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Walker v. Pocahontas County Board of Education

Supreme Court of West Virginia

September 5, 2017

Jaime C. Walker, Petitioner Below, Petitioner
v.
Pocahontas County Board of Education, Respondent Below, Respondent

         Pocahontas County 15-AA-102

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Jaime C. Walker, by counsel J. Steve Hunter, appeals the Circuit Court of Kanawha County's June 10, 2016, order reversing the decision of the West Virginia Public Employees Grievance Board ("the Board"). Respondent Pocahontas County Board of Education ("BOE"), by counsel Denise M. Spatafore and Jason S. Long, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order. On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in reversing the decision of the Board because the circuit court erred in finding that petitioner had not timely filed his grievance and in reversing the Board's decision granting him relief.

         This 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 order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         In June of 2013, the BOE posted two school service personnel job vacancies for a mechanic and a chief mechanic. Both of the postings set out the terms of employment as 240-day positions to be effective July 1, 2013, and to continue for the remainder of the 2012-2013 school year. Petitioner, who was qualified for both positions, submitted his application for both job vacancies and, prior to filing his applications, passed the mechanic competency test, was on the emergency mechanic substitute list, and had been employed by the BOE for approximately twelve years. After submitting his applications, petitioner was interviewed for both positions by the BOE school superintendent, C.C. Lester. During the course of the interview process, petitioner specifically inquired as to whether the positions would be increased to 261-day positions or if the positions would remain as listed. The superintendent stated that the positions would not be changed and would remain 240-day positions. Petitioner later withdrew his applications for both positions. Thereafter, Justin Tyler and Ian Bennett submitted applications for the two posted positions.

         In July of 2013, the BOE selected Mr. Tyler to fill the chief mechanic position and Mr. Bennett to fill the mechanic position under 240-day contracts that were retroactive to July 1, 2013, and continued for the remainder of the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Sometime after Mr. Tyler and Mr. Bennett accepted the positions as offered, they appeared before the BOE and requested that their contracts be increased to 261-day positions. The requests were placed on the BOE's July of 2013 meeting agenda and later approved by the BOE effective July 31, 2013. Petitioner did not work during the summer months and was out of state. He heard about the BOE's contract modification from a friend on or about July 31, 2013.

         In August of 2013, petitioner filed a Level One grievance challenging the modification of the contract terms, from 240 days to 261 days, after they were filled. Following a hearing, the Board denied petitioner's grievance on September of 2013.

         In September of 2013, petitioner appealed the denial to Level Two of the grievance procedure. Following an unsuccessful mediation, petitioner appealed to Level Three in January of 2014. Following a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued a decision in July of 2015 in which it found that petitioner demonstrated an interest in the posted positions and had standing to challenge the change in the contract terms as a misleading notice of the vacancies to applicants and potential applicants. In July of 2015, the BOE appealed the ALJ's decision to the circuit court. By order entered on June 10, 2016, the circuit court reversed the ALJ's decision and found that petitioner's grievance was not timely filed as required by West Virginia Code § 6C-2-1 and that he did not have a valid excuse for the untimely filing. It is from this order that petitioner appeals.

         The Court has previously established the relevant standard of review:

"Grievance rulings involve a combination of both deferential and plenary review. Since a reviewing court is obligated to give deference to factual findings rendered by an administrative law judge, a circuit court is not permitted to substitute its judgment for that of the hearing examiner with regard to factual determinations. Credibility determinations made by an administrative law judge are similarly entitled to deference. Plenary review is conducted as to the conclusions of law and application of law to the facts, which are reviewed de novo." Syllabus Point 1, Cahill v. Mercer County Bd. of Educ., 208 W.Va. 177, 539 S.E.2d 437 (2000).

Syl. Pt. 1, Darby v. Kanawha Cty. Bd. of Educ., 227 W.Va. 525, 711 S.E.2d 595 (2011). Further, we have held that

"[a] final order of the hearing examiner for the West Virginia [Public] Employees Grievance Board, made pursuant to W.Va. Code, [6C-2-1], et seq. [ ], and based upon findings of fact, should not be reversed unless clearly wrong." Syl. pt. 1, Randolph Cnty. Bd. of Educ. v. Scalia, 182 W.Va. 289, 387 S.E.2d 524 (1989).

Syl. Pt. 3, Armstrong v. W.Va. Div. of Culture and History, 229 W.Va. 538, 729 S.E.2d 860 (2012). Upon our review, the Court finds that the circuit court did not err in reversing the Board's decision.

         On appeal to this Court, petitioner argues that the circuit court erroneously found that his grievance was not timely filed as required by West Virginia Code § 6C-2-1. Petitioner contends that the grievance time limits were tolled because, as a BOE employee "holding [a] 200-day [contract], he was not working and his workplace was 'legally closed by policy and practice . . . between the first week of June and the middle of August.'" The Court, however, does not agree.

         We begin our analysis with a review of West Virginia Code § 6C-2-4(a)(1), which identifies the time limits for ...


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