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State, Department of Corrections v. Ludwick

Supreme Court of Nevada

May 2, 2019

THE STATE OF NEVADA, DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Appellant,
v.
BRIAN LUDWICK, AN INDIVIDUAL, Respondent.

          Appeal from a district court order denying a petition tor judicial review in an employment matter. Eighth Judicial District Court, Clark County; Nancy L. Allf, Judge.

          Aaron D. Ford, Attorney General, and Michelle Di Silvestro Alanis, Deputy Attorney General, Carson City, for Appellant.

          Law Office of Daniel Marks and Daniel Marks and Adam Levine, Las Vegas, for Respondent.

          BEFORE HARDESTY, STIGLICH and SILVER, JJ.

          OPINION

          SILVER, J.

         After appellant Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) terminated respondent Brian Ludwick's employment for a first-time offense, Ludwick was reinstated by a hearing officer on administrative appeal. At issue is whether the hearing officer erred in finding that NDOC's decision to terminate was improper. We hold that the hearing officer erred by relying, even if only in part, on a regulation that the State Personnel Commission (Commission) had not approved as statutorily required. The hearing officer also did not properly consider, as addressed in our recent opinion O'Keefe v. State, Department of Motor Vehicles, 134 Nev., Adv. Op. 92, 431 P.3d 350 (2018), [1] whether Ludwick's actions constituted violations of the valid regulations NDOC charged him with violating and, if so, whether those violations warranted termination as a first-time disciplinary measure. Accordingly, we reverse the district court's denial of NDOC's petition for judicial review and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ludwick worked for NDOC as a correctional officer. During his employment, he qualified for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 (2012), due to hypertension. In the more than two years Ludwick worked for NDOC, he had no disciplinary history.

         On the day of the incident for which Ludwick was terminated, Ludwick was assigned to Unit 1 at the correctional facility. Unit 1 houses inmates returning from solitary confinement and tends to have more violent incidents than any other unit. The mandated minimum staffing for Unit 1 at the time was two officers, but three officers were assigned to Unit 1 on that day. During his shift, Ludwick attempted to contact his supervisor to inform him that he was not feeling well, but could not get ahold of him. Ludwick then left Unit 1, without prior permission, to speak to his supervisor in person. Although the parties dispute the specifics of the conversation that ensued, Ludwick ultimately left work on FMLA leave. The supervisor subsequently generated a report stating that Ludwick neglected his duty and abandoned his post without authorization when he left Unit 1.

         After an internal investigation into the supervisor's report, NDOC charged Ludwick with violating NAC 284.650(1) (activity incompatible with employee's conditions of employment), NAC 284.650(3) (violating or endangering the security of the institution), NAC 284.650(7) (inexcusable neglect of duty), and NDOC's Administrative Regulation (AR) 339.05.15 (neglect of duty-leaving an assigned post while on duty without authorization of a supervisor). NDOC initially recommended a five-day suspension but ultimately decided to terminate Ludwick for consistency purposes, as other employees who had violated AR 339 were terminated.

         Ludwick administratively challenged NDOC's decision and, following a hearing, the hearing officer overturned the termination. The hearing officer agreed with NDOC that "Ludwick engaged in inexcusable neglect by leaving his post without the prior permission of a supervisor." The hearing officer found that termination of employment, however, was too harsh a penalty, as Ludwick had no prior discipline and no incidents arose in Unit 1 after Ludwick left. The hearing officer also disagreed with NDOC's argument that Ludwick's leaving Unit 1 without prior approval constituted a serious security risk, as the minimum staffing requirements for the unit were still met and no one was assigned to replace Ludwick in Unit 1 after he left for the day. Finding that "some discipline" was still required because Ludwick "in fact violate[d] a very important safety and security policy by leaving his post without prior authorization from a supervisor/' the hearing officer ordered that Ludwick be suspended for not more than 30 days. The district court denied NDOC's subsequent petition for judicial review and this appeal followed.

         DISCUSSION

         "When reviewing a district court's denial of a petition for judicial review of an agency decision, this court engages in the same analysis as the district court." Taylor v. State, Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 129 Nev. 928, 930, 314 P.3d 949, 951 (2013) (quoting Rio All Suite Hotel & Casino v. Phillips, 126 Nev. 346, 349, 240 P.3d 2, 4 (2010)). Thus, pursuant to Nevada's Administrative Procedure Act (NAPA), we review the hearing officer's decision to determine whether it is clearly erroneous, arbitrary or capricious, or affected by an error of law. NRS 233B. 135(3). In doing so, we review questions of law de novo but "defer[ ] to [a hearing officer's] interpretation of its governing statutes or regulations if the interpretation is within the language of the statute." Taylor, 129 Nev. at 930, 314 P.3d at 951 (quoting Dutchess Bus. Servs., Inc. v. Nev. State Bd. of Pharmacy, 124 Nev. 701, 709, 191 P.3d 1159, 1165 (2008)).

         The hearing officer's review of NDOC's ...


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