Merit Decision: How To Perfect an Appeal from a Decision of the Unemployment Compensation Review Commission. Pryor v. Dir., Ohio Dept. of Job & Family Servs.

On May 11, 2016, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in Pryor v. Dir., Ohio Dept. of Job & Family Servs., Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-2907. In a 5-2 opinion written by Justice French, the court held that to perfect an appeal from a decision of the Unemployment Compensation Review Commission, pursuant to R.C. 4141.282, the appellant need only timely file a notice of appeal to vest jurisdiction in the common pleas court, and does not need to name all interested parties in the notice of appeal. The court also held that to satisfy the procedural requirements of R.C. 4141.282(D), and trigger the appeal period, the commission must expressly identify interested parties in its decision, and not just list them as parties receiving a copy of the decision.  Chief Justice O’Connor and Justice O’Donnell dissented. The case was argued January 27, 2016.

Case Background and Procedural Posture

Marcus Pryor joined the army as a combat medic in January 2011, but was honorably discharged before his term ended so he could enter an officer-training program. Pryor applied to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (“ODJFS”) for unemployment compensation.  Initially, ODJFS granted the benefits, but after an appeal by the Army, the Director of ODJFS issued a redetermination disallowing the benefits, and ordering Pryor to return $10,800 in overpaid benefits.

Pryor appealed the re-determination to the Unemployment Compensation Review Commission, which held a hearing on the matter. The Army did not participate in the hearing. The hearing officer upheld the Director’s re-determination and repayment requirement. On July 24, 2013, the commission issued a decision denying Pryor’s request to review the hearing officer’s finding. The commission’s decision explained Pryor’s appeal rights, including naming of all interested parties as appellees, but nowhere states who other than ODJFS is an interested party.

Pryor timely appealed to the Summit County Court of Common Pleas, and instructed the clerk to serve the complaint on the Director of ODJSF and the Department of the Army, but did not name the Department of the Army in his notice of appeal. Because of his failure to name the Army as an interested party in his notice of appeal, the trial court dismissed Pryor’s motion for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Pryor appealed this decision to the Ninth District Court of Appeals. In a unanimous opinion, the Ninth District found that the plain language of R.C. 4141.282(C) vests jurisdiction in a trial court so long as a timely appeal is filed, and any defects in the notice could be addressed by the appropriate rules of civil procedure. The appeals court acknowledged its decision conflicted with those of a number of courts of appeals (those are listed here) and certified this conflict:

“When appealing an unemployment compensation decision to the trial court, are the requirements contained in R.C. 4141.282(D), which explains how to name the parties, mandatory requirements necessary to perfect the appeal and vest the trial court with jurisdiction?”

This case was also accepted on discretionary appeal, and the cases were consolidated.

Read the oral argument preview of this case here and an analysis of the argument here.

Key Statutes and Precedent

R.C. 4141.282 (Appeal to Common Pleas Court from Final Decision of Unemployment Review Commission)

(C) Perfecting the Appeal

The timely filing of the notice of appeal shall be the only act required to perfect the appeal and vest jurisdiction in the court. The notice of appeal shall identify the decision appealed from.

(D) Interested Parties

The commission shall provide on its final decision the names and addresses of all interested parties. The appellant shall name all interested parties as appellees in the notice of appeal. The director of job and family services is always an interested party and shall be named as an appellee in the notice of appeal.

R.C. 4141.01 (I) “Interested party” means the director and any party to whom notice of a determination of an application for benefit rights or a claim for benefits is required to be given under section 4141.28 of the Revised Code.

Zier v. Bur. of Unemp. Comp., 151 Ohio St. 123, (1949) (An appeal based on a statute can only be perfected in the mode prescribed by the statute. Under earlier version of unemployment compensation appeal statute, party-naming non-jurisdictional.)

Nucorp, Inc. v. Montgomery Cty. Bd. of Revision, 64 Ohio St.2d 20, 412 N.E.2d 947 (1980) (declining to find or enforce jurisdictional barriers not clearly statutorily or constitutionally mandated).

Hughes v. Ohio Dept. of Commerce, 2007-Ohio-2877 (an agency must strictly comply with the procedural requirements of R.C. 119.09 for serving the final order of adjudication upon the affected party before the appeal period can commence. Paragraph one of the syllabus.)

Spencer v. Freight Handlers, Inc., 2012-Ohio-880 (Statutory requirements that a party appealing from an Industrial Commission order name the administrator of the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation as a party to the appeal and serve the administrator with the notice of appeal are not jurisdictional requirements.)

Merit Decision

Executive Summary

The question before the court was how to perfect an appeal from the Unemployment Review Commission to the court of common pleas. This involves the interpretation of R.C. 4141.282 (C) and (D). To the majority, the timely filing of a notice of appeal under subsection (C) is the only jurisdictional requirement necessary to perfect an appeal under R.C. 4141.282. To the dissent, subsection (D) requires all interested parties be named in the notice of appeal to vest jurisdiction in the common pleas court. That’s about it.

Analysis

When the basis for an appeal is statutory, the appeal can only be perfected in the manner the statute provides. (All the justices can probably agree with that.)  The specific issue here is whether R.C. 4141.282 requires an appellant to name all interested parties in the notice of appeal to invoke the jurisdiction of the common pleas court.  The majority and dissent disagree on this.

Statutory Interpretation

R.C. 4141.282 (C) doesn’t need any interpretation, writes Justice French, because it is plain and unambiguous.  The statute clearly states that the timely filing of the notice of appeal is the only jurisdictional requirement to perfect an appeal.  Only means only. And the dissent is incorrect to interpret the word “shall” in R.C. 4141.282(D), the party-naming section, as an additional jurisdictional requirement.  That word “only” in the first sentence of subsection (C) precludes any further jurisdictional requirements.

R.C. 4141.282 imposes various procedural requirements, of which the naming of interested parties is one.  But even if mandatory, not all procedural requirements are jurisdictional.  Failure to comply with the party naming requirement could result in a dismissal, but not for lack of jurisdiction, which is the only issue before the court in this case.

The Commission’s Failure to Identify All Interested Parties

One of the procedural requirements imposed by R.C. 4141.282(D) is the identification of interested parties, as such.  While the commission’s July 24, 2013 decision upholding the denial of benefits lists parties who received the report—Pryor, the Army, and the director of ODJFS—the decision did not expressly identify them as interested parties who must be named in the notice of appeal. Thus the commission’s decision failed to meet the procedural requirements of R.C. 4141.282(D) because it did not identify the Army as an interested party.  Just listing the parties who are to get a copy of the decision isn’t good enough. As a result of this finding, Pryor’s 30-day appeal period never began. Once the commission issues a proper decision, Pryor will have thirty days to re-file his notice of appeal in the appropriate common pleas court. (I’m betting Pryor will name the Army anyway in his notice of appeal this time.)

Case Resolution

The court of appeals decision was reversed and the case was remanded to the commission to issue a decision that complies with R.C. 4141.282(D).

Chief Justice O’Connor’s Dissent

The Chief accuses the majority of using two different standards in its interpretation of subsections (C) and (D) of the statute.

Just as the majority holds that “only” means “only” in subsection (C) of the statute, the Chief holds that “shall” means “shall” in subsection (D). Subsection (D) required the commission to provide the names and addresses of all interested parties—Pryor, ODJFS, and the Army—in its final decision.  The commission fully complied with this requirement.  The statute also required Pryor to name all interested parties in his notice of appeal.  He failed to name the Army in his notice of appeal, and thus failed to comply with a mandatory requirement. O’Connor would find it unfair and contrary to law to require strict compliance from the commission, but not from Pryor. “Shall” applies equally to both sides.

The Chief also takes the majority to task for requiring the commission specifically to identify the interested parties as such, when that requirement is not supported by any language in the statute, Pryor did not argue for this additional requirement, nor was it raised in the certified conflict. “The majority overreaches its limited role in statutory interpretation to reach its desired outcome,” she wrote.

Justice O’Donnell’s Dissent

Justice O’Donnell also dissented, without opinion, but did not join the Chief’s dissent. He would reverse the judgment of the Ninth District Court of Appeals and reinstate the judgment of the common pleas court.

Case Syllabus

None

Concluding Observations

Here’s what I wrote after oral argument:

“Like a win for Pryor, despite a one-Justice crusade by Chief Justice O’Connor, in support of the Director’s position.

“Despite a fifty minute argument, the basic disagreement here is very simple-whether compliance with R.C. 4141.282 (C), which requires timely filing the notice of appeal and identifying the decision appealed from, is good enough to vest jurisdiction in the common pleas court, or whether R.C. 4141.182(D) must be met, which requires the appellant to name all interested parties as appellees in the notice of appeal.

“While I suspect the legislature may well have intended for the requirements of subsection (D) to be met for jurisdiction to vest, I think the way the statute is written, and in particular, the use of the heading “Perfecting the Appeal” in Subsection (C), and the specific language, “the timely filing of the notice of appeal shall be the only act required to perfect the appeal and vest jurisdiction in the court” is going to persuade a majority of the justices that literal compliance with Subsection (C) is enough to perfect the appeal and vest jurisdiction in the common pleas court. This is what Pryor did, and what he argued. This was also the holding of the court of appeals.

“Justice French seemed most strongly supportive of this position. She made the point about compliance with Subsection (C), albeit in a question, first thing out of the box. She really pressed on how and where a claimant could even ascertain who was an interested party. When counsel for the Director answered one of the Chief’s questions that it was a “no-brainer that the employer is part of the appeal,” French interrupted him in the sharpest tone I recall hearing from her, saying, “wait a minute, I don’t think it’s a no brainer.”  Justice French was very critical of where a claimant can find the list of interested parties, and how difficult it is to figure this out.  I suspect the Commission may change its paperwork on this, even if the Director prevails.

“Justice O’Donnell also seemed to find compliance with subsection (C) enough, particularly in light of the heading in that statute, “perfecting the notice of appeal.” And I think Justices Pfeifer and Lanzinger (author of the much referenced Spencer decision) will go along with this position. (Professor’s note—I was wrong about Justice O’Donnell’s position.)

“The Chief clearly believes Pryor had to name the Department of the Army as an appellee in his notice of appeal to vest jurisdiction in the common pleas court in this case, per Subsection (D), and failed to do so. The Chief pretty much single handedly carried the questioning for this position. I’d say Pryor’s service in the Army served him well, in withstanding a relentless barrage of questions from the Chief in good stead and good grace.  It was clear that the panel admired and liked him (just recently sworn in as a lawyer in November of 2015.) And his amicus counsel supplemented his argument quite nicely.”

Justice French’s majority opinion for the court very much mirrored her questions at oral argument. Her very first question out of the box was to ask why the language in subsection C, which she quoted, didn’t just simply answer the question at issue. She also asked whether the commission was required to specifically identify the interested parties as such in its final decision, and when told no, she asked why the commission shouldn’t have to do that. Those two questions, alone, essentially sum up the majority opinion.

The Chief, on the other hand, was totally hostile to Pryor’s argument, throughout. The positions of the Director, as argued by a Deputy Solicitor, forms the basis of her dissent.

So, essentially, Pryor now gets to start over, and the blog will follow his case on remand.  Pryor, newly sworn in as a lawyer when he argued his case pro se, now works at the Cleveland firm of Tucker Ellis, where his profile states, “Marcus has argued and won in front of the Ohio Supreme Court.” Nicely done!

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