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Baker v. Director, Arkansas Department of Human Services

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

November 8, 2017



          Lavey and Burnett, by: John L. Burnett, for appellant.

          Amanda Land, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellee.

          ROBERT J. GLADWIN, Judge

         The Pulaski County Circuit Court granted summary judgment to appellee Director of the Arkansas Department of Human Services (ADHS) in appellant Deanna Baker's suit for declaratory and injunctive relief filed after she had been fired from her job with ADHS. Baker addresses ADHS's points raised in its cross-motion for summary judgment and argues on appeal that (1) she did not fail to exhaust her administrative remedies; (2) her claim is not barred by sovereign immunity; (3) she stated a cause of action upon which relief can be granted; (4) if the trial court's order is not deemed a denial of her motion for summary judgment, this court should adjudicate that motion rather than remand the case; and (5) she is entitled to summary judgment. We affirm because Baker failed to exhaust her administrative remedies; accordingly, we do not address her other arguments on appeal.

          I. Facts and Procedural History

         Baker filed a complaint in circuit court on September 4, 2015, claiming that ADHS relied on inapplicable law when it terminated her employment as a family services worker (FSW) based on her fifteen-year-old misdemeanor conviction for domestic battery, which had been discovered by ADHS during a criminal-background check. Alternatively, Baker claimed that the law on which ADHS relied had been amended to include only those convictions "during the five-year period preceding the background check request." Baker sought certain declarations under the law and injunctive relief in the form of reinstatement to her job as a FSW.

         On October 12, 2015, ADHS filed a motion to dismiss arguing that Baker's complaint was barred by sovereign immunity, and Baker responded. The trial court denied ADHS's motion by order filed January 29, 2016, finding that Baker had stated sufficient facts alleging an ultra vires act to proceed with her cause of action against ADHS.

         Baker filed a motion for summary judgment on July 25, 2016, along with a brief and supporting attachments.[1] In her motion, Baker listed certain undisputed facts: (1) she was convicted of domestic battery on September 17, 1998; (2) she was hired by ADHS in September 2012; (3) she had her misdemeanor conviction expunged on May 9, 2013; (4) in July 2013, ADHS conducted a criminal-background check, which revealed the 1998 misdemeanor conviction; (5) ADHS terminated Baker's employment in August 2013; (6) ADHS cited the 1998 conviction as the reason for Baker's termination; and (7) ADHC cited that the termination was pursuant to ADHS policy 1080.

         Baker argued in the motion's accompanying brief that ADHS relied on the wrong statute when it terminated her employment.[2] She alleged that ADHS committed an ultra vires act by terminating her employment in violation of the applicable statute. She argued that the unlawful termination caused her to lose her health-insurance benefits and approximately $75, 000 in wages. Baker sought reinstatement to her position with all the attendant seniority and benefits as if she had not been fired.

         ADHS filed a cross-motion for summary judgment alleging that (1) Baker had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies; (2) sovereign immunity barred Baker's claims because the State's financial liability would be increased if the benefits were reinstated; (3) Baker could not demonstrate irreparable harm and thus could not prevail on her injunctive-and declaratory-relief claims; and (4) Baker was an at-will employee whose employment ADHS was entitled to terminate at any time.

         Baker responded to ADHS's motion, particularly to its arguments of failure to exhaust administrative remedies and failure to demonstrate irreparable harm. Baker filed a supplemental affidavit stating that she had relied on information provided by ADHS at her termination. The affidavit states, "I otherwise knew about the grievance process and would have filed a grievance about my discharge if I had thought I could have had the merits of my discharge addressed." In its reply brief, ADHS claimed that its policy provides an express process by which Baker may challenge the decision as to whether her termination was grievable.

         The trial court granted ADHS's cross-motion for summary judgment by order filed November 4, 2016, without specifying which of ADHS's arguments had prevailed. On November 23, 2016, Baker filed a motion to modify the trial court's order because it did not include the trial court's ruling, if any, on her motion for summary judgment, and Baker asked the trial court to specifically deny her motion for summary judgment. ADHS responded on December 12, 2016, arguing that Baker had failed to demonstrate that the order contained an error or mistake, citing Arkansas Rule of Civil Procedure 60(a) (2016). The trial court did not rule on Baker's motion, and Baker filed a timely notice of appeal.

         II. Stand ...

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