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Tabb v. Jefferson County Board of Education

Supreme Court of West Virginia

June 2, 2017

David C. Tabb, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
v.
Jefferson County Board of Education; Dr. Bondy Shay Gibson, Superintendent of Schools for Jefferson County, West Virginia; Scott Sudduth, President; Mark Osbourn, Vice President; Gary Kable, Board Member; Laurie Ogden, Board Member; Kahtryn Skinner, Board Member; and The Jefferson County Commission; Peter Onoszko, President; Jane Tabb, Vice President; Josh Compton, Commissioner; Patsy Noland, Commissioner; and Caleb Husdon, Commissioner; Defendants Below, Respondents

         Jefferson County 15-C-282

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner David C. Tabb, pro se, appeals two orders of the Circuit Court of Jefferson County. In the first order, entered April 20, 2016, the circuit court granted summary judgment to respondents in petitioner's action seeking a declaratory judgment that respondents failed to comply with statutory requirements for the holding of the December 12, 2015, special excess levy election. In the second order, entered May 23, 2016, the circuit court denied petitioner's motion to alter or amend its April 20, 2016, order.

         Respondents Jefferson County Board of Education; Dr. Bondy Shay Gibson, Superintendent of Schools for Jefferson County, West Virginia; Scott Sudduth, President; Mark Osbourn, Vice President; Gary Kable, Board Member; Laurie Ogden, Board Member; and Kahtryn Skinner, Board Member (collectively, "Board of Education"); by counsel Tracey B. Eberling, filed a response in support of the circuit court's orders. Respondents Jefferson County Commission; Peter Onoszko, President; Jane Tabb, Vice President; Josh Compton, Commissioner; Patsy Noland, Commissioner; and Caleb Husdon, Commissioner (collectively, "County Commission"); by counsel Nathan P. Cochran, filed a response in support of the circuit court's orders.[1] Petitioner filed a reply to each response.

         The Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's orders is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         On November 12, 2015, petitioner, a resident of Jefferson County, West Virginia, filed an action seeking a declaratory judgment that respondents failed to comply with West Virginia Code §§ 11-8-9, 11-8-12, and 11-8-16 for the holding of a special excess levy election for the Board of Education scheduled for December 12, 2015. In connection with his claim for declaratory relief, petitioner requested that the circuit court prohibit respondents from proceeding with the election. However, the circuit court failed to make a ruling prior to the December 12, 2015, special election, at which the voters approved the excess levy to fund the educational purposes listed on the ballot for the 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 fiscal years. Petitioner's action proceeded on his claim that the special election should be invalidated because of respondents' failure to comply with West Virginia Code §§ 11-8-9, 11-8-12, and 11-8-16.

         Each respondent filed a motion to dismiss petitioner's action. Given its receipt of documents outside of the parties' pleadings, the circuit court converted the motions to dismiss into motions for summary judgment by order entered on February 24, 2016. The circuit court also permitted the parties to submit additional briefing and documentation in support of their positions. Petitioner objected to certain documents submitted by the Board of Education. By order entered on March 24, 2016, the circuit court directed the filing of proof authenticating the submitted documentation. On April 5, 2016, the Board of Education submitted a certification by the County Superintendent of Schools authenticating (1) the minutes for the March 9, 2015, board meeting; (2) the minutes for the March 23, 2015, board meeting; and (3) the Notice of Special Election for Renewal of Additional Levy to the Voters of Jefferson County. Petitioner filed a response to the certification of records on April 14, 2016, acknowledging that "true and accurate copies of the original record maintained by the Board of Education" were submitted. On April 20, 2016, the circuit court entered an order awarding summary judgment to respondents on petitioner's claim that the special election should be invalidated, finding that respondents complied with West Virginia Code §§ 11-8-9, 11-8-12, and 11-8-16. On April 29, 2016, petitioner filed a motion to alter or amend the April 20, 2016, order pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. The circuit court denied petitioner's motion in an order entered on May 23, 2016.

         Petitioner now appeals the circuit court's April 20, 2016, order awarding summary judgment to respondents and its May 23, 2016, order denying petitioner's motion to alter or amend the judgment. We review the entry of summary judgment de novo. See Syl. Pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994). We need not independently review the May 23, 2016, order. See Syl. Pt. 1, Wickland v. Am. Travellers Life In. Co., 204 W.Va. 430, 513 S.E.2d 657 (1998) (holding that "[t]he standard of review applicable to an appeal from a motion to alter or amend a judgment, made pursuant to [Rule] 59(e), is the same standard that would apply to the underlying judgment upon which the motion is based"). Pursuant to Rule 56(c), summary judgment shall be granted provided that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law."

         On appeal, petitioner reiterates arguments rejected by the circuit court and additionally argues that (1) the circuit court failed to reasonably accommodate him as a pro se litigant; and (2) the circuit court failed to afford him due process of law. The circuit court's April 20, 2016, and May 23, 2016, orders adequately address the arguments presented to that court in the summary judgment proceedings. Therefore, herein, we address only those arguments solely raised on appeal.

         We address petitioner's two arguments together because they are inter-related given that "[t]he court should strive . . . to ensure that the diligent pro se party does not forfeit any substantial rights by inadvertent omission or mistake." Blair v. Maynard, 174 W.Va. 247, 253, 324 S.E.2d 391, 396 (1984); see State ex rel. Peck v. Goshorn, 162 W.Va. 420, 422, 249 S.E.2d 765, 766 (1978) (finding that "[d]ue process of law is synonymous with fundamental fairness"). In Blair, we found that "[c]ases should be decided on the merits, and to that end, justice is served by reasonably accommodating all parties, whether represented by counsel or not." 174 W.Va. at 253, 324 S.E.2d at 396. However, we cautioned that "the court must not overlook the rules to the prejudice of any party" and, "ultimately, the pro se litigant must bear the responsibility and accept the consequences of any mistakes and errors." Id.; see W.Va. Dept. of Health & Human Resources Employees Federal Credit Union v. Tennant, 215 W.Va. 387, 394, 599 S.E.2d 810, 817 (2004) (finding that pro se litigant waived right to jury trial by (1) failing to participate in a scheduling conference; and (2) failing to express a desire for a jury trial at a pretrial conference and during the bench trial).

         Respondents assert that, while petitioner is not represented by an attorney, he is a sophisticated litigant, demonstrated by given his history of filing numerous actions in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County.[2] In the instant case, the circuit court refused to consider petitioner's challenge to certain language contained in the special election ballot because petitioner never amended his complaint to include that claim and refused to consider issues raised by petitioner in other cases not then before the court. First, petitioner contends that he raised the issue of the ballot language, but acknowledges that he knew that he needed to amend the complaint to assert that claim. Given that acknowledgement, we find that petitioner's failure to file a motion to file an amended complaint constituted a waiver of his challenge to the ballot language. Second, petitioner contends that the circuit court should have considered issues raised in his other cases on the ground that resolution of those issues could have potentially affected the outcome of this case. However, if petitioner believed that the issues raised in his other cases could have impacted the instant case, we find that petitioner was sufficiently familiar with court procedure to know that he could file a motion to consolidate the cases together and failed to do so. Therefore, we conclude that the circuit court did not err in refusing to consider petitioner's challenge to certain language contained in the special election ballot and in refusing to consider issues raised by petitioner in other cases not then before the court.[3]

         Next, petitioner contends that the circuit court was unduly dismissive of certain of his arguments by addressing them in footnotes in its summary judgment order. However, we concern ourselves not with the manner in which the circuit court drafted its order, but with whether the order reflects both the existing law and the record before the court. See State ex rel. Cooper v. Caperton, 196 W.Va. 208, 214, 470 S.E.2d 162, 168 (1996) (rejecting complaint that the court adopted proposed findings of opposing party nearly verbatim). Moreover, the circuit court acknowledged petitioner's complaint in its order denying the motion to alter or amend the judgment and addressed those issues previously relegated to footnotes in the body of that order. Therefore, we conclude that this contention is without merit.

         Finally, petitioner notes the absence of a ruling prior to the voters' approval of the excess levy at the December 12, 2015, special election and that the lack of such a ruling was not attributed to him. However, we find that petitioner was not prejudiced by the lack of a ruling prior to the special election because the circuit court proceeded with his claim that the election's result should be invalidated given respondents' alleged failure to comply with statutory requirements. Therefore, we find that this contention is without merit. Accordingly, we conclude that the circuit court considered petitioner's arguments that were properly before the court and treated petitioner fairly by affording him adequate due process.[4]

         Having addressed those issues solely raised on appeal, and having reviewed the circuit court's April 20, 2016, "Order Granting Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment" and its May 23, 2016, "Order Denying Plaintiff's Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment, " we hereby adopt and incorporate the circuit court's well-reasoned findings and conclusions as to all other issues raised by petitioner in this appeal. The Clerk is directed to attach a copy of each circuit court order to ...


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