Std. of Review: Administrative Decisions, Statutory Interpretation

Ford Contracting, Inc. v. Kentucky Transportation Cabinet
COA PUB 2/7/2014

ACREE, CHIEF JUDGE: Ford Contracting, Inc. appeals the February 21, 2012 order of the Franklin Circuit Court reversing in part and affirming in part the 2010 Final Order of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. Having carefully reviewed the record and the arguments of the parties, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for additional proceedings.

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Ford is correct that judicial review of an administrative decision focuses on arbitrariness. Kaelin v. City of Louisville, 643 S.W.2d 590, 591 (Ky. 1982). One component of arbitrariness review is “whether determinations are supported by substantial evidentiary support.”10 Hilltop Basic Resources, Inc. v. County of Boone, 180 S.W.3d 464, 467 (Ky. 2005). Thus, this Court generally confines its review to: (1) whether the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence of probative value; and (2) whether the administrative agency applied the correct rule of law to the facts. Board of Com’rs of City of Danville v. Davis, 238 S.W.3d 132, 135 (Ky. App. 2007). While we are bound by the subordinate facts found by the hearing officer, we are not bound by the hearing officer’s legal conclusions. See id.

The other two considerations are: “(1) whether an action was taken in excess of granted powers[; and] (2) whether affected parties were afforded procedural due process[.]” Hilltop, 180 S.W.3d at 467. Neither of these is at issue in this case.

Our review, however, is altered when the agency denies relief to the party saddled with the burden of proof. Bourbon County Bd. of Adjustment v. Currans, 873 S.W.2d 836, 838 (Ky. App. 1994). In such a case, “the failure to grant administrative relief to one carrying the burden is arbitrary [only] if the record compels a contrary decision in light of substantial evidence therein.” Id.

Not infrequently, contestants appear at the judicial level arguing that the administrative decision is not supported by substantial evidence when the board has offered no relief in the first instance. In other words, the board has ruled that the one having the burden of proof— usually the applicant—has failed. In such cases, attention should be directed to the administrative record in search of compelling evidence demonstrating that the denial of the relief sought was arbitrary. The argument should be that the record compels relief. The argument that there is no substantial evidence to support nonrelief is an anomaly.

Id. Evidence is compelling if it is so overwhelming that no reasonable person could fail to reach the same conclusion. Greene v. Paschall Truck Lines, 239 S.W.3d 94, 108 (Ky. App. 2007) (citation omitted).

Furthermore, it is basic hornbook law that the “trier of facts is afforded great latitude in its evaluation of the evidence heard and the credibility of witnesses appearing before it.” Bowling v. Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet, 891 S.W.2d 406, 409-10 (Ky. App. 1994). “To put it simply, ‘the trier of facts in an administrative agency may consider all of the evidence and choose the evidence that he believes.’” Id. (citation omitted). This Court may not reconsider or “pass upon the credibility of witnesses, and the weight of the evidence” for these functions rest within the “exclusive province of the administrative trier of fact.” Id.

Finally, statutory interpretation is an issue of law and, accordingly, we review the circuit court’s statutory construction de novo. See Cumberland Valley Contractors, Inc. v. Bell County Coal Corp., 238 S.W.3d 644, 647 (Ky. 2007).