zoning Bd. of Adjustment, 74 Wis. 2d 468, 476, 247 N.W.2d 98, 103 (1976).

(B) Deference to the Board's Legal Conclusions. In ruling that Elizabeth Delgass was the beneficiary of Gretchen's retirement benefits under the provisions of ch. 40, STATS., the Board declined to consider Schoff's argument that various provisions of the Marital Property Act mandated a different result. As we and the supreme court have discussed in several recent cases, courts pay differing degrees of deference to an administrative agency's interpretation of statutes — ranging from "great" deference to no deference at all. In this case, the parties agree that, insofar as the Board's decision may involve the interpretation and application of provisions of the Marital Property Act, we owe that interpretation no deference, for there is no indication that the Board has any special expertise or experience in interpreting and applying those laws. See Coutts v. Wisconsin Retirement Bd., 209 Wis. 2d 655, 664, 562 N.W.2d 917, 921 (1997)


As to the Board's interpretation of the provisions of ch. 40, STATS., relating to the determination of WRS beneficiaries, however, the parties disagree. Schoff and Holstein argue that we should also review those interpretations de novo because the Board "has not had significant experience interpreting the [particular provisions of ch. 40 involved] in similar situations. . . ." Respondents, on the other hand, contend that we owe great deference to the Board's decision because: (a) the legislature has charged the Board with administration of the statutes in question; (b) the Board has experience in interpreting them; and (c) the Board used that experience and expertise in arriving at its decision in this case.

In Barron Elec. Coop. v. Public Serv. Comm'n, 212 Wis. 2d 752, 569 N.W.2d 726 (Ct. App. 1997), we described the appropriate application of the "great deference" rule as follows:

[C]ourts should grant the highest level of deference — "great deference" — to the agency where: (1) it is charged with administration of the statute being interpreted; (2) its interpretation "is one of long-standing"; (3) it employed "its expertise or specialized knowledge" in arriving at its interpretation; and (4) its interpretation "will provide uniformity and consistency in the application of the statute." Where great deference is appropriate, the agency's interpretation will be sustained if it is reasonable — even if an alternative reading of the statute is more reasonable. We also will pay great deference to an agency's interpretation "if it is intertwined with value and policy determinations" inherent in the agency's statutory decisionmaking function.

Id. at 760-61, 569 N.W.2d at 731 (internal citations and footnotes omitted).

We also discussed in Barron the type of agency decision that is entitled to no deference at all.

At the low end of the scale are cases in which courts owe no deference what[so]ever to the agency's legal conclusions or statutory interpretations — cases where we consider the issues de novo. We employ a de novo review only "when the issue before the agency is clearly one of first impression, or when [the] agency's position on [the] issue has been so inconsistent as to provide no real guidance." In such a situation, "the weight to be afforded [the agency's] interpretation is no weight at all."

Id. at 763, 569 N.W.2d at 732 (internal citations omitted).

We are persuaded that the Board's decisions in this case with respect to the provisions of ch. 40, STATS., are entitled to "great weight" deference. First, as respondents point out, the Board is charged by the legislature with administering the chapter. Section 40.03(1)(a) states that the Board "[s]hall authorize and terminate the payment of all . . . death benefits . . . in accordance with this chapter . . ."; and we believe that inherent in this responsibility is the authority to determine the identity of the proper beneficiaries.


Second, the Board has a long-standing history of interpreting ch. 40, STATS., and the fact that it may not have encountered the exact — or even substantially similar — factual circumstances in a prior case does not lessen the deference that should be accorded its decision. Barron, 212 Wis. 2d at 764,569 N.W.2d at 732. A principal question in the case relates to the Board's determination that Gretchen Schoff's beneficiary designation complied with the specific requirement of § 40.02(8), STATS., that the designation be "in the form approved by . . . the [D]epartment [of Employe Trust Funds],"3 and the record reveals that one of the practices the Board has followed for many years is to give effect to all designations once they have been accepted for filing — even if, as appellants claim is the case here, they suffer from technical defects. Additionally, as we discuss in more detail below, the Department and the Board have, over the years, consistently interpreted "Mr. & Mrs." beneficiary designations as relating to the identity of the beneficiaries as of the date of designation. On this record, we are satisfied that the Board's interpretation and application of the provisions of ch. 40, STATS., is entitled to great deference and thus will be affirmed if it is reasonable.4

II. Marital Property Act

As indicated, we review the Board's interpretation of the Marital Property Act de novo. Schoff argues first that the Board's decision was unreasonable because it failed to consider various provisions of the Act which, he says, entitle him to share in the death benefits even though he is not a named beneficiary.

The parties do not dispute that WRS benefits are subject to the Marital Property Act. Section 766.62(1)(a), STATS., provides that "a deferred employment benefit attributable to employment of a spouse occurring after the determination date is marital property." The parties disagree, however, as to how the Act should be applied to Gretchen's...

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