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Education Department Ruling That Organization Is Not 'Education Oriented' Is Subject to Judicial Appeal

When Department Rejects Group’s Application to Sponsor Community School

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2009-1926.  Brookwood Presbyterian Church v. Ohio Dept. of Edn., Slip Opinion No. 2010-Ohio-5710.
Franklin App. No. 09AP-303, 2009-Ohio-4645.  Judgment of the court of appeals reversed, and cause remanded to the trial court.
Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Connor, O'Donnell, and Lanzinger, JJ., concur.
Brown, C.J., and Cupp, J., dissent.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2010/2010-Ohio-5710.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(Nov. 30, 2010) The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that a determination by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) pursuant to R.C. 3314.015 (B)(3) that an organization is not “education oriented” and therefore is not eligible to sponsor a community school is subject to appeal in accordance with R.C. 119.12.

The Court’s 5-2 majority opinion, authored by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, reversed a decision of the 10th District Court of Appeals.

In November 2007, Brookwood Presbyterian Church of Columbus submitted an application to ODE seeking approval as a sponsor of community schools under the provisions of R.C. Chapter 3314.  In March 2008 ODE notified Brookwood that the department had conducted a preliminary review of its qualifications and had determined that Brookwood was not eligible to sponsor community schools because it did not meet the threshold standards for sponsoring nonprofit entities set forth in R.C. 3314.02. Specifically, ODE informed Brookwood that it did not qualify as an “education-oriented entity” under R.C. 3314.02(C)(1)(f).  Brookwood sought reconsideration of its eligibility to sponsor a community school, and on May 9, 2008, ODE again issued its determination that Brookwood was not eligible.

Brookwood filed an appeal in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, citing the right to appeal rulings of administrative agencies of state government provided under R.C. 119.12. ODE filed a motion to dismiss the appeal citing R.C. 3314.015(B)(3), which states that the department’s determinations of whether or not a nonprofit group seeking sponsorship qualifies as an “education-oriented entity” are “final.” The trial court granted the motion to dismiss.  Brookwood then sought to appeal the trial court’s decision to the 10th District Court of Appeals. The 10th District affirmed the trial court’s judgment that under R.C. 3314.015(B)(3) ODE’s rulings on whether a nonprofit applicant for community school sponsorship is or is not “education-oriented” is a final determination, and therefore non-appealable. Brookwood sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the 10th District’s decision.

Writing for the majority in today’s decision, Justice Pfeifer noted that, pursuant to R.C. 3314.015(B)(3), “(I)t is up to the ODE to determine, pursuant to criteria adopted by rule, whether the tax-exempt entity applying for sponsorship is education-oriented. R.C. 3314.015(B)(3) further provides, ‘Such determination of the department is final.’”  He also pointed out, however, that a different subsection of the same statute, R.C. 3314.015(D) “grants a right of appeal to entities disapproved for community-school sponsorship: ‘The decision of the department to disapprove an entity for sponsorship of a community school or to revoke approval for such sponsorship ... may be appealed by the entity in accordance with section 119.12 of the Revised Code.’”

“The crux of this case is the interplay between R.C. 3314.015(B)(3) and 3314.015(D),” wrote Justice Pfeifer. “R.C. 1.51 provides the guiding principle in determining the interaction between statutes: ‘If a general provision conflicts with a special or local provision, they shall be construed, if possible, so that effect is given to both.’ ... Whether R.C. 3314.015(D) and 3314.015(B)(3) conflict depends upon the meaning of ‘final’ in regard to the board of education’s determination of whether an entity is education-oriented under R.C. 3314.015(B)(3).  Does ‘final’ mean that the administrative process is complete and the matter is ripe for appeal to the common pleas court, or does ‘final’ mean that the unsuccessful, would-be sponsoring entity is consigned to an administrative abyss?”

“We can look to our own jurisprudence and the Ohio Constitution to determine the legal significance of the word ‘final.’  In Walburn v. Dunlap (2009) ... this court explained, ‘It is well-established that an order must be final before it can be reviewed by an appellate court.’ ... Section 3(B)(2), Article IV of the Ohio Constitution grants courts of appeals appellate jurisdiction ‘as may be provided by law to review and affirm, modify, or reverse final orders or actions of administrative officers or agencies.’ ... Thus, in our system of law, ‘final’ can mean the opposite of ‘not appealable.’ Had the General Assembly intended that the department’s determination of whether an entity is education-oriented not be subject to administrative appeal, it could have done so by appropriate language, i.e., by specifying that the department’s decision is final and not subject to appeal.  ... In fact, the General Assembly has employed this language carefully to specify when certain final actions are not appealable.  See R.C. 2712.21 (decision by common pleas court regarding appointment of arbitrator ‘is final and not subject to appeal’), 3318.051(E) (decision of School Facilities Commission to approve or not approve transfer of money under section ‘is final and not subject to appeal’), and 5126.0214 (decision of director of developmental disabilities whether to waive removal requirement ‘is final and not subject to appeal’).  The statute at issue here includes no comparable prohibition against appealability.”

“The determination of whether an entity is education-oriented is substantive and important. R.C. 3314.015(B)(3) and 3314.015(D) should be construed so as not to conflict, allowing an entity to appeal the board’s R.C. 3314.02(C)(1)(f)(iii) determination. The board’s power to determine whether an entity is education-oriented is no trifle, and the grant of a right to appeal in R.C. 3314.015(D) is a check on that power. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and remand the cause to the trial court.”

Justice Pfeifer’s opinion was joined by Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Maureen O’Connor, Terrence O’Donnell and Judith Ann Lanzinger.  Chief Justice Eric Brown and Justice Robert R. Cupp entered separate dissenting opinions.  

In his dissent, Chief Justice Brown pointed to provisions of state law in which the legislature has specified that a determination of an administrative agency is “final,” but then added language setting forth a right to appeal. He wrote: “If the General Assembly so clearly intended for the use of ‘final’ in R.C. 3314.015(B)(3) to mean final and appealable without actually using those words, why is the Revised Code replete with instances in which the General Assembly explicitly says both when it intends a decision to be reviewable on appeal? ... Based on the language of R.C. 3314.015 in its entirety and the other statutory provisions regarding community schools, I believe that the General

Assembly intended for ODE’s determination regarding whether an entity is education-oriented not to be subject to review under R.C. 119.12.”

While indicating general agreement with Chief Justice Brown’s opinion, Justice Cupp wrote separately to state his view that reading R.C. 3314.015(B)(3) to deny unsuccessful community school sponsors a statutory right of appeal does not leave them without any legal recourse.  He wrote: “An action in mandamus is available when a statute makes an agency’s decision, such as the one here, ‘final’ in that it may not be appealed through the usual appeals process. ...  In fact, appellant has filed an action in mandamus with this court to challenge ODE’s decision. The mandamus action has been stayed pending the resolution of this case. ... Consequently, while I would hold that appellant does not have a right of appeal due to the specific requirement of R.C. 3314.015(B)(3), I would simultaneously lift this court’s stay of the presentation of evidence and the briefing of appellant’s mandamus action, and proceed to a resolution of case No. 2009-2055. Because the majority decides otherwise, I must respectfully dissent.”

Contacts
James S. Callender Jr., 216.363.1400, for Brookwood Presbyterian Church.

Benjamin C. Mizer, 614.466.8980, for the Ohio Department of Education.