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Bird v. Kanawha County Board of Education

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

November 4, 2019

Christopher Bird, Respondent Below, Petitioner
Kanawha County Board of Education, Petitioner Below, Respondent

          (Kanawha County 17-AA-96)


         Petitioner Christopher Bird, by counsel Everett Roush, appeals the Circuit Court of Kanawha County's September 12, 2018, order reversing the decision of the West Virginia Public Employees Grievance Board ("grievance board"). Respondent the Kanawha County Board of Education, by counsel Lindsay D.C. McIntosh, submitted a summary response in support of the circuit court's order.

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

         Petitioner Christopher Bird is a custodian employed by the Kanawha County Board of Education who previously worked as a bus operator for respondent. Respondent posted the position of Electrician II in September of 2016, though the job description did not specifically mention any qualification related to an applicant's driving record. It did, however, set forth the following duties/responsibilities: "Possess and maintains a valid West Virginia driver's license; Ability to perform duties in compliance with the county requirements and Board of Education policies." Respondent declined to offer petitioner the Electrician II position due to his recent conviction for driving under the influence ("DUI"), and the position was awarded to the intervenor below, Emmett G. Busse.[1] Petitioner filed a grievance with the grievance board on January 17, 2017, and Mary Jo Swartz, the designee of the county superintendent, denied the grievance at Level I.[2] Petitioner appealed to Level II, at which time Mr. Busse intervened. The parties conducted an unsuccessful mediation in April of 2017, and petitioner appealed to Level III later that month. Following an evidentiary hearing, the administrative law judge ("ALJ") issued a decision finding that petitioner should have been awarded the position. The grievance board ordered that petitioner be instated to the position and awarded back pay, benefits, and interest. Respondent appealed that decision to the Circuit Court of Kanawha County, which considered the briefs and proposed orders submitted by the parties.

         On September 12, 2018, the circuit court entered its "Final Order Reversing Decision of Grievance Board." In that order, the circuit court made the following relevant findings of fact and conclusions of law: All electricians employed by respondent are assigned a vehicle owned by respondent for use while completing their job duties. Respondent's Policy G68 provides that an applicant for a position that involves driving a county vehicle will be "disqualified" for DUI, though that policy does not contain a time limit for disqualification. However, respondent had an unwritten practice of limiting DUI disqualifications to the preceding five-year period. None of respondent's employees who drive one of its vehicles as part of their jobs have a disqualifying violation on their driving record. Petitioner was convicted of DUI, less than .15 blood alcohol content, in 2015, but completed all aspects of his ignition lock program on or about September 10, 2016.[3]

         The circuit court concluded that it is neither arbitrary nor capricious for respondent to have a policy prohibiting an individual with a recent DUI conviction from operating its vehicles.

Public safety and potential liability on the part of [respondent] are reasonable considerations when determining if an individual may be permitted to operate one of [respondent's] vehicles. The [ALJ] acted arbitrarily and capriciously when she substituted her judgment for the judgment of [respondent] in concluding that [its] fleet safety policy should not apply to [petitioner] in this instance.

         The circuit court reversed the ALJ's decision insofar as the ALJ determined that petitioner should be instated to the position of Electrician II. Petitioner appeals from that order.

         As this Court has found, "[w]hen reviewing the appeal of a public employees' grievance, this Court reviews decisions of the circuit court under the same standard as that by which the circuit court reviews the decision of the administrative law judge." Syl. Pt. 1, Martin v. Barbour Cty. Bd. of Educ., 228 W.Va. 238, 719 S.E.2d 406 (2011). Pursuant to West Virginia Code § 29A-5-4(g),

[t]he [circuit] court may affirm the order or decision of the agency or remand the case for further proceedings. It shall reverse, vacate or modify the order or decision of the agency if the substantial rights of the petitioner or petitioners have been prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions, decision or order are:
(1) In violation of constitutional or statutory provisions; or
(2) In excess of the statutory authority or jurisdiction of the agency; or
(3) Made upon unlawful procedures; or
(4) Affected by other error of ...

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