Millett v. Hoisting Engineers' Licensing Division of Dept. of Labor

Decision Date29 August 1977
Docket NumberNo. 75-81-A,75-81-A
Citation119 R.I. 285,377 A.2d 229
PartiesFrederick Wilfred MILLETT et al. v. HOISTING ENGINEERS' LICENSING DIVISION OF the DEPARTMENT OF LABOR et al. ppeal.
CourtRhode Island Supreme Court
OPINION

BEVILACQUA, Chief Justice.

This appeal is from a judgment entered for the defendant, The Board of Examiners of Hoisting Engineers (the licensing board), in a declaratory judgment action to determine the validity and applicability of certain regulations promulgated by the licensing board. The plaintiffs filed their complaint pursuant to the provisions of G.L.1956 (1969 Reenactment) § 42-35-7 of the Administrative Procedures Act.

The complaint discloses the following facts. The plaintiffs, Frederick Millett, a Canadian citizen, and Dana Cushing, are residents of Massachusetts and have been duly examined and issued hoisting engineers' licenses by that state. In June of 1971 they applied to the licensing board for similar licensure in Rhode Island. Their applications were returned, however, with an accompanying notification that it was the policy of the licensing board not to issue licenses to nonresidents of Rhode Island unless there was to be employment within the state. Thereafter, plaintiffs' employer advised the licensing board by letter that plaintiffs had employment within the state and their applications were subsequently renewed.

On March 21, 1972, plaintiffs were individually administered oral examinations by the licensing board. The examinations were conducted pursuant to the "Rules and Regulations for Examining and Licensing of Hoisting Engineers," which had been adopted by the licensing board and duly filed with the Secretary of State of Rhode Island. Except for the three members of the licensing board, there were no witnesses present during the examinations and no record of the examinations was maintained. Thereafter, plaintiffs were notified by letter that they had failed to pass the examination.

The plaintiffs then commenced this action in Superior Court alleging that Rule 1 and Rule 9 of the licensing board's regulations were invalid. Rule 1 provides that every applicant for a hoisting engineers' license shall appear before the board and "pass a satisfactory examination which may consist of oral or written questions or a combination of both." Rule 9 provides that a hoisting engineers' license shall not be granted to an applicant who has not been a resident of Rhode Island for a period of at least 1 year. The plaintiffs contend that Rule 1 does not provide adequate safeguards to preclude discriminatory action by the licensing board, that Rule 9 is unconstitutional, and that both rules have been applied by the licensing board so as to discriminate against non-union members and nonresidents.

At the hearing in Superior Court, plaintiffs, in response to questions initiated by the trial justice, testified that they felt they had been unfairly tested because of their non-union status. They did not attempt to establish that they should have been issued a hoisting engineers' license on the basis of their responses to questions asked during the licensing examination. 1 At the hearing a former member of the board at the time plaintiffs were examined was called as a witness to testify as to what took place at that time. Each of the three board members asked the applicants a number of questions drawn from an established list compiled by the licensing board for such use. The content of the questions dealt with the technical operation and mechanics of engines as well as rules of safety when operating the machinery. A record was kept by the examiner of which questions were asked of each applicant and the score he received for that question. No record, however, was kept of the applicants' actual answers. An average of 70 or better was necessary in order to achieve a passing grade. The board's records indicate that plaintiff Cushing received scores of 20, 65, and 39 while plaintiff Millett received scores of 20, 50, and 53.

After presentation of plaintiffs' case, the licensing board moved for entry of judgment for defendants. It contended that there was no showing of unfairness to plaintiffs and that because they were permitted to take the examination, the board had waived the residency requirement; therefore, this particular allegation was rendered moot.

The trial justice granted the board's motion, treating it as one for involuntary dismissal under Super.R.Civ.P. 41(b)(2). He found that there was insufficient evidence presented by plaintiffs which would permit the court to conclude that the rules or their threatened application interfered with or impaired the legal rights or privileges of plaintiffs. Dismissal was granted without prejudice to plaintiffs' rights to return at a future time and present further evidence to substantiate their claims.

In urging error, plaintiffs contend that the trial justice misconceived the nature of relief sought in their declaratory action and the evidence required to support such relief. Specifically, they attack the trial justice's belief that in order to be entitled to relief, plaintiffs must establish as a matter of fact that their legal rights or privileges were interfered with by application of the licensing board's rules.

The initial question which this court must determine on appeal is the propriety of the trial justice's decision to grant the motion for entry of judgment in defendants' favor.

The purpose of declaratory judgment actions is to render disputes concerning the legal rights and duties of parties justiciable without proof of a wrong committed by one party against another, and thus facilitate the termination of controversies. 1 Anderson, Actions for Declaratory Judgments § 4 (2d ed. 1951). Theroux v. Bay Assoc., Inc., 114 R.I. 746, 748, 339 A.2d 266, 267 (1975); Portsmouth Hosp. v. Indemnity Ins. Co., 109 N.H. 53, 242 A.2d 398 (1968); Davis v. State, 183 Md. 385, 37 A.2d 880 (1944). In light of their highly remedial nature then, declaratory judgment statutes should be liberally construed; they should not be interpreted in a narrow or technical sense. Sherwood Medical Indus. Inc. v. Deknatel, Inc., 512 F.2d 724 (8th Cir. 1975); Beacon Constr. Co. v. Matco Elec. Co., 521 F.2d 392 (2d Cir. 1975); Beaudoin v. State, 113 N.H. 559, 311 A.2d 310 (1973). Naturally, there remains the prerequisite that the party seeking declaratory relief present the court with an actual controversy. Malinou v. Powers, 114 R.I. 399, 404, 333 A.2d 420, 423 (1975); Goodyear Loan Co. v. Little, 107 R.I. 629, 269 A.2d 542 (1970); Lamb v. Perry, 101 R.I. 538, 225 A.2d 521 (1967). Trial justices may not dispense with the traditional rules prohibiting them from rendering advisory opinions or adjudicating hypothetical issues. Lamb v. Perry, supra.

The principles outlined in the preceding paragraph describing generally the nature and scope of declaratory actions are applicable with equal force to § 42-35-7, the statutory provision pursuant to which the complaint in the instant case was filed. That provision reads:

"Declaratory judgment on validity or applicability of rules. The validity or applicability of any rule may be determined in an action for declaratory judgment in the superior court of Providence county, when it is alleged that the rule, or its threatened application, interferes with or impairs, or threatens to interfere with or impair, the legal rights or privileges of the plaintiff. The agency shall be made a party to the action. A declaratory judgment may be rendered whether or not the plaintiff has requested the agency to pass upon the validity or applicability of the rule in question."

Interpretation of this statute presents a question of first impression in Rhode Island and, while it was based on an identical provision in the Model State Administrative Procedures Act, which has been adopted in substantial part in at least 27 states, there is a conspicuous absence of decisional law interpreting its language. Nevertheless, since the previously discussed principles relating generally to declaratory relief are applicable to this statute, it is clear that to warrant a determination by the trial justice of the validity of the questioned rules, plaintiffs must demonstrate a sufficient allegation of interest. Malinou v. Powers; Goodyear Loan Co. v. Little; Lamb v. Perry, all supra. That is, appropriate facts must be established from which the trial justice may determine that an actual controversy relating to the validity of the agency's rules exists.

The major thrust of plaintiffs' complaint is an attack on the facial validity of the board's rule permitting it to administer oral examinations. Their belief is that the rule violates fundamental due process insofar as it does not provide for adequate safeguards to preclude discrimination on the part of the board's members.

At the hearing it was not disputed that plaintiffs had sought licensure to operate hoisting equipment in this state and were denied it. Furthermore, the evidence presented indicated that no record of plaintiffs' actual answers to questions asked during the examination was kept.

Clearly, under these circumstances plaintiffs have a legal interest in the relief they seek. That is, they have presented sufficient facts giving rise to some conceivable legal hypothesis which will entitle them to some relief against defendant. 1 Anderson, Actions for Declaratory Judgments § 14 (2d ed. 1951); see Goodyear Loan Co. v. Little, supra at 631, 269 A.2d at 543 (1970). We conclude, then, that plaintiffs presented the trial justice with sufficient facts entitling them to a declaratory judgment as to the validity of the licensing board's rule providing for oral examinations.

With respect to the licensing board's rule establishing a 1-year...

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    ...an "opportunity to be heard `at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.'" Millett v. Hoisting Engineers' Licensing Division of the Department of Labor, 119 R.I. 285, 296, 377 A.2d 229, 236 (1977). In determining what process is due, the Court takes into account three factors: "[f]irst......
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