Colorado Supreme Court rules that state board must defer to disciplinary actions taken by other state agencies

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On Dec. 21, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in DOC v. Stiles that the Colorado State Personnel Board (Board) must defer to disciplinary decisions made by state agencies. The court’s decision aimed to shed light on the standard the Board must apply when reviewing other state agencies’ disciplinary decisions. 

The court held that when the Board considers appeals of decisions to discipline agency employees, they must apply the “arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to rule or law” standard instead of reviewing the facts of the case on a de novo basis. 

The arbitrary or capricious standard instructs the Board to give deference to the disciplinary action taken by the state agency. It prevents the Board from overturning such actions unless the agency failed to give honest consideration to the evidence involved in the case or violated a law or rule. De novo review would allow the Board to evaluate the evidence in the case and make its own decision without regard for the earlier conclusions made by the state agency that decided to discipline an employee.

The court remanded the case back to the state administrative law judge (ALJ), working for the Board, who had overruled the state agency disciplinary action at issue in the case. 

In the opening paragraph of the opinion announcing the decision, Justice Carlos Samour wrote about the stakes of the case in the following way: “At a micro level, it will affect whether Mathew Mark Stiles keeps his job at the Department of Corrections (“DOC”). At a macro level, it will affect the 30,000-plus other certified state employees in Colorado’s personnel system.”

The standard articulated by the Colorado Supreme Court is similar to the arbitrary-or-capricious test established by the federal Administrative Procedure Act. Under that test, courts reviewing agency actions invalidate any that they find to be “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.”

To learn more about state administrative law judges or judicial deference, see here:

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Text of the decision: