Smith v. Workforce Appeals Bd., 20100407–CA.

Decision Date10 March 2011
Docket NumberNo. 20100407–CA.,20100407–CA.
Citation2011 UT App 68,677 Utah Adv. Rep. 23,252 P.3d 372
PartiesJeremy C. SMITH, Petitioner,v.WORKFORCE APPEALS BOARD, DEPARTMENT OF WORKFORCE SERVICES; and Alpine School District, Respondents.
CourtUtah Court of Appeals

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Christopher D. Greenwood, Provo, for Petitioner.Suzan Pixton, Salt Lake City, for Respondent Workforce Appeals Board, Department of Workforce Services.Before Judges McHUGH, ORME, and VOROS.

OPINION

McHUGH, Associate Presiding Judge:

¶ 1 Jeremy C. Smith seeks judicial review of a decision of the Workforce Appeals Board (the Board) denying his application for unemployment insurance benefits. We uphold the Board's decision.

BACKGROUND

¶ 2 From October 31, 2000, until his termination on November 17, 2009, Smith worked as an electrician specialist for the Alpine School District (the District). Because Smith had work-related duties at each of the multiple school locations throughout the District, he drove a District-owned vehicle every workday. On October 12, 2007, Smith hit a parked car while driving a non–District vehicle; he was under the influence of a prescription medication at the time.1 The police officer at the scene arrested Smith. After submitting to a blood test, Smith was taken to jail where his driver license was confiscated. Upon his release, Smith was arraigned on charges of driving under the influence (DUI) and entered a plea of not guilty. A minute entry from the court proceedings indicates that the trial court warned Smith not to drive without a valid license and insurance. The police did not return Smith's driver license upon his release from jail, instead providing him with “paperwork” that Smith believed was the “same thing as a drivers license” (the Paperwork). Although Smith claimed to be unaware of the fact, his driver license was suspended effective November 11, 2007, when the Paperwork expired. Smith did not report the DUI arrest to the District and continued to drive District vehicles every workday. On February 4, 2008, Smith pleaded no contest to a charge of drug-related reckless driving and was informed by the court that he could contact the Driver License Division to obtain a license. Smith's driving privileges were reinstated by the Driver License Division on February 12, 2008.

¶ 3 In July 2009, a legislative audit of the District revealed Smith's no-contest plea to the drug-related reckless driving offense. Based upon this information, the District asked Smith if he had ever driven on a suspended license. When he admitted that he had, the District terminated Smith for dishonesty on the job and for committing a criminal act. Smith applied for unemployment benefits, which the Department of Workforce Services (the Department) awarded based on its determination that the District did not have “just cause” to terminate Smith. See Utah Code Ann. § 35A–4–405(2)(a) (Supp.2010).2

¶ 4 The District appealed the decision to an Administrative Law Judge (the ALJ), arguing that Smith was terminated for just cause because he knowingly drove District vehicles on a suspended license and did not report the suspension to the District. In response, Smith argued that he first learned that his license had been suspended when it was reinstated and, therefore, did not have knowledge that he was driving District vehicles without a valid license. The District's Human Resources Director (the HR Director) testified at the hearing before the ALJ and described a meeting he had with Smith on October 6, 2009, after learning of the matter from the legislative auditor. According to the HR Director, Smith admitted that he pleaded no contest to drug-related reckless driving, that his license had been suspended, and that he had “driven on a suspended license for [the District] during that time.” The HR Director also testified that Smith indicated that he did not report the incident to the District because Smith felt like he could basically just get away with it and no one would know the difference.” In an email dated December 14, 2009, which was entered into evidence without discussion or objection, the HR Director reported that Smith also stated that he had missed the “two week deadline to contest losing his license and that it was suspended for a year.” 3

¶ 5 During cross-examination by Smith's counsel, the HR Director was asked about another email that had also been admitted into evidence without objection. That email was to the HR Director from Smith's union representative, who had been present during portions of the October 6, 2009, meeting with Smith. It states,

[Smith] said that he had been in an accident and was given paperwork at the scene. After he had time to review the paperwork, he realized he had missed a deadline which was crucial to maintaining his drivers license. Upon missing the deadline, his license was suspended and would continue to be suspended for one year. At this time he felt it was in his best interest to remain quiet about the loss of the drivers license. Chances were good that no one would know and when the license was reinstated, it would be behind him. He was very forthcoming and acknowledged he had [driven] on a suspended license for the full year.

¶ 6 Smith also testified, admitting that he had been arrested for DUI, taken into custody, and confined to jail. Smith stated that the police confiscated his permanent license and replaced it with the Paperwork. Although he admitted to reading it, Smith could not recall if the Paperwork indicated that it would expire in twenty-nine days. Smith claimed that he first learned that his license had been suspended when he appeared at his last court date on February 4, 2008, and the trial court informed him that he could apply to have his driving privileges reinstated. Because he had a valid license again by the time he learned that it had been suspended, Smith testified that he did not “think it was important” to notify the District of the prior suspension.

¶ 7 After the hearing, the ALJ reversed the Department's decision awarding Smith unemployment benefits, finding that Smith's claim of ignorance about the suspension of his driver license was “not credible.” Smith appealed the ALJ's decision to the Board, which affirmed the denial of benefits. The Board's decision indicates that [f]rom the evidence the Board was able to obtain, peace officers from all jurisdictions in Utah use the same ‘paperwork’ or citation for the ‘29 day’ license. A blank copy of that citation is attached to this decision.” Nowhere in the decision does the Board identify the source of the DUI form or the basis of the Board's assertion that its use “appears to be uniform throughout Utah.” 4 Based on the language of the DUI form, including the capitalized notice at the top of the document warning that the recipient's driver license will be denied, revoked, suspended, or disqualified within thirty days, the Board determined that: “There is no way to read this citation and not know that your drivers license was or would be suspended or revoked immediately or within 30 days.” Noting that Smith did not introduce a copy of the Paperwork he actually received, the Board found that it was identical to the DUI form, and that Smith “knew, or should have known by reading his ‘paperwork’ that his license was suspended.” Therefore, the Board concluded that the District had just cause to fire Smith. In its decision, however, the Board notified Smith that if he “received a different type of ‘paperwork,’ he [could] file a motion for reconsideration and include verifiable evidence of the ‘paperwork’ he received.” 5 Smith did not request reconsideration and, instead, filed a timely appeal of the Board's decision.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶ 8 Smith first contends that by considering the DUI form and the testimony concerning its use after the hearing, the Board engaged in an unlawful decision-making process, and violated and misapplied Department rules. Smith is entitled to relief based upon the agency's “unlawful procedure or decision-making process,” Utah Code Ann. § 63G–4–403(4)(e) (2008), only if he was “substantially prejudiced” as a result, id. § 63G–4–403(4). The standard for determining whether a claimant in an agency proceeding has been substantially prejudiced is the same as the standard used for deciding whether an error in a judicial proceeding is harmless. See Morton Int'l, Inc. v. Utah State Tax Comm'n, 814 P.2d 581, 584 (Utah 1991), superseded by statute on other grounds, Utah Code Ann. § 59–1–610(1)(b) (Supp.1993), as recognized in 49th St. Galleria v. Tax Comm'n, 860 P.2d 996, 999 (Utah Ct.App.1993). [A]n error will be harmless if it is sufficiently inconsequential that there is no reasonable likelihood that the error affected the outcome of the proceedings.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Although an appellate court will give an agency some deference in the interpretation and application of its own rules and procedures, see Resort Retainers v. Labor Comm'n, 2010 UT App 229, ¶ 11, 238 P.3d 1081, we will “defer[ ] to an agency's interpretation” only if it “is both reasonable and rational,” Barnard & Burk Grp., Inc. v. Labor Comm'n, 2005 UT App 401, ¶ 9, 122 P.3d 700.

¶ 9 Smith also asserts that the Board abused its discretion by basing its decision on findings of fact that are not adequately supported by the evidence. “An administrative agency's findings of fact will be reversed ‘only if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence.’ Smith v. Department of Workforce Servs., 2010 UT App 382, ¶ 6, 245 P.3d 758 (quoting Drake v. Industrial Comm'n, 939 P.2d 177, 181 (Utah 1997)); see also Utah Code Ann. § 35A–4–508(8)(e) (2005) (“In any judicial proceeding under this section, the findings of the Workforce Appeals Board as to the facts, if supported by the evidence, are conclusive and the jurisdiction of the court is confined to questions of law.”). “Substantial evidence is that quantum and quality of...

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