April 20, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: Adverse Inference from Refusal to Testify Properly Applied at Administrative Hearing

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Romero v. Colorado Department of Human Services on Thursday, January 11, 2018.

Colorado State Administrative Procedure Act—Sexual Abuse—Evidentiary Facts—Adverse Inference—Fifth Amendment.

In this administrative law case, the Larimer County Department of Human Services (DHS) made a finding confirming that Romero sexually abused his grandchildren and exposed one grandchild to an injurious environment, which required Romero to be listed in the statewide child abuse registry. Romero appealed DHS’s confirmations pursuant to Colorado’s State Administrative Procedure Act (APA). An administrative law judge (ALJ) concluded in an initial decision that the preponderance of the evidence did not support DHS’s confirmation decisions. DHS appealed, and the Colorado Department of Human Services (Department) reversed the ALJ’s initial decision, concluding that the evidentiary facts, including an adverse inference based on Romero’s invocation of his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, supported a finding that Romero sexually abused his grandchildren. Romero appealed to the district court, which reversed the Department’s final decision.

On appeal, the Department argued that the district court erred by overruling the Department’s final decision and by restricting the application of the adverse inference to situations where the Department provides an “adequate explanation” of why it has applied the inference. An agency’s determination in a final agency action to apply an adverse inference to a defendant’s invocation of his right to remain silent is an ultimate conclusion of fact under the APA. Consequently, the agency is required, as a matter of law, to make its own determination regarding the adverse inference and can substitute its own judgment for that of the administrative law judge regarding the inference and the weight to give the inference in light of the other evidence presented. To apply the adverse inference for invocation of the right against self-incrimination, a party in a civil case must have been asked questions the answers to which would have been potentially incriminating in a future criminal action, and the party must have invoked his Fifth Amendment rights. There must also have been probative evidence offered against the person claiming the privilege.

It is undisputed that during discovery for the ALJ hearing, DHS deposed Romero and asked him incriminating questions, including whether he touched his grandchildren for his own sexual gratification. It is also undisputed that Romero invoked his Fifth Amendment rights for the entire deposition except for the first few questions. Further, the record is clear that had Romero been called to testify at the ALJ hearing, he would have invoked his Fifth Amendment rights because of the ongoing criminal investigation into the allegations. Here, the Department’s application of the adverse inference was not arbitrary or capricious because it was supported by the record; it considered Romero’s constitutional rights; and it was not contrary to the law on Fifth Amendment adverse inference. Further, there is no authority that supports the district court’s imposition of a duty on the Department to provide an explanation for why it was applying the inference. Accordingly, the district court erred by effectively precluding the Department from making its own determination on the adverse inference.

Romero argued that the district court’s judgment should be upheld because the facts relied on by DHS to support findings of sexual abuse are speculative and do not support the ultimate findings. The Department’s view of the evidence was not speculative or contrary to the weight of the evidence presented to the ALJ.

The district court’s judgment overturning the Department’s final decision was reversed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.