Sanchez v. State

Decision Date08 August 2006
Docket NumberNo. 32266.,32266.
Citation141 P.3d 1108,143 Idaho 239
CourtIdaho Supreme Court
PartiesKelly SANCHEZ, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. STATE of Idaho, DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION, Defendant-Appellant.

Hon. Lawrence G. Wasden, Attorney General, Boise, for appellant. Brian B. Benjamin argued.

John C. Lynn, Boise, for respondent.

TROUT, Justice.

This appeal involves a dispute between the Idaho Department of Correction (IDOC) and its former employee, Kelly Sanchez. Sanchez had been dismissed from his employment with IDOC as a correctional officer, but it was later determined the discharge was made without proper cause. After various proceedings, the Idaho Personnel Commission (Commission) decided it was without authority to award Sanchez attorney fees and pre-judgment interest. This decision was reversed on appeal to the district court. Because we conclude the regulatory and statutory bases invoked by Sanchez do not support an award of fees or pre-judgment interest against IDOC, we reverse.


The case began in 1996 when an inmate at the Pocatello correctional facilities alleged sexual misconduct by Sanchez. Sanchez disputed that claim and, ultimately, IDOC decided to transfer him to Boise. Not wanting to leave Pocatello, Sanchez refused the transfer. Thereafter, IDOC notified Sanchez that he was being dismissed.

Sanchez appealed to the Commission, and the case was eventually appealed to the district court to resolve a jurisdictional question. The district court remanded the matter to the hearing officer for a determination as to whether the transfer was intended to be administrative, such that the Commission could not review the case, or disciplinary in nature, which is a jurisdictional prerequisite to the Commission's review. The district court's decision was upheld on appeal to this Court in Sanchez v. Idaho Dept. of Correction, 134 Idaho 523, 5 P.3d 984 (2000).

On remand, the hearing officer found the transfer was disciplinary and that Sanchez had been discharged without proper cause. Addressing remedies, the hearing officer concluded Sanchez was entitled to reinstatement and reimbursement of back pay. Also, the officer awarded Sanchez his attorney fees under I.C. § 12-117, but qualified that award by stating "unless an award of attorney's fees and expenses is precluded under ... Idaho Dept. of Correction v. Anderson, 134 Idaho 680, 8 P.3d 675 (Ct.App.2000)." The hearing officer's supplemental order was filed in March 2003.

IDOC filed an objection with the hearing officer and also filed a petition for review with the Commission. The parties then settled the dispute regarding back pay and mitigation, and all other issues except for fees, costs, and pre-judgment interest. Subsequently, Sanchez requested pre-judgment interest on the amount of back pay. In April 2004, the hearing officer awarded Sanchez fees and costs under I.C. § 12-121 and also pre-judgment interest. IDOC sought review by the Commission of the hearing officer's decision.

On review, the Commission concluded the hearing officer erred when he awarded fees and costs because neither I.C. § 12-121 nor I.C. § 12-117 authorized fees against IDOC and also because neither I.C. § 67-5316(4) nor IDAPA (Rule 201) provided a basis for a fee award. Also, the Commission concluded the award of pre-judgment interest was in error due to IDOC's sovereign immunity. Sanchez appealed to the district court.

On appeal, the district court determined the Commission had authority to award attorney fees under I.C. § 67-5316(4) and Rule 201. Also, the court reasoned that a history of Commission orders awarding attorney fees against IDOC in similar employment cases created a de facto administrative interpretation of rules and laws that the Commission was bound to follow unless and until it changed its interpretation by rulemaking. The district court also ruled pre-judgment interest was clearly authorized by I.C. § 67-5316(4). The court remanded the case for a determination of fees and pre-judgment interest in accordance with the hearing officer's conclusions. IDOC timely appealed.


Idaho Code section 67-5318 governs judicial review of Commission decisions as follows:

Upon the appeal of a decision of the commission, the district court may affirm, or set aside and remand the matter to the commission upon the following grounds, and shall not set the same aside on any other grounds:

(1) That the findings of fact are not based on any substantial, competent evidence;

(2) That the commission has acted without jurisdiction or in excess of its powers;

(3) That the findings of fact by the commission do not as a matter of law support the decision.

The same standard applies when this Court reviews the Commission's decision on further appeal. Whittier v. Department of Health and Welfare, 137 Idaho 75, 78, 44 P.3d 1130, 1133 (2002). Because the decision of the Commission effectively displaces the proposed decision of the hearing officer, and because the appellate court is directed to review "a decision of the commission," it is the full Commission's decision, rather than the hearing officer's decision, that is to be reviewed. Idaho State Ins. Fund v. Hunnicutt, 110 Idaho 257, 259, 715 P.2d 927, 929 (1985). This Court exercises free review over issues of law. Whittier, 137 Idaho at 78, 44 P.3d at 1133.

The issue of whether the Commission has authority to award attorney fees involves the interpretation of various statutes and Rule 201. Statutory interpretation is a question of law over which this Court exercises free review. State v. Quick Transport, Inc., 134 Idaho 240, 244, 999 P.2d 895, 899 (2000). Administrative regulations are subject to the same principles of statutory construction as statutes. Mason v. Donnelly Club, 135 Idaho 581, 586, 21 P.3d 903, 908 (2001). The language of either should be given its plain, obvious and rational meaning. Id. In other words, if the language is clear and unambiguous, the Court need not engage in any statutory construction. Quick Transport, Inc., 134 Idaho at 244, 999 P.2d at 899. "Only where the language is ambiguous will this Court look to rules of construction for guidance and consider the reasonableness of proposed interpretations." Albee v. Judy, 136 Idaho 226, 231, 31 P.3d 248, 253 (2001).


The principal issues on appeal include (1) whether the Commission has authority to award attorney fees against IDOC based on the arguments presented by Sanchez, and (2) whether sovereign immunity precludes an award of pre-judgment interest against IDOC.

A. Attorney fees

Sanchez asserts that under Rule 201, I.C. § 12-121, and/or I.C. § 67-5316(4), the Commission is authorized to award fees against IDOC. While it appears I.C. § 12-1171 may provide an alternative basis for a fee award, Sanchez has conceded on appeal that the statute does not apply. This concession was based on a decision from the Idaho Court of Appeals, see Idaho Dept. of Correction v. Anderson, 134 Idaho 680, 8 P.3d 675 (Ct.App.2000) (ruling IDOC is not a "state agency," so I.C. § 12-117 does not apply), and not on any decision or interpretation of the statute by this Court. Nevertheless, as Sanchez chose not to make the argument about why I.C. § 12-117 might support a fee award against IDOC, we will not address this statute further.

1. Rule 201

Former Rule 201 applies to these proceedings and addresses attorney fee awards:

Procedure For Award Of Attorney Fees And Costs. If the hearing officer finds in favor of the employee in whole or in part, the hearing officer shall make a finding as to whether or not the state agency acted without a reasonable basis in fact or law. If the employee is entitled to statutory attorney fees and costs, counsel for the employee shall file a memorandum of costs, including a supporting affidavit stating the basis and method of computation of the amount claimed....

IDAPA (emphasis added). We agree with the Commission's determination Rule 201 is not an independent basis for a fee award, but only describes the procedure to be followed if there is a statutory basis for such an award. The italicized language clearly emphasizes that an award of fees is dependent on the existence of a statute to support it. This interpretation reflects the "American Rule" requiring parties to bear their own attorney fees absent statutory authorization or contractual right. See Idaho Dept. of Law Enforcement v. Kluss, 125 Idaho 682, 684, 873 P.2d 1336, 1338 (1994). Thus, we turn to Sanchez's arguments regarding a statutory basis for fees.

2. I.C. § 12-121

The Commission determined I.C. § 12-121 did not provide authority for an award of fees in this administrative action. Idaho Code section 12-121 authorizes a court to award the prevailing party fees "in any civil action" where the case was brought, pursued or defended frivolously. Minich v. Gem State Dev., Inc., 99 Idaho 911, 918, 591 P.2d 1078, 1085 (1979). This Court has clarified that Idaho Rule of Civil Procedure 3(a) "clearly declares that `a civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court.'" Lowery v. Board of County Com'rs for Ada County, 117 Idaho 1079, 1081, 793 P.2d 1251, 1253 (1990). Here, the matter before the district court was a decision of the Commission made pursuant to the appeals provisions of the Personnel System Act and brought before the district court by the filing of an appeal. Like the proceedings in Lowery, these proceedings do not constitute a civil action commenced by the filing of a complaint as required by Rule 3(a). See id. at 1082, 793 P.2d at 1254. Consequently, we conclude the Commission correctly ruled it did not have authority under I.C. § 12-121 to award fees in this proceeding.

3. I.C. § 67-5316(4)

Idaho Code section 67-5316(4) directs that in wrongful discharge cases, the Commission "shall order the...

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7 cases
  • Straub v. Smith
    • United States
    • Idaho Supreme Court
    • November 27, 2007
    ...fees. "A civil action is commenced by the filing of a complaint with the court." I.R.C.P. 3(a); accord Sanchez v. State, Dept. of Correction, 143 Idaho 239, 141 P.3d 1108 (2006). The complaint, and any other pleading that sets forth a claim for relief, must contain "a short and plain statem......
  • Straub v. Smith, Docket No. 33348 (Idaho 7/31/2007)
    • United States
    • Idaho Supreme Court
    • July 31, 2007
    ...does not. "A civil action is commenced by the filing of a complaint with the court." I.R.C.P. 3(a); accord Sanchez v. State, Dept. of Correction, 143 Idaho 239, 141 P.3d 1108 (2006). The complaint must set forth "a claim for relief" which contains "a short and plain statement of the claim s......
  • Rammell v. Idaho State Dept. of Agriculture, 34927.
    • United States
    • Idaho Supreme Court
    • June 1, 2009
    ...district court. 115 Idaho at 822-23, 771 P.2d at 43-44. As I explained in my concurring opinion in Sanchez v. State, Department of Correction, 143 Idaho 239, 245, 141 P.3d 1108, 1114 (2006), the Stewart majority began by misconstruing the statute. The statute does not apply to administrativ......
  • Smith v. Wash. County Idaho
    • United States
    • Idaho Supreme Court
    • October 6, 2010, a proceeding that does not commence with a complaint filed in court, the courts cannot award fees.2 See Sanchez v. State, 143 Idaho 239, 243, 141 P.3d 1108, 1112 (2006) (holding that a petition for judicial review is not a civil action); Neighbors for Responsible Growth v. Kootenai ......
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