This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Washington County Housing and Redevelopment Authority
Brian E. Cote, Cote Law Firm, Ltd., 550A Butler Square, 100 North Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55403 (for relator)
Regina M. Chu, Regina M. Chu, PA, Suite 500, 701 Fourth Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55415 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge, Randall, Judge, and Stoneburner, Judge.
By writ of certiorari, relator Linda Sperry seeks review of the decision of the Washington County Housing and Redevelopment Authority Board affirming her termination from employment. Sperry argues that the decision was arbitrary, unreasonable, and not supported by substantial evidence. She also claims that her due process rights were violated. We affirm.
WHRA’s executive director, Dave Engstrom, informed Sperry, who had worked for WHRA since 1993, that she was being laid off due to a “curtailment of work” and WHRA’s “financial situation.” At the time she was laid off, Sperry held the position of administrative assistant.
After receiving notice of her layoff, Sperry followed the three-step grievance procedures outlined in WHRA’s Personnel Policies and Procedures Manual. Step one requires the employee to submit a grievance report form to the employee’s supervisor. Sperry submitted the form to Engstrom, her supervisor, alleging that she held one of two “support positions” within the agency and that, pursuant to the personnel manual, the other support person, who had less seniority, should have been laid off. Engstrom denied Sperry’s grievance. Sperry then demanded a hearing before the executive director (who, at the time, was Engstrom) according to step two of the grievance procedure. Sperry represented herself at this hearing. She read a prepared statement, presented exhibits, and questioned WHRA’s witnesses. At this hearing, Sperry again contended that WHRA has two employees who perform clerical support positions. Although an organizational chart places the support employees in separate departments, Sperry claims that the positions are both clerical and, because she was the senior support person, she should not have been laid off. Sperry also argued that the termination process violated her constitutional right to due process, specifically by denying her a hearing before an impartial tribunal, because she was required to file the grievance with the very person who made the decision to terminate her position. Engstrom again denied Sperry’s grievance.
Sperry appealed Engstrom’s decision by requesting a hearing before the Board pursuant to step three of the grievance procedure. According to the grievance policy, the Board’s review is limited to the record of the step-two hearing and the Board may reverse the decision of the executive director only on a finding that the decision was arbitrary and capricious. Sperry was given an opportunity to file “corrections” to the record of the step-two hearing. She filed a ten-page document, alleging for the first time that the real reason for her termination is Engstrom’s personal animosity toward her and that the organization chart introduced at the hearing had not been properly approved by the Board. The Board affirmed Engstrom’s decision. Sperry sought this judicial review of the Board’s decision by writ of certiorari.
In general, administrative agency decisions are presumed to be correct and will not be reversed unless the decision is based on an error of law or the findings are arbitrary, capricious, or unsupported by substantial evidence. CUP Foods, Inc. v. City of Minneapolis, 633 N.W.2d 557, 562 (Minn. App. 2001), review denied (Minn. Nov. 13, 2001). The relator has the burden of proving that the agency’s decision was arbitrary, unreasonable, or without any evidence to support it. Manteuffel v. City of North St. Paul, 538 N.W.2d 727, 729 (Minn. App. 1995).
Sperry claims that the Board’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence.
Substantial evidence is defined as:
1. Such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion;
2. More than a scintilla of evidence;
3. More than some evidence;
4. More than any evidence; and
5. Evidence considered in its entirety.
Cable Communications Bd. v. Nor-West Cable Communications P’ship, 356 N.W.2d
658, 668 (Minn. 1984) (citations omitted).
Sperry contends that the Board’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence because her discharge violated procedures contained in the personnel manual. If a layoff is necessary due to curtailment of work or lack of funds, the personnel manual states that the least senior person “within each department” should be selected first. Controller Lyn Robinson testified that WHRA was facing a $45,000 budget shortfall in March 2000. Robinson testified that he discussed ways to cover this deficit with Engstrom and suggested the elimination of Sperry’s position because a significant portion of her workload was about to expire. Although Sperry alleged that she had other duties, the record supports the Board’s finding that, at the time of her termination, a significant amount of her work was expiring. The Board found that the suggestion to terminate Sperry came from Robinson, not Engstrom. Robinson’s testimony supports this finding.
The Board rejected Sperry’s argument that because she was senior to the other support employee her layoff was improper. The Board noted that Sperry confused the difference between departments and functions. Based on the organization chart, the Board concluded that the other support person worked in the Section 8 and Financial Departments and Sperry, alone, worked in the Administrative Department. The record supports this finding. The personnel manual calls for layoffs to be done by department and not by job function or type. The Board therefore affirmed Engstrom’s conclusion that Sperry’s layoff did not violate the personnel manual because there was no less senior person in Sperry’s one-person department.
The Board rejected Sperry’s argument that the organization chart had not been properly approved by the Board. The Board found that the chart was part of a Public Housing Agency Plan for 2000-2004 that was discussed and approved by the Board on January 25, 2000. Sperry does not dispute that the Board approved the chart, but she argues that chart was “slipped in so Engstrom could select Sperry for lay-off without concern for her greater seniority * * * .” This untimely argument is based only on speculation and is without merit.
The Board concluded that (1) the executive director needed to cover a $45,000 budget shortfall; (2) Sperry was the least-senior person in the Administrative Department; and (3) Sperry was laid off because a significant portion of her workload was about to expire. Because the Board’s decision was based on more than a scintilla of evidence in the record, Sperry has failed to meet her burden of proving that the Board’s findings are not supported by the evidence.
Sperry also contends that the Board’s decision was arbitrary. An agency’s decision is arbitrary and capricious if the decision is “an exercise of the agency’s will, rather than its judgment, or if the decision is based on whim or is devoid of articulated reasons.” CUP Foods, Inc., 633 N.W.2d at 565 (citations omitted). The agency’s decision will be upheld if the agency “furnished any legal and substantial basis for the action taken.” Senior v. City of Edina, 547 N.W.2d 411, 416 (Minn. App. 1996) (citation omitted).
Sperry claims that the Board’s decision was based on its will, rather than judgment, because her discharge was the result of Engstrom’s personal animosity toward her. Sperry, however, did not accuse Engstrom of personal animus at either step one or step two of the grievance procedure. Therefore, evidence of Sperry’s claim of personal animosity was not properly before the Board and the Board did not act arbitrarily in failing to consider this claim. In fact, the Board considered Sperry’s claim but stated that Sperry’s allegations would not have changed the outcome in this case. Despite Sperry’s claims that Engstrom exhibited bias toward her, the Board noted that it was WHRA’s controller, not Engstrom, who suggested that the administrative position be eliminated, and there was no less-senior person in the Administrative Department. The Board stated:
The fact that Mr. Engstrom and Ms. Sperry did not get along, or even that Mr. Engstrom was pleased to terminate Ms. Sperry’s employment, does not change the propriety of the termination.
The Board’s decision was not based on whim nor was it devoid of articulated reasons. Because the Board concluded that WHRA complied with the layoff procedures articulated in the personnel manual, the Board provided a “legal and substantial basis” for its decision to affirm the executive director’s decision. Sperry has failed to meet her burden of proving that the Board’s decision was arbitrary.
Sperry contends that Engstrom’s involvement with both steps one and two of the grievance process violated her due process rights. Parties involved in administrative proceedings are entitled to a decision by an unbiased decision-maker. Buchwald v. Univ. of Minn., 573 N.W.2d 723, 727 (Minn. App. 1998), review denied (Minn. Apr. 14, 1998). We are disturbed by the fact that the same individual who made the termination decision also acted as the decision-maker at two levels of Sperry’s grievance process, especially in light of Sperry’s further allegations of Engstrom’s personal animosity toward her.
In another context, the Minnesota Supreme Court has strongly recommended that school boards hire independent hearing examiners in all employment termination cases. Schmidt v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 1, 349 N.W.2d 563, 567 (Minn. App. 1984) (discussing Ganyo v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 832, 311 N.W.2d 497 (Minn. 1981)). The Idaho Supreme Court, in vacating the termination of a school bus driver’s employment, stated that participation by the person who made the initial termination decision in two levels of a grievance process created “at a minimum, the appearance of bias in the process.” Roberts v. Bd. of Trustees, Pocatello, Sch. Dist. No. 25,11 P.3d 1108, 1112 (Idaho 2000).
Although we are troubled by Sperry’s claims that she was not afforded due process, on the record before us we decline to overturn the Board’s decision. Until she raised the issue of personal animosity, the issues in this case were based on undisputed facts: the need for the layoff and seniority. Sperry does not allege that she was prevented from presenting her claims at any step of the grievance procedure. The Board fully reviewed Sperry’s claims as presented to Engstrom and her additional claims submitted directly to the Board. Consequently, Sperry was given a meaningful opportunity to present her case. See Eisen v. State, Dep’t of Pub. Welfare, 352 N.W.2d 731, 736 (Minn. 1984) (holding that “[t]he fundamental requirement of due process is the opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner”) (quotation omitted).