Blaine County v. Stricker

Blaine County v. Stricker, 2017 MT 80 (April 11, 2017) (Baker, J.) (5-0, aff’d and rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether Judge Sherlock correctly concluded that the commission improperly modified the hearing officer’s findings; and (2) whether Judge Reynolds correctly concluded that Judge Sherlock erred.

Short Answer: (1) Yes, and (2) no.

Affirmed and reversed

Facts: Allen Longsoldier, Jr., an 18-year-old Native American, died from delirium tremens while in custody at the Hill County Detention Center. Longsoldier’s estate brought this case from the Human rights Bureau, alleging discrimination on the basis of race and disability. The hearing officer concluded the counties had not discriminated against Longsoldier. The estate appealed to the Human Rights Commission, which found clear error in the findings and concluded the counties had discriminated and remanded to the hearing officer to determine the appropriate relief.

On remand, the hearing officer found the counties liable to the estate for $300,000 for Longsoldier’s emotional distress. All parties appealed, and the Commission conducted another hearing in July 2013, after which is increased the award to $1.35 million.

The counties petitioned the district court for judicial review.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Judge Sherlock reversed the Commission’s decision and reinstated the hearing officer’s order as the final agency decision. The estate moved to alter or amend, and Judge Reynolds, who assumed jurisdiction after Judge Sherlock’s retirement, concluded Judge Sherlock erred. Both parties appeal, and the Supreme Court affirms Judge Sherlock and reverses Judge Reynolds.

Reasoning: MAPA governs actions before the Human Rights Commission, and provides the proper standard of review of an agency decision. § 2-4-704(2). The standard of review applies to both the district court’s review of the agency decisions and this Court’s review of the district court decision.

Judge Sherlock determined that the Commission never made a finding that the hearing officer’s findings were not based on substantial competent evidence. Thus, Judge Sherlock concluded that the Commission applied an incorrect standard of review. Upon examination of the full record, Judge Sherlock concluded there was substantial credible evidence supporting the hearing officer’s findings that the Counties did not discriminate against Longsoldier. Judge Sherlock found additional procedural errors, which had the “cumulative effect of requiring a reversal.” ¶ 21. He determined that the appropriate resolution was to reinstate the hearing officer’s decision as the final agency decision.

An agency abuses its discretion if it modifies the findings of a hearing officer without first determining that the findings were not supported by substantial evidence. Because the Commission applied the wrong standard of review it abused its discretion.

(2) Judge Reynolds concluded that Judge Sherlock correctly determined that procedural errors in this matter warranted a reversal of the Commission’s order, but further determined that the remedy fashioned by Judge Sherlock was error. His decision to grant the estate’s motion to alter or amend and remand to the Commission was incorrect.