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Andrews v. Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority

Supreme Court of Virginia

June 2, 2016

YVONNE HARRIS ANDREWS
v.
RICHMOND REDEVELOPMENT AND HOUSING AUTHORITY

         FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE CITY OF RICHMOND Melvin R. Hughes, Jr., Judge

         Present: All the Justices

          OPINION

          ELIZABETH A. McCLANAHAN JUSTICE

         Yvonne Harris Andrews challenged the termination of her employment with the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) through RRHA's grievance procedure and a hearing officer ordered her reinstatement. On RRHA's appeal, the circuit court reversed the hearing officer's decision as "'contradictory to law'" under Code § 2.2-3006. In the present appeal, Andrews contends Code § 15.2-1507 is controlling, and under this statute the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear RRHA's appeal. We conclude the circuit court did lack subject matter jurisdiction, but based on the applicable provisions of both Code §§ 2.2-3006 and 15.2-1507, and thus reverse the judgment of the circuit court.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Andrews was employed by RRHA as a senior property manager of a public housing complex in the City of Richmond. RRHA terminated Andrews' employment based on its determination that she had committed several violations of RRHA's Standards of Conduct Policy No. 3.1 ("Standards of Conduct"). Andrews challenged the termination under RRHA's Grievance Policy No. 3.2 ("Grievance Policy") by claiming that RRHA had unfairly applied the Standards of Conduct to her.[1] After exhausting the internal remedies available under the Grievance Policy, Andrews requested a hearing before an administrative hearing officer. Following a three-day hearing, the hearing officer issued a decision ruling that RRHA had improperly applied its personnel policies and procedures, and had thereby acted in bad faith in terminating Andrews' employment. The hearing officer thus ordered that Andrews be reinstated to her former position with full back pay. The hearing officer then advised at the conclusion of her decision that, under the terms of RRHA's Grievance Policy, "[e]ither party may . . . appeal the decision to the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond, Virginia." See RRHA Grievance Policy, Section VII.E. ("Challenges to the Hearing Officer's Decision").

         RRHA, "pursuant to Code § 2.2-3006" of Virginia's State Grievance Procedure (Code §§ 2.2-3000 through -3008) ("State Grievance Procedure"), [2] appealed the hearing officer's decision to the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond. [3] As asserted in RRHA's notice of appeal, "[r]ather than apply RRHA's unambiguous written policies and procedures, the hearing officer unilaterally created new policies and procedures and/or rewrote RRHA's existing policies and procedures and applied those newly created or rewritten requirements. In doing so, the hearing officer's decision exceeded her statutory authority and, therefore, was contradictory to Virginia law." Specifically, RRHA contended that the decision ignored Code § 15.2-1507(A)(10)(a)(6), which, RRHA argued, "limit[ed] [the] hearing officer's authority by requiring that . . . her decision 'be consistent with provisions of law and written policy.'"[4] RRHA made these same assertions in its supporting brief filed with the circuit court and at oral argument. RRHA therefore asked the circuit court to reverse the hearing officer's decision.

         Opposing RRHA's appeal, Andrews argued in its brief and at oral argument that the hearing officer correctly interpreted RRHA's personnel policies and procedures, and in particular RRHA's Standards of Conduct; and that the record supported the hearing officer's findings and disposition of her grievance. Andrews, however, did not argue that the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear RRHA's appeal.

         The circuit court ruled in favor of RRHA and reversed the hearing officer's decision. The court determined that it was "vest[ed] [with] jurisdiction to 'hear the appeal on the record'" under Code § 2.2-3006. The court then ruled that the hearing officer erred in her interpretation and application of RRHA's disputed personnel policies and procedures. In doing so, the court agreed with RRHA that the hearing officer was "required to render a decision 'consistent with provisions of law and written policy'" under Code § 15.2-1507(A)(10)(a)(6); and that "the hearing officer's decision here is 'contradictory to law' under Va. Code § 2.2-3006." Accordingly, the court entered a final order denying the grievance.

         Andrews appealed the circuit court's decision to the Court of Appeals of Virginia challenging the merits of that decision. The Court of Appeals concluded, however, that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to decide the appeal under Code § 17.1-405 and transferred the case to this Court under Code § 8.01-677.1. Andrews then filed a petition for appeal to this Court. There, Andrews raised the additional argument in her first assignment of error that the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider RRHA's appeal of the hearing officer's decision. We granted Andrews this appeal limited solely to the jurisdictional issue.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Raising Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         Andrews did not waive her jurisdictional challenge to the circuit court's decision by raising it for the first time on appeal. "Subject matter jurisdiction is the authority granted to a court by constitution or by statute to adjudicate a class of cases or controversies." Earley v. Landsidle, 257 Va. 365, 371, 514 S.E.2d 153, 156 (1999) (citing Morrison v. Bestler, 239 Va. 166, 169, 387 S.E.2d 753, 755 (1990)). Under settled principles, such jurisdiction "cannot be conferred on the court by the litigants" and a challenge to it "cannot be waived." Virginian-Pilot Media Cos. v. Dow Jones & Co., 280 Va. 464, 468, 698 S.E.2d 900, 902 (2010) (citing In re: Commonwealth, 278 Va. 1, 11, 677 S.E.2d 236, 240 (2009)). Furthermore, "lack of subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time, in any manner, before any court, or by the court itself." Nelson v. Warden of the Keen Mt. Corr. Ctr., 262 Va. 276, 281, 552 S.E.2d 73, 75 (2001) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see Humphreys v. Commonwealth, 186 Va. 765, 772, 43 S.E.2d 890, 893 (1947) (same).

         B. Standard of Review

         The present dispute over subject matter jurisdiction concerning whether the circuit court had the statutory authority to entertain RRHA's grievance appeal presents an issue of law, which we review de novo. See Glasser & Glasser, PLC v. Jack Bays, Inc., 285 Va. 358, 369, 741 S.E.2d 599, 604 (2013) (challenge to trial court's subject matter jurisdiction involved an issue of law subject to de novo review); see also REVI, LLC v. Chicago Title. Ins. Co., 290 Va. 203, 208, 776 S.E.2d 808, 810 (2015) (question of statutory interpretation is subject to de novo review (citing Eberhardt v. Fairfax County Emples. Ret. Sys. Bd. of Trs., 283 Va. 190, ...


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