August 24, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: ALJ Should Apply De Novo Review to State Personnel Board Evidentiary Hearing

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Stiles v. Department of Corrections on Thursday, January 24, 2019.

State Personnel Board—Disciplinary Proceedings—Standard of Review.

Stiles was selected for a random drug screening while serving as a full-time correctional officer for the Department of Corrections (DOC). The day after the test, Stiles submitted a confidential incident report to DOC admitting to marijuana use and explaining the extenuating circumstances that led to it, including a bout of insomnia and personal problems. The test results came back positive for THC, the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana. The warden issued a notice of disciplinary action terminating Stiles.

Stiles appealed his termination to the Colorado State Personnel Board (Board). An administrative law judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing and issued an initial decision finding that the warden’s decision was arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to rule or law. Specifically, the ALJ found that the warden had (1) failed to candidly and honestly consider all of the evidence he procured, particularly Stiles’s lack of prior disciplinary history and his extenuating mitigating circumstances; and (2) imposed discipline that was not within the range of reasonable alternatives by failing to consider the disciplinary alternatives set forth in the DOC regulation directed at marijuana use. The ALJ rescinded Stiles’s termination and modified his discipline. On review, the Board adopted the ALJ’s initial decision.

On appeal, the DOC contended that the ALJ employed an incorrect standard of review and improperly reweighed the evidence when he reviewed the disciplinary action. A C.R.S. § 24-50-125(4) hearing is a de novo hearing at which the ALJ makes credibility, factual, and legal findings without deference to the appointing authority. Therefore, the ALJ applied the correct standard of review.

The DOC next contended that the ALJ misapplied the arbitrary and capricious standard in modifying the warden’s decision. Here, the ALJ’s decision and the Board’s order adopting it were supported by the record, including the warden’s failure to properly weigh the mitigating evidence and the absence of any prior discipline and the imposition of the most severe form of discipline for Stiles’s misconduct.

The order was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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