* This is an unreported opinion, and it may not be cited in any paper, brief, motion, or other document filed in this Court or any other Maryland Court as either precedent within the rule of stare decisis or as persuasive authority. Md. Rule 1-104.
Opinion by REED, J.
In 2012, unable to continue further service as a Deputy First Class with the Cecil County Sheriff's Office as a result of complications from Reynaud's phenomenon,
For the reasons set forth below, we reverse the judgment of the circuit court.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
In January 2012, appellee was referred to physicians at Johns Hopkins Scleroderma Center for an evaluation of Reynaud's after he noticed a progressively worsening "pallor of his distal fingers with cold exposure" for the prior two years. As a canine handler for the Sheriff's Office, appellee was having "significant difficulty performing his job" after he "noticed difficulty holding onto his dog's leash due to [the] numbness in his fingertips."
On November 1, 2012, two separate treating physicians sent letters to the County Department of Human Resources on behalf of appellee, explaining his condition and requesting certain accommodations, such as providing him with a space heater for him to use if the temperature of his work environment dropped below 70 degrees Fahrenheit and allowing his use of "heated gloves" that "may allow him to qualify with a weapon." Four days later, Donna M. Nichols, the Director of the County's Department of Human Resources, replied to appellee as follows:
Dear Mr. Davis:
Following that meeting, Ms. Nichols memorialized their discussion in the following letter, dated December 14, 2012:
Dear Mr. Davis:
Prior to receiving that letter, however, appellee filed the paperwork to officially apply for disability retirement under the Pension Plan on November 27, 2012, explaining that the numbness he experienced placed him in "extremely dangerous situations" where he was "unable to protect [him]self, [his] coworker[s], or citizens," because he was unable to use his standard issued equipment, including his gun, handcuffs, and Taser. Approximately one month later, unable to qualify with his firearm, appellee formally tendered his resignation on December 21, 2012, which was accepted by the County Sheriff on December 26, 2012, and was effective December 28, 2012.
Medical Advisory Board Proceedings
On September 19, 2013, Ms. Nichols, in her capacity as Secretary to the Board of Trustees, sent a "Medical Advisory opinion request" regarding appellee's Application to the Board of Trustees' appointed Medical Advisory Board ("MAB")—the first step in the administrative review process. In that letter, the MAB was told, "[a]s a reminder," of the following "rights and responsibilities," which tracks, verbatim, the pertinent language of Pension Plan § 3.4(b)(1):
According to the Board of Trustees, attached to that letter was (1) appellee's Application, (2) appellee's job description, and (3) appellee's medical records, which consisted of a series of four clinical notes from the specialists from Hopkins that documented the doctors' examinations, diagnosis, and treatment of appellee's condition in the year leading up to his request for accommodations.
On October 5, 2013, Dr. Ashok Subramanian, writing on behalf of the other two members of the MAB, issued the following statement, recommending denial of appellee's Application:
Dear Board of Trustees:
According to appellee, the MAB came to this conclusion without an actual examination by either one of its members or a selected physician on its behalf. No other member signed or initialed the letter, other than Dr. Subramanian. The only record of the other members' decisions appears in an unsigned check-box review form, with the binary options of non-service connected disability benefits being "Recommended" or "Denied," which was provided to the MAB by Ms. Nichols.
Disability Review Board Proceedings
Later that month, the Disability Review Board ("DRB") convened on October 30, 2013, regarding appellee's application. Following the meeting, the DRB issued a written opinion, signed by all three members of the DRB, that stated, in pertinent part:
Based on that recommendation, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Craig W. Whiteford, sent appellee a letter on November 5, 2013, informing him of the Board of Trustees' decision to deny his Application, and his right to appeal that decision and to designate an "authorized representative" to act on his behalf in those proceedings. Appellee exercised these rights two weeks later.
Appeal Proceedings in Front of the Board of Trustees
A hearing on the appeal was eventually held on June 11, 2014, in front of all nine members of the Board of Trustees and a Board-appointed hearing examiner. Rather than arguing the merits of the case, the majority of the hearing was spent discussing the adequacy of the record itself, which was reflected in the hearing examiner's June 20, 2014, written recommendations to the Board of Trustees, wherein he recommended to the Board that the appeal be denied:
Based on that recommendation, the Board of Trustees decided to uphold the DRB's denial of benefits and informed appellee of its decision in a letter dated July 2, 2014.
Circuit Court Proceedings
After appellee petitioned for judicial review, a hearing was held in the circuit court on July 7, 2015. After hearing arguments from both sides, the circuit court decided to "vacate the decision of the Disability [Review] Board and remand this matter to the Disability and Medical Boards for further proceedings consistent with the Pension Plan." The court based its decision on two main findings.
First, the court noted that, "reading [Ms. Nichols' November 5, 2013 letter and the Pension Plan], it doesn't seem to be — his ability to apply for this non-service related disability doesn't seem to be dependent on him accepting or attempting either of these options that are laid out by the [C]ounty," and therefore the County likely erred in denying him benefits for not pursuing either accommodation. Second, the circuit court noted that Dr. Subramanian's October 5, 2013, letter "does not meet the requirements of [Pension Plan] Section 3.4(b)(1), which requires a written opinion outlining the nature, cause, degree of performance and effect of the alleged impairment from the Medical Advisory Board."
Accordingly, the circuit court remanded the matter to the DRB, explaining that it
That same day, the circuit court entered an order consistent with those findings, vacating the denial of the Application and remanding to the "[County's] Disability Board and Medical Board for further proceedings consistent with this [c]ourt's opinion." The following day, appellee sent a letter to the court with a proposed "Amended Order that is more consistent with the opinion [it] rendered from the bench at [the] hearing yesterday in this matter than the Order submitted with the [appellee]'s Memorandum." On July 9, 2015, the court filed the Amended Order, which was identical to the first, but added that the case was being remanded to the "[County]'s Disability Board and Medical Board for a de novo hearing on the merits and further proceedings consistent with this [c]ourt's opinion." (Emphasis added). The Board of Trustees subsequently noted a timely appeal to this Court.
I. CIRCUIT COURT'S DECISION TO VACATE AND REMAND FOR
DE NOVO HEARING
A. Parties' Contentions
The Board of Trustees argues that the circuit court erred in remanding the matter for a de novo hearing on the merits because the court "not only may not evaluate the evidence in the record seeking support for a different conclusion, but also may not reach back for more factual investigation [sic] when, logically, the only reason for such an inquiry would be to reconsider the correctness of the Board of Trustees' decision . . . ." The Board of Trustees contends that "[i]t is clear from the transcript that [the court] believed that the [appellee] must simply prove that he was disabled as a Deputy Sheriff First Class . . . ." However, according to the Board of Trustees, "that is not supported by the record," because the Board believes the Pension Plan "calls for permanent disability within a class of employees, public safety, under the plan." Rather, the Board of Trustees insists that the MAB's decision was sound, and that the DRB "may reasonably rely upon and incorporate the MAB's decision into the basis for denial [sic]." The Board concludes that the court's decision to vacate and remand the matter was "legal error" and an "abuse [of] discretion" because "when viewing the record in its entirety," the Board of Trustees' decision was supported by substantial evidence.
In its reply brief, the Board of Trustees briefly argues that "[t]he [a]ppellee not only desires this Court to take judicial notice of a job description which [sic] is not contained in the record, but implores this Court to make inferences of fact from it which is [sic] beyond the scope of this Court's discretion under Maryland Rule 2-501."
Appellee argues that the Board of Trustees cites no authority for its interpretation of the Pension Plan's application to either every public safety job or just the participant's current job, and further argues that, in any event, the Board's interpretation of the circuit court's reasoning is incorrect. Appellee next asserts that the Board of Trustees has erected a "strawman" regarding appellee's failure to apply for the correctional officer job because, while not in the record, the correctional officer job qualifications are "the very same ones the [a]ppellee failed to meet . . . in his current position." Appellee concludes by arguing, generally, that the circuit court did not err in remanding the matter because the Board of Trustees' decision was "not only not supported by substantial evidence, but [was] premised on erroneous conclusions of law."
B. Standard of Review
We review a circuit court's decision to remand a case to the administrative agency for additional fact-finding under an abuse of discretion standard. See Johnson v. Criminal Injuries Comp. Bd., 145 Md.App. 96, 116 (2002) ("We are therefore persuaded that Judge Byrnes neither erred nor abused his discretion when he remanded the case to the Board for additional fact finding."); Juiliano v. Lion's Manor Nursing Home, 62 Md.App. 145, 156-57 (1985) (holding that the circuit court's remand order was an abuse of discretion because "it had not yet determined whether the evidence supported the agency findings."). "A trial court only `abuses its discretion when it acts without reference to any guiding principles or rules of law or where no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the court.'" Bartlett v. Portfolio Recovery Assocs., LLC, 438 Md. 255, 273 (2014) (citation omitted).
Neither party disputes that the core issue in this case is the sufficiency, vel non, of the record used by the hearing examiner and the Board of Trustees in rendering the decision to deny disability benefits to appellee. Every other issue—such as the availability (and details) of the correctional officer position, appellee's reasons for apparently not pursuing it, and the circumstances surrounding appellee's supposed inability to qualify at the shooting range with the warming gloves—stems from the dearth of evidence before each reviewing body, from the hearing examiner to this Court. In pursuit of a resolution, the hearing examiner and the circuit court took two contrasting routes. The hearing examiner, like the Board of Trustees, lamented the situation and sympathized with appellee, but felt obligated to make a finding on the record as presented. The circuit court, like appellee, felt the lack of evidence ipso facto demonstrated the need for a remand for additional fact-finding. However well-intentioned the circuit court's reasoning may be, we believe the circuit court's decision to remand was in error.
In this case, judicial review of the agency's decision is governed by § 10-222 (1984, 2014 Repl. Vol.) of the State Government Article ("SG").
The other, § 10-222(h), provides:
As the Court of Appeals has noted, the critical distinction between the two provisions is that the former, § 10-222(f), is triggered upon motion by a party before the court has conducted any judicial review, and the latter, § 10-222(h), is triggered after the court conducted judicial review and assessed the agency's decision. See, e.g., Metro Maint. Sys. South, Inc. v. Milburn, 442 Md. 289, 305-07 (2015).
The difficulty presented by the circuit court's remand in this case is that the court remanded the case for taking additional evidence after considering the merits of the case, which means the remand was ordered pursuant to § 10-222(h), but essentially for the purposes of § 10-222(f). Were the remand to have been ordered before the hearing, pursuant to the procedures enumerated in § 10-222(f), this appeal likely would have been dismissed as a non-final, non-appealable judgment, because the circuit court would not have been "divested of its continuing jurisdiction over the case." Anne Arundel Cty v. Rode, 214 Md.App. 702, 715 (2013). However, because no motion was made before the hearing and the court remanded the matter after considering the merits, we examine this case through the lens of a decision rendered pursuant to § 10-222(h).
While the circuit court obviously made a concerted effort to avoid explicitly rendering a decision in favor of either party, we believe the decision it made was in error because it does not appear that the circuit court was reviewing the correct agency's decision. "[I]t is the function of the court on judicial review of an agency's action to review the `final decision' in a contested case." Mehrling v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 371 Md. 40, 60 (2002) (quoting § 10-222(a)(1)). Based on its remarks at the hearing and its subsequent order, the circuit court was clearly evaluating the decisions of the MAB and the DRB, but for the purposes of this case, the "final decision" was that of the Board of Trustees denying appellee's appeal based on the recommendations of the hearing examiner.
Put another way, the circuit court should have decided whether the Board of Trustees' final decision was supported by the evidence provided to its two subordinate decision making bodies, rather than independently evaluating those bodies' decisions themselves. A reviewing court is tasked with deciding whether an agency's decision is supported by substantial evidence, and, in so doing, "[i]t is the function of the reviewing court to review only the materials that were in the record before the agency at the time it made its final decision." Dept. of Labor v. Boardley, 164 Md.App. 404, 415 (2005). Here, the court was presented with the record that was before both the hearing examiner and the Board of Trustees, and, while imperfect, the record still contained some evidence. As a result, the court attempted to draw its own inferences and substituted its judgment for that of the Board of Trustees, thus abusing its discretion in remanding the matter to the DRB for a de novo hearing.
II. CORRECTNESS OF THE BOARD'S DECISION TO AFFIRM THE DENIAL OF BENEFITS
A. Parties' Contentions
The thrust of the Board of Trustees' argument is that the Board's decision was supported by substantial evidence and that the hearing examiner correctly applied the law. Therefore, the Board asserts the circuit court overstepped its authority by disturbing that decision. The Board of Trustees contends that the burden was on appellee to prove that he qualified for disability benefits under the plan, so any deficiency in the record must be attributed to him. The Board asserts that it "should not be forced to re-visit this issue," because it provided appellee with a reasonable accommodation, and appellee had "sufficient opportunity" to accept that accommodation and to later supply evidence to support his claim for benefits. Essentially, the Board of Trustees concedes, albeit implicitly, that the record may be wanting, but, based on the record as it was presented to the Board, argues there was sufficient evidence to support its decision to deny appellee disability benefits.
In response, appellee first argues that the DRB's denial was premised upon an erroneous conclusion of law because "[t]here is no dispute that the [a]ppellee's disability was a non-service connected disability." The appellee contends that, "[s]ince the [DRB]'s denial of the . . . Application was based upon the sole finding that his disability was `non-service connected,' the denial is not sustainable on the [DRB]'s findings or stated reasons." Appellee next argues that the MAB's decision was premised on an erroneous conclusion of law because its recommendation "contains no opinion regarding the nature, cause, degree of permanence[,] . . . [or] effect of the [a]ppellee's impairment," which was statutorily required. Appellee then examines Dr. Subramanian's letter in great detail, arguing that it did not provide substantial evidence for the denial of appellee's benefits, and that "a reasoning mind could not have reasonably denied . . . the Application" based on that letter. Appellee discusses, also at great length, the alternative work arrangements offered by the County, and argues that, "[e]ven though judicial notice was mandated by Maryland Rule 5-201(d), the lower court refused to take notice of the [correctional officer] job description," which he believes would show that the accommodation was not a reasonable alternative.
B. Standard of Review
As the Court of Appeals has explained, our scrutiny following judicial review of an administrative agency decision is "well-known":
Employees' Ret. Sys. of the City of Baltimore v. Dorsey, 430 Md. 100, 110-11 (2013).
As an initial matter, we pause to reiterate which of the several decisions that were made in this case we are now reviewing, as well as the proper scope of that review. Rather than engage in a step-by-step analysis of each of the County medical boards' decisions to determine their correctness, as appellee would have us do, our job is instead to review the "final" decision in this case—again, the decision of the Board of Trustees to deny appellee's appeal based on the recommendations of the hearing examiner—to determine (1) whether that decision was based on substantial evidence found solely in the record as it appeared before the Board of Trustees on the day of the hearing, June 11, 2014, and (2) whether the Board of Trustees' determination was arbitrary and capricious. See Washington Suburban Sanitary Com'n v. Lafarge North America, Inc., 443 Md. 265, 284 (2015) ("A court reviewing an agency decision must decide, based on whatever the record reveals, whether the agency's decision is supported by `substantial evidence' and whether the discretionary determinations of the agency may be maintained in the face of the `arbitrary and capricious' standard."). While the circuit court declined to make such a determination, we hold that, based on the record before it, the decision of the Board of Trustees to deny appellee's disability benefits was supported by substantial evidence and was not made arbitrarily or capriciously. We explain.
In our view, the hearing examiner perfectly summed up both the record before him and the problems it posed in the following paragraph of his written recommendations:
The record showed that the MAB, based on its statutorily mandated procedure in Plan § 3.4(b)(1), "conduct[ed] such inquiry as it deem[ed] necessary and proper under the circumstances," which, in this case, involved reviewing the documentation provided with appellee's application, including his own doctors' notes, and not conducting an actual physical examination. From its inquiry, the MAB concluded that, "[w]hile Mr. Davis surely experiences discomfort," the Application should be denied because "there exist[ed] no evidence to suggest the presence of a more significant systemic rheumatologic disease." Put differently, the MAB acknowledged the condition and its likely effect on appellee, but, in its members' medical opinions, appellee's Reynaud's was not the type of "disability" contemplated by the Plan, be it service- or non-service related. In turn, the DRB relied on that opinion, which it was entitled to do. Thus, on the record it was presented with, it cannot be said that the Board of Trustees' decision was made in error.
We also disagree with appellee's interpretation of the judicial notice rule. Appellee requests that this court take judicial notice of the job description for the Deputy-Corrections position that was offered to him as an alternate work arrangement. Judicial notice is governed by Maryland Rule 5-201, under which an appellate court is given discretion, not mandated, to take judicial notice of a fact. Md. Rule 5-201(a). Rule 5-201(b) provides:
Appellee argues that the job description, which is readily accessible through the county's website, provides this Court with the basis for finding that the MRB's conclusion regarding alternative work arrangements is not supported by substantial evidence. We find this argument problematic. The Court of Appeals has opined that while the court may travel outside the record and take judicial notice, an appellate court should reserve that discretion for the exceptional case. Dashiell v. Meeks, 396 Md. 149 (2006). The Court noted:
Id. at 179. We find this reasoning to be incredibly applicable to the present case. Therefore, it is not appropriate for this court to take notice of the correctional officer job description.
In summation, we find that the circuit court erred in remanding the Board of Trustees' final decision to deny appellee's appeal to the DRB for a de novo hearing. While we acknowledge that the record presented to the circuit court was imperfect, we believe that the circuit court had sufficient evidence upon which to review the Board's decision without remanding the matter for additional fact finding. Further, we hold that, based on the record before it, which contained the MAB members' medical opinions, the Board's final decision was supported by substantial evidence and was not made arbitrarily or capriciously.