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Miller v. Board of County Commissioners

Supreme Court of Kansas

March 10, 2017

Robert K. Miller, Appellant,
v.
Board of County Commissioners, Wabaunsee County, Kansas, Appellee.

          SYLLABUS

         1. When a statute is plain and unambiguous, the court must give effect to its express language, rather than determine what the law should or should not be. A court determines legislative intent by first applying the meaning of the statute's text to a specific situation at issue. A court does not read into the statute words not readily found there.

         2. When the language of a statute is unclear or ambiguous a court employs the canons of statutory construction, consults legislative history, or considers other background information to ascertain the statute's meaning.

         3. To construe the words of a statute, a court considers the language and design of the entire statute.

         4. Statutes dealing with the same subject-those that are in pari materia-should be interpreted harmoniously when possible.

          5. K.S.A. 2014 Supp. 19-431 does not give a board of county commissioners the authority to immediately end an appraiser's employment, salary, or benefits. Rather, it gives a board of county commissioners the authority to temporarily relieve an appraiser of his or her duties until the director of property valuation decides the appraiser's permanent removal is appropriate, or the appraiser chooses not to request review by the director of property valuation within the statutorily prescribed time limit.

         Review of the judgment of the Court of Appeals in 51 Kan.App.2d 644, 352 P.3d 1053 (2015).

         Appeal from Wabaunsee County District Court; Jeffrey R. Elder, judge.

          Robert J. Perry, of Auburn, argued the cause and was on the briefs for appellant.

          Terelle A. Mock, of Fisher, Patterson, Sayler & Smith, L.L.P., of Topeka, argued the cause, and Teresa L. Watson and Sarah A. Morse, of the same firm, were with her on the briefs for appellee.

          OPINION

          Malone, J.

         The facts of this case, as they pertain to the way Miller's employment ended, are not in dispute. The Wabaunsee Board of County Commissioners (Board) appointed Robert K. Miller to serve a 4-year term as Wabaunsee County Appraiser in 2009. His appointment was to last from July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2013.

         Upon Miller's appointment, he and the Board signed an employment contract that, in part, set forth the proceedings the Board would follow in the event it had to discipline Miller.

          Nearly 2 years into Miller's appointment, on March 14, 2011, the Board met with Miller in an executive session. The Board handed Miller a written note that outlined concerns the Board had about Miller's job performance and informed Miller he could resign or he would be terminated, and that he had until the next week to make his decision. Miller said he would not resign.

         On March 21, 2011, the Board again met with Miller in executive session. After this executive session, the Board voted to terminate Miller and stop paying his salary and benefits.

         Miller exercised his statutory right under K.S.A. 2014 Supp. 19-431 to have his termination reviewed in an administrative hearing by the director of property valuation (PVD). An administrative law judge (ALJ) was designated to preside over the case pursuant to K.S.A. 77-514. The ALJ heard witnesses and considered evidence over a 3-day hearing. On November 30, 2011, the ALJ ordered the Board to reinstate Miller and award back pay because the Board had failed to follow the disciplinary procedure outlined in the employment contract before terminating Miller.

         The Board appealed the decision to the district court, contending that the ALJ should have used a deferential standard of review and that the ALJ did not have authority to consider the employee disciplinary policy outlined in the employment contract because this was not a breach of contract claim. The district court vacated the decision and remanded the case with orders for the ALJ to review the termination without regard for the employment contract and in accordance with the provisions of K.S.A. 2014 Supp. 19-431.

         On October 9, 2013, the ALJ considered the evidence again, this time without regard to the Board's failure to comply with the employment contract. The ALJ gave deference to the Board's decision and upheld Miller's termination.

          Miller appealed this second ALJ decision to the district court, arguing his termination was not in accordance with K.S.A. 2014 Supp. 19-431 because the Board did not have the final authority to terminate a county appraiser. He also argued the ALJ's decision conflicted with our decision in Kennedy v. Board of Shawnee County Comm'rs, 264 Kan. 776, 958 P.2d 637 (1998); the ALJ employed the wrong standard of review when she gave deference to the Board's decision; and, the ALJ should have been permitted to consider the contract between the parties in making her decision. The district court disagreed with Miller and affirmed the termination. Miller then appealed to the Court of Appeals, where the majority affirmed the district court. Judge Atcheson dissented, concluding the ALJ should have applied a de novo-rather than a deferential-standard of review, and Miller was denied due process after his dismissal. Miller v. Board of Wabaunsee County Comm'rs, 51 Kan.App.2d 644, 352 P.3d 1053 (2015).

         We resolve this case in favor of Miller under his first argument that K.S.A. 2014 Supp. 19-431 did not grant the Board the final authority to terminate his employment and thereby end his salary and benefits. Thus, we do not need to reach his remaining arguments other than to comment briefly on our holding in Kennedy, 264 Kan. 776.

         Accordingly, we reverse the majority decision of the Court of Appeals, vacate the judgment of the district court, and remand the case with directions.

         ANALYSIS

         Miller argues that K.S.A. 2014 Supp. 19-431 did not give the Board the authority to end his employment, salary, and benefits.

          Standard of Review and Principles of ...


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