New 80B/80C Standard of Review?


The SJC decided a Rule 80C decision, York Hospital v. DHS, 2008 ME 165 (York Hospital II), that has me scratching my head on one particular issue:

Now this case has a long history and some rather juicy facts.  I, however, am not interested in that but rather the much more fascinating issue of the standard of review applied.

To simplify, my understanding is that this case originally went to court on an administrative record; the petitioners argued due process violations (bias) and moved to get missing emails into the record, either through a motion to correct the record or to take new evidence.  The SJC remanded to the Superior Court to determine whether the emails were a part of the existing record or, if not, the evidence should be expanded to include them.  2005 ME 41.  (In York Hospital II the Court describes what it did in 2005 ME 41 as instructing the Superior Court "to consider an expanded record."  2008 ME 165, P2.)    On remand, the Superior Court considered the emails and found no bias. 

Fine, I’m following everything so far.  But in addressing the appellant-petitioners’ argument on appeal after the remand that there was bias, the SJC said that instead of reviewing the administrative record (now with the emails) de novo, it would defer to the Superior Court’s factfinding, citing three non-80B/80C decisions.  2008 ME 165, P16.

Here’s where I’m confused.  The general standard of review by the SJC in 80B and 80C decisions is de novo, in that it does not defer to the Superior Court, but rather goes back to the administrative record and reviews it for itself.  To date, the SJC hasn’t made any exception when the claim raised is bias.  To the contrary, it reiterated that it goes back to review the administrative record directly with respect to due process claims as recently as in March — Lane Const. Corp. v. Town of Washington, 2008 ME 45, P 29.

So what does the language in York Hospital II mean?  Was there something unique there?  If the administrative record had not been corrected, but rather the emails were considered new evidence  under Rule 80C(e), then I understand.  New evidence expands what happened at the Superior Court level to the equivalent of a trial, and the Superior Court is engaging in factfinding like in any other trial with no jury.  See Rule 800B(d).

But if the emails were added because they were part of the administrative record in the first place, then I’m not sure what precedent this case sets.  It is a logical view to say that any bias claim should be an exception from the de novo SJC review, at least when the bias claim hasn’t been argued and rejected at the administrative level, because in such cases, the Superior Court isn’t reviewing the agency’s factfinding.  It’s doing something that hasn’t been done before, so why shouldn’t the SJC defer to what the Superior Court concludes?  But the SJC has never made such a bias exception before, see supra, and there are logical reasons not to make such an exception, either — whether a bias claim or any other, the Superior Court is still reviewing the same cold record which the SJC is in as good a position to review itself.  I can also think of some murky areas not involving bias where the Superior Court is reaching conclusions that involve assessment of the administrative record beyond reviewing the agency’s factfinding, making linedrawing even to bias claims for this exception difficult.

In sum, I have no problem with the SJC applying a deferential standard of review in York Hospital II.  I would have no problem with a rule that provided that the standard of review at the SJC level is deferential in bias claims, or whenever the Superior Court must make factual determinations that the administrative body has not.  (I have no problem with the contrary rule either.)  It would just have been helpful to me if the SJC could have provided a little more explanation in York Hospital II as to the scope and basis of its ruling, so I could grasp its impact. 

Given that there are many bias claims in Rule 80B and 80C appeals, no doubt this standard of review question will be litigated soon and the answer will become clear.