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Stewart v. State, Department of Employment Security

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

June 14, 2018

CYNTHIA STEWART, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF WASHINGTON, DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT SECURITY, Respondent.

          YU, J.

         Cynthia Stewart petitioned for judicial review of an administrative decision that she is ineligible for unemployment benefits. Her petition is not subject to the procedural statutes in the Employment Security Act (ESA), Title 50 RCW, which apply only to administrative review. Instead, her petition for judicial review is governed by the procedural statutes in the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), chapter 34.05 RCW. And pursuant to the APA, Stewart did not timely serve her petition on the Employment Security Department (ESD). She therefore failed to invoke the superior court's appellate jurisdiction as prescribed by law, and the court correctly recognized that it was required to dismiss this case. We affirm.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Stewart suffers from migraine headaches and takes prescription medication to help manage her symptoms. Her former employer fired Stewart after she "came to work impaired due to prescription narcotics for the second time in a six-month period." Admin. R. at 189. Stewart's application for unemployment benefits was initially granted, but her former employer appealed, and an administrative law judge reversed. Stewart petitioned for review by the ESD commissioner, who affirmed that Stewart was ineligible for unemployment benefits.

         Stewart then petitioned for judicial review of the commissioner's decision in superior court. She attempted to serve ESD by sending a copy of her petition by mail, but ESD did not receive it until 31 days after the commissioner's decision. Many months after appearing in the superior court proceeding, ESD moved to dismiss, contending that Stewart's service on ESD was untimely pursuant to RCW 34.05.542 and WAC 192-04-210. The trial court granted the motion, concluding that Stewart's service on ESD was completed 1 day too late and that dismissal was mandatory. Stewart sought direct review by this court, which we granted.

         ISSUES

         A. Did Stewart timely serve her petition for judicial review on ESD?

         B. If not, was Stewart's petition subject to mandatory dismissal?

         ANALYSIS

         Since the 1930s, our legislature has maintained an unemployment compensation program "to prevent [the] spread and to lighten [the] burden" of "economic insecurity due to unemployment." RCW 50.01.010. The ESA provides substantive rules about which unemployed workers are eligible for benefits and the amount of benefits to be paid. It also includes specific procedural statutes for administering Washington's unemployment compensation program.

         Among other things, these procedural statutes require multiple levels of administrative review of initial benefits decisions before the parties are permitted to seek judicial review of those decisions in superior court. Briefly, ESD, as the executive branch's designated administrative agency, makes the initial determination about eligibility and benefits. RCW 50.08.010. Then the claimant or employer may seek administrative review by an "appeal tribunal" (an appointed administrative law judge). RCW 50.32.010, .040. If any party disagrees with the decision of the administrative law judge, he or she may seek further administrative review by the ESD commissioner. RCW 50.32.070-.080. Only after the commissioner issues a decision may the parties seek judicial review. RCW 50.32.090, .120.

         In this case, Stewart petitioned for judicial review of the ESD commissioner's decision in superior court, and she mailed a copy of her petition to ESD. We must decide whether this mailing constituted timely service on ESD and, if not, whether the superior court properly dismissed this case.

         A. Stewart's petition was not timely served on ESD

         As explained below, Stewart timely served her petition for review on ESD if, and only if, the ESA's procedural statutes apply in this context. Thus, the narrow, statutory question presented is whether the ESA's procedural rules apply when a party seeks judicial review of a commissioner's decision about a claimant's eligibility for unemployment benefits. We hold that they do not and, therefore, that Stewart did not timely serve her petition on ESD.

         Pursuant to the APA, in order to timely perfect her appeal, Stewart was required to serve her petition on ESD "within thirty days after the agency action." RCW 34.05.542(3). The APA explicitly provides that "[s]ervice of the petition on the agency shall be by delivery.'' RCW 34.05.542(4) (emphasis added). "Delivery" for these purposes "shall be deemed to have been made when a copy of the petition for judicial review has been received by the Commissioner's Office."[1]WAC 192-04-210 (emphasis added). It is undisputed that Stewart's petition was not actually received by ESD until 1 day after the 30-day deadline expired. Therefore, in accordance with the APA, service was untimely.

         However, Stewart did put a copy of her petition addressed to ESD in the mail within the 30-day time limit, and the ESA's procedural statutes provide that a mailed petition is deemed "received" on the date it is postmarked. RCW 50.32.025(1). Therefore, service would be timely if the ESA's procedural statutes applied in this context. Whether they do is a question of statutory interpretation subject to de novo review. Dep't of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wn.2d 1, 9, 43 P.3d 4(2002).

         According to the plain meaning of the relevant statutes, the ESA does not apply. Moreover, the legislative history shows that the statutes' plain meaning accurately reflects the legislature's intent. We therefore hold that the APA applies and RCW 50.32.025 does not, so Stewart did not timely serve her petition on ESD.

         1. The statutes' plain meaning requires us to apply the APA

         As Stewart correctly points out, the isolated language of RCW 50.32.025 could suggest that it applies here because that statute provides in general terms that it applies to a "petition from a . . . commissioner's decision." But we must consider the meaning of this language "from all that the Legislature has said in the statute and related statutes which disclose legislative intent about the provision in question." Campbell & Gwinn, 146 Wn.2d at 11. In this case, related statutes make it clear that RCW 50.32.025 applies only to petitions for administrative review of a commissioner's decision. Petitions for judicial review are governed solely by the APA.

         The ESA specifically provides that "[a]ny decision of the commissioner involving a review of an appeal tribunal decision, in the absence of a petition therefrom as provided in chapter 34.05 RCW, becomes final thirty days after service." RCW 50.32.090 (emphasis added). It further provides that "[j]udicial review of a decision of the commissioner involving the review of an appeals tribunal decision may be had only in accordance with the procedural requirements of RCW34.05.570" RCW 50.32.120 (emphasis added). Where these more specific statutes apply, they must be given effect over RCW 50.32.025's general provisions. Residents Opposed to Kittitas Turbines v. State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, 165 Wn.2d 275, 309, 197 P.3d 1153 (2008). And according to the plain meaning of these specific statutes, the APA governs the procedure for judicial review.[2] This is entirely consistent with the legislature's pronouncement that the APA "establishes the exclusive means of judicial review of agency action." RCW 34.05.510.

         In this case, Stewart indisputably sought "[j]udicial review of a decision of the commissioner involving the review of an appeals tribunal decision." RCW 50.32.120. Therefore, the specific provisions of RCW 50.32.090 and .120 apply. And according to the plain meaning of those statutes, "[j]udicial review of a final administrative decision of the Commissioner of the Employment Security Department is governed by the Washington ...


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