March 18, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: No Violation of Open Meetings Law in Establishing Process to Refer Physicians for Disciplinary Investigations Related to MMJ Prescriptions

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in John Doe No. 1-9 v. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Thursday, July 26, 2018.

Open Meetings LawState Public BodyAdministrative Procedure Act—Colorado Open Records Act—Attorney Fees and CostsMedical MarijuanaC.R.S. § 24-4-106(8)—Final Agency Action.

The Colorado Constitution authorizes physicians to recommend the medical use of marijuana for patients with debilitating medical conditions. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) is designated as “the state health agency” to administer Colorado’s medical marijuana program and is required to promulgate rules to administer the program. CDPHE created the medical marijuana registry to meet its requirement to establish a confidential registry of patients who are entitled to receive medical marijuana cards.

CDPHE has discretion to refer physicians to the Colorado Medical Board (the Board) for violations of medical marijuana laws. The Board, which is entirely separate from CDPHE and is housed under the Department of Regulatory Agencies, determines whether such violations exist.

Wolk, the CDPHE executive director, and Riggins, the state registrar and director of the Medical Marijuana Registry, (collectively, the Department) referred John Does 1 through 9 (collectively, the Doctors) to the Board for investigation of unprofessional conduct involving the Doctors’ certification of patients for the use of medical marijuana. The Department based its referrals on its medical marijuana policy (the Policy).

The Doctors then submitted Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) requests to the Department and the Board, seeking public records about, among other things, the Policy. The Department responded to the request, but withheld certain documents. The Doctors then brought this action against the Department and the Board, alleging violations of Colorado’s Open Meetings Law (OML) and the State Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. The district court dismissed the claims against the Board and granted summary judgment on the Doctors’ OML and APA claims against the Department and, as a result, declared the Policy void.

On appeal, the Department argued for reversal of the summary judgment, contending that the entire agency cannot constitute a “state public body” under the OML, so the OML doesn’t apply. Under the OML’s plain language, the Department is not a state public body. Thus, the district court erred in granting summary judgment on the Doctors’ OML claim against the Board.

The Doctors challenged the dismissal of their OML claim against the Board. However, they did not allege that the Board had authority to enact or implement the Policy, or that it had enacted the Policy. Thus, even accepting as true the Doctors’ allegations that Board employees attended meetings to discuss and develop the Policy, the complaint failed to allege facts showing a link between the meetings and the Board’s policy-making powers. Thus, the Board is not subject to the OML.

The Doctors also challenged the denial of their request for attorney fees and costs under the OML. Given the case disposition, the court of appeals rejected the request.

The Department also argued that the district court erred in finding that the APA applied to the Department referrals because they are not a “final agency action” under the APA. Subject to an exception under C.R.S. § 24-4-106(8), only final agency action is subject to review. The referrals were not final; they didn’t determine anything, and it is uncertain whether an investigation will result in a finding of a violation or any other action. The Doctors sought to enjoin the referrals under the C.R.S. § 24-4-106(8) exception, which allows interlocutory review of agency actions in which a party will suffer irreparable harm. But to fit under the exception, the referrals must be a “proceeding” under the APA, which they are not. The district court erred in granting summary judgment on the Doctors’ APA claims against the Department based on the referrals.

The Doctors further argued that the Policy itself was a final agency action that did not comply with the APA’s rulemaking requirements. Here, the Policy was not binding and did not confer any power the Department did not already have, so it fell within the APA’s exception to the notice and hearing rulemaking requirements.

The Doctors also objected to the dismissal of the APA claims against the Board. However, they developed no argument in their opening brief about how the APA applies to the Board, and their discussion of the APA in their reply brief was too late.

The Doctors next argued that the district court erred in denying an award for attorney fees and costs associated with their request to obtain access to public documents under CORA. A party requesting an order to show cause for the disclosure of public records is not entitled to attorney fees and costs if the requesting party has filed a lawsuit against a state public body and the records relate to the pending litigation and are otherwise discoverable under the rules of civil procedure, which was the case here. The district court did not err in denying attorney fees and costs under CORA.

The judgment was affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case was remanded with directions.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.