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Stiens v. Missouri Department of Agriculture

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Second Division

September 17, 2019

GREGORY STIENS, Appellant,
v.
MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, Respondent.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Nodaway County, Missouri Honorable Joel Andrew Miller, Judge

          Before: Lisa White Hardwick, P.J., Thomas H. Newton, and Mark D. Pfeiffer, JJ.

          OPINION

          THOMAS H. NEWTON, JUDGE

         Mr. Gregory Stiens appeals pro se a Nodaway County Circuit Court judgment affirming a summary decision by the Administrative Hearing Commission (AHC) in favor of the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA). Mr. Stiens filed a complaint with the AHC after being terminated from employment by the MDA. He challenges as clear error the summary decision on three points: (1) the MDA's Human Resources (HR) director's authority to terminate him, (2) genuine issues of fact remained in dispute, and (3) two affidavits submitted in support of the MDA's motion for summary decision should have been stricken. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         The MDA is a state agency that derives its authority from chapter 261 of the Missouri Statutes. [1] Section 261.040 grants authority to the MDA director "…to discharge any employee of the state department of agriculture." Mr. Stiens was employed by the MDA for seventeen years before he was terminated in 2017 by the Human Resources (HR) director. In 2015 and 2016, Supervisor Leroy Raymond conducted Mr. Stiens's performance appraisals. The 2016 performance appraisal indicated that Mr. Stiens needed improvement, and consequently he was suspended for three days for failing to meet minimum standards of performance; habitual tardiness; submitting false statements; and violating agency regulations.[2] In February 2017, Mr. Stiens received the letter of suspension and a detailed list of expectations to adhere to for a 90-day probation of conditional employment. Mr. Stiens signed the suspension letter which informed him that failure to comply with the expectations will result in additional disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.[3]

         In March 2017, on recommendation of the program director and division director, Mr. Stiens received a termination letter from the MDA HR director. The termination letter was issued "in the interest of efficient administration and so that the good of [the][service will be served." The MDA cited several policy or probation violations made by Mr. Stiens since his February suspension. An affidavit was submitted containing the HR director's testimony to the violations in an affidavit used in support of MDA's motion for summary decision:

On March 8, 2017, [Mr. Stiens's] employment with MDA was terminated for misconduct and violating the terms of his conditional employment. Specifically, [Mr. Stiens]: performed country of origin labeling inspections[4] on March 2 and 3, 2017, despite his supervisor's prohibition of that activity on February 22, 2014; (b) failed to apply approval stickers on scales by the close of business that he purportedly inspected on March 6, 2017, in violation of MDA's policy inspection procedures; (c) entered "Regular Pay" totaling eight hours on his ETA timesheets, days that he was suspended without pay including February 23, 27, and 28, 2017; (d) failed to synchronize his computer to the WinWam at the end of the day on March 2, 2017; (e) failed to submit his daily report on March 2 and 6, 2017; and (f) entered overtime on his ETA timesheets for March 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7, 2017, without prior approval from his supervisor.

         Mr. Stiens filed a pro se complaint with the AHC challenging the HR director's authority to terminate him, and two days later, the MDA made a delegation of authority to hire and discharge any employee to its deputy director and HR director. The MDA submitted a motion and suggestions in support for summary decision with affidavits of the HR director and Mr. Stiens's program manager. Mr. Stiens submitted a response to the MDA's motion and a motion to strike the affidavits, which was denied. Mr. Stiens also filed a motion for summary decision. The AHC granted the MDA's motion for summary decision and denied Mr. Stiens's motion for summary decision. Mr. Stiens filed a pro se petition for judicial review in the circuit court which sustained Mr. Stiens's dismissal under the AHC's ruling. Mr. Stiens appeals.

         Legal Analysis

         Mr. Stiens raises three points to challenge the AHC's summary decision. First, he contends that the AHC erred in finding that the HR director had employee termination authority. Second, Mr. Stiens claims that he presented evidence conflicting with the MDA's reasons for termination, and genuine issues of fact remain precluding a summary decision for MDA. Lastly, Mr. Stiens contends that two affidavits submitted in support of MDA's motion for summary decision should have been stricken because they are not competent evidence. In this case, it is more appropriate to discuss these points out of order.

         "On appeal from the circuit court's review of an agency decision, this Court reviews the action of the agency, not the action of the circuit court." State Bd. Of Registration for the Healing Arts v. Trueblood, 368 S.W.3d 259, 261 (Mo. App. W.D. 2012). In reviewing an AHC decision, "we must consider whether the AHC decision was unsupported by competent and substantial evidence based upon a review of the whole record, was unauthorized by law, was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, or involved an abuse of discretion." St. Charles Cnty. Ambulance Dist., Inc. v. Mo. Dep't of Health & Senior Servs., 248 S.W.3d 52, 53 (Mo. App. W.D. 2008).

         In the second point, Mr. Stiens contends that the AHC erred by granting the MDA's motion for summary decision because genuine issues of material fact remain in dispute about the termination. "Summary decision" is modeled on the summary judgment procedure at the circuit court level and is proper if a party establishes facts that entitle any party to a favorable decision and no party genuinely disputes such fact. State Comm. of Marital and Family Therapists v. Haynes, 395 S.W.3d 67, 69 (Mo. App. W.D. 2013). Whether summary decision should be granted is an issue of law, and, accordingly, this Court's review of such decisions is essentially de novo. Id. We view the record in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary decision was entered and determine whether there is a dispute as to any material fact and whether the movant was entitled to a decision in his or her favor as a matter of law. Id. "As to materiality, the substantive law will identify which facts are material." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). "Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Id. "Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted." Id.

         In February 2017, Mr. Stiens was suspended for multiple violations of MDA policy and given a detailed list of expectations to adhere to for a 90-day probation of conditional employment. Mr. Stiens signed the suspension notice that expressly stated, "Failure to comply with these expectations will result in additional disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal." Although Mr. Stiens signed the suspension notice, he did not execute the probation of conditional employment document because he thought the terms were impossible to satisfy. The MDA's March 2017 termination letter to Mr. Stiens ...


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