A break for some shipmates and a lesson on drilling down on the standard of review

As a graduate of the “Boat School” (or “Canoe U”), I went on alert as soon as I spotted a case in yesterday’s advance sheets regarding whether some local county employees’ time as U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen (don’t call them “middies”) could enhance their county retirement credits. My shipmates came out on the winning end of things, and the opinion offers a lesson on appellate procedure.

The issue in Lanquist v. Ventura County Employees’ Retirement Association (case no. B251179, 2d. Dist., March 16, 2015) is succinctly stated in the first paragraph of the opinion:

Ventura County Employees’ Retirement Association (VCERA) permits employees to purchase retirement service credit for time spent in military service. It excludes time spent as a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy (Academy).Our interpretation of a Ventura County Board of Supervisors’ resolution, adopting the County Employees Retirement Law (CERL), leads us to the opposite conclusion.”Military service” includes service as a midshipman.
The journey for the plaintiff employees started with their applications to purchase credits for their time at the Academy, then wound through assorted administrative proceedings that denied their applications. The plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of mandate in the superior court, which denied the petition.

On the ensuing appeal, the trial court’s decision is reviewed de novo. That does not mean, of course, that the underlying administrative decision is likewise reviewed de novo. De novo review of the trial court’s decision means that the appellate court has to put itself in the shoes of the trial court and review the administrative decision under the standard of review that the trial court was required to apply. Normally, review of such a quasi-legislative administrative body’s decision is limited to whether the decision  was “arbitrary, capricious, lacking in evidentiary support, or contrary to procedures provided by law.” (Citations omitted.) But here, the plaintiffs got a break from the fact that the administrative body had construed a statute rather than exercise discretionary rule-making power. Thus, the ruling was subject to heightened review: “We tak[e] ultimate responsibility for the construction of the statute, [but] accord[] great weight and respect to the administrative construction.” (Citation and internal quotation marks omitted.) Under that level of scrutiny, the administrative body’s interpretation of the statute did not hold up, and the plaintiffs’ time as midshipmen was held to be subject to the retirement service credit purchase scheme.

That’s a welcome surprise, given that time for service at the Academy is not counted toward time in service for purposes of calculating military retirement pay for retiring officers. Presumably, the federal statutes cited by the court in its analysis apply with equal force to graduates of other service academies and thus former Zoomies, Woops, and Coasties working for Ventura County are likewise eligible for this program.***

The larger lesson to be drawn is that one should not be automatically discouraged by the default standard of review. Take a careful look at the case to see if a more favorable standard of review can be invoked. And kudos to these plaintiffs, both of whom were self-represented but only one of whom is an attorney.

***Believe me, use of these nicknames is all in good fun — there is a healthy respect for each other among the academies, but the good-natured rivalries among them can make it look otherwise. Stanford-Cal, Alabama-Auburn, and other college rivalries have got nothing on Army-Navy. Go Navy! Beat Army!