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Ghidoni v. Maine Public Employees Retirement System

Superior Court of Maine, Kennebec

October 16, 2019

ANTHONY GHIDONI, Petitioner
v.
MAINE PUBLIC EMPLOYEES RETIREMENT SYSTEM, Respondent

          Plaintiff's Attorney Andrew Mason, Esq.

          Defendant's Attorney Christopher Mann, MG

          DECISION AND ORDER (MLR.CIV.P. 80C)

          William R. Stokes, Justice

         Before the court is Petitioner Anthony Ghidoni's (Ghidoni) M.R.Civ. P. 80C Appeal of Final Agency Action against the Maine Public Employees Retirement System (the System). For the reasons explained below, the court finds that Ghidoni's appeal should be denied.

         BACKGROUND

         Ghidoni, a System member, sought to purchase service credit for military service at a subsidized rate, pursuant to 5 M.R.S. § 17760(3)(A)(3). On July 14, 2017, the System's Executive Director's designee (EDD) found that Ghidoni was ineligible to purchase service credit at the subsidized rate because he was not awarded an Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, or any other ribbon or medal, during his time in the military. (Record "R" 1.1). On August 1, 2017, Ghidoni appealed the EDD's decision to the Board of Trustees (Board). (R 2.1) As a result, an independent hearing officer was appointed, and both parties submitted briefs at the end of 2017. (R 11.1-12.1) On May 7, 2018, the hearing officer issued his Recommended Decision, concluding that the EDD was incorrect, that the decision be overturned, and that Ghidoni be allowed to purchase service credit at the subsidized rate. (R 18.1-18.10)

         A few days after the hearing officer's decision, the System's attorney requested the Attorney General's Office to review the Recommended Decision for error, pursuant to 5 M.R.S. § 17106-A. On August 8, 2018, the Attorney General's Office responded by letter, recommending that the hearing officer's Recommended Decision contained errors of law, and should be overturned. In particular, the Attorney General's letter noted that "the EDD's interpretation is the better of two imperfect interpretations and I find the Appellant has not shown by a preponderance that the EDD decision is unreasonable or made in error. Based upon my review as legal counsel to the Board, I will advise the Board that I believe there is a legal error in the final recommended decision." (R 23.3-23.4). On November 8, 2018, the parties made oral arguments to the Board, which issued a decision on November 14, upholding the EDD's decision and denying Ghidoni the ability to purchase service credit at the subsidized rate. Ghidoni then timely filed this Rule 80C appeal. Oral argument was held on September 4, 2019.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When an administrative agency's decision is appealed pursuant to M.R.Civ. P. 80C, this court reviews the agency's decision directly for abuse of discretion, errors of law, or findings not supported by the evidence. Centamore v. Dep't of Human Servs., 664 A.2d 369, 370 (Me. 1995). "An administrative decision will be sustained if, on the basis of the entire record before it, the agency could have fairly and reasonably found the facts as it did." Seider v. Bd. of Exam'rs of Psychologists, 2000 ME 206, ¶ 9, 762 A.2d 551. The court will "not attempt to second-guess the agency on matters falling within its realm of expertise," meaning judicial review is limited to "determining whether the agency's conclusions are unreasonable, unjust or unlawful in light of the record." Imagineering, Inc. v. Superintendent of Ins., 593 A.2d 1050, 1053 (Me. 1991). "Inconsistent evidence will not render an agency decision unsupported," Seider, 2000 ME 206, ¶ 9, and the party seeking to overturn the agency's decision bears the burden of proof, and that party must prove that there is no competent evidence in the record to support the Board's decision. Bischoff v. Bd. of Trs., 661 A.2d 167, 170 (Me. 1995).

         When this court reviews an agency's interpretation of a statute that is both administered by the agency and within the agency's expertise, the first inquiry is whether the statute is ambiguous or unambiguous. Competitive Energy Servs., LLC v. Pub. Utils. Comm'n, 2003 ME 12, ¶ 15, 818 A.2d 1039. If the statue is unambiguous, it is interpreted according to its plain language. Arsenault v. Sec'y of State, 2006 ME 111, ¶ 11, 905 A.2d 285. If, on the other hand, the statute is ambiguous, deference is given to the agency's interpretation if the interpretation is reasonable. Id.; see also SAD 3 Educ. Ass'n v. RSU 3 Bd. of Dirs., 2018 ME 29, ¶ 14, 180 A.3d 125 ("When a dispute involves a board or agency's interpretation of a statute it administers, 'the agency's interpretation, although not conclusive, is entitled to great deference and will be upheld unless the statute plainly compels a contrary result.'") (citations omitted). Ultimately, the goal of statutory interpretation is to give effect to the Legislature's intent, Manirakiza v. Dep't of Health & Hum. Servs., 2018 ME 10, ¶ 8, 177 A.3d 1264, but only if "the plain language of the statue is ambiguous will we look beyond that language to examine other indicia of legislative intent, such as legislative history," Id. (quoting Scamman v. Shaw's Supermarkets, Inc., 2017 ME 41, JJ 14, 157 A.3d 223); see also L'Heureux v. Michaud, 2007 ME 149, ¶ 7, 938 A.2d 801 ("Statutory language is ambiguous if it is reasonably susceptible to multiple interpretations.").

         DISCUSSION

         5 M.R.S § 17760(3)(A)(3)

         Title 5 M.R.S. § 17760(3)(A) provides:

A. A member may purchase service credit at the cost set forth in subsection 4 if the member has at least 15 years of creditable service at the time of retirement, the member makes payment as required under subsection 4 and the member:
(1) Began membership prior to January 1, 1976;
(2) Served in the United States Armed Forces during any federally recognized ...

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