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Stiles v. Department of Corrections, Denver Reception & Diagnostic Center

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Sixth Division

January 24, 2019

Mathew Mark Stiles, Petitioner-Appellee,
v.
Department of Corrections, Denver Reception & Diagnostic Center, Respondent-Appellant, and State Personnel Board, Appellee.

         OPINION PREVIOUSLY ANNOUNCED AS "NOT PUBLISHED PURSUANT TO C.A.R. 35(e)" ON December 6, 2018, IS NOW DESIGNATED FOR PUBLICATION

          State Personnel Board Case No. 2016B034

          Announced January 24, 2019 Greg D. Rawlings P.C., Greg D. Rawlings, Denver, Colorado, for Complainant-Appellee

          Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Katherine Aidala, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Respondent-Appellant

          Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Leanne B. De Vos, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Billy Seiber, First Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Appellee

          OPINION

          FREYRE, JUDGE

         ¶ 1 The Department of Corrections, Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center (DOC), appeals the order of the Colorado State Personnel Board (Board) reinstating appellee, Mathew Mark Stiles, because his termination from DOC was arbitrary and capricious. For the reasons described below, we affirm the Board's order.

         I. Background

         ¶ 2 DOC hired Stiles as a part-time correctional officer in August 2010. In December 2010, Stiles became a full-time employee, and, in 2011, he achieved state-certified status. In 2013, DOC transferred Stiles to a boiler room position in the facility. Every performance evaluation since Stiles' hiring date rated him as a competent employee, and Stiles never received any corrective or disciplinary actions during his employment.

         ¶ 3 Beginning in 2015, Stiles experienced several unexpected and stressful events in his personal life, including an admitted affair by his wife, his teenage daughter's diagnosis of and emergency hospitalization for schizophrenia, and disputes with his daughter's birth mother concerning his daughter's condition. Stiles sought professional help through the Colorado State Employee Assistance Program. Stiles' personal challenges never adversely affected his job performance. But the related stress of these challenges caused Stiles to experience bouts of insomnia.

         ¶ 4 Following an emotional counseling session with his wife and an argument with his daughter's birth mother on Friday, September 25, 2015, Stiles was unable to sleep. To alleviate his insomnia, Stiles smoked some marijuana around midnight. On Monday morning (September 28), Stiles returned to work and was randomly selected for drug testing. He complied with the testing, and, the next day, he submitted a confidential incident report to DOC admitting his marijuana use and explaining the extenuating circumstances that led to it. On October 2, DOC received the test results, which revealed a positive result for THC, the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

         ¶ 5 On October 13, Stiles received a hand-delivered Notice of Rule 6-10 Meeting.[1] The notice, dated October 9, was signed by the appointing authority, Warden David Johnson, and informed Stiles of an upcoming Rule 6-10 meeting concerning his continued employment in light of the test result. On October 19, Stiles met with Warden Johnson and provided an explanation for the positive test result. He was accompanied and supported by his immediate supervisor, Lieutenant James DeTello, who confirmed that Stiles was a valuable employee. On that same date, Lieutenant DeTello submitted Stiles' final performance review, which provided an overall rating of Level II (meets expectations) and a Communications and Interpersonal Skills rating of Level III (exceptional).

         ¶ 6 On November 2, Warden Johnson issued a notice of disciplinary action immediately terminating Stiles. Stiles appealed his termination to the Board. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing and issued an initial decision. That decision rescinded Stiles' termination, modified the discipline to a ten percent pay reduction for six months, and ordered back pay and benefits. In reaching his decision, the ALJ found that Warden Johnson's decision was arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to rule or law. In particular, the ALJ found that Warden Johnson (1) failed to candidly and honestly consider all of the evidence he procured, as required by Department of Personnel & Administration Board Rule 6-9, 4 Code Colo. Regs. 801-1, particularly Stiles' lack of prior disciplinary history and his extenuating mitigating circumstances; and (2) imposed discipline that was not within the range of reasonable alternatives by failing to consider the disciplinary alternatives set forth in the DOC regulation directed at marijuana use, DOC Admin. Reg. 1450-36(IV)(A)(1). On review, the Board adopted the ALJ's initial decision, and this appeal followed.

         ¶ 7 DOC contends that the ALJ employed an incorrect standard of review and improperly reweighed the evidence when he reviewed Warden Johnson's disciplinary action. DOC argues that the ALJ was required to defer to Warden Johnson's findings and that such deference supports Stiles' termination. We are not persuaded, for three reasons. First, the Rule 6-10 meeting is informal and does not sufficiently protect the property interests of a state-certified employee accused of misconduct. Second, section 24-50-125(4), C.R.S. 2018, provides for an adversarial proceeding at which the employee is entitled to representation by counsel of choice, and it requires the Board to make written findings of fact and conclusions of law - a hearing our ...


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