Recently, the Supreme Court of Ohio interpreted statutory language to determine that certain administrative agency decisions may be final and not appealable. It was once a foregone conclusion that an entity or individual would have a right to appeal an agency’s decision to a trial court. However, now a trial court must interpret the enabling statute. In Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow v. State Bd. of Edn., Slip Opnion No. 2021-Ohio-3445, the Ohio Supreme Court interpreted “final,” within R.C. 3314.08(K)(2)(d), with its ordinary meaning and not a legal term of art. In a close 4-3 decision, Justice R. Patrick DeWine penned the majority’s position, which interpreted the phrase “Any decision made by the [Ohio State Board of Education] under this division is final” to mean that a trial court could not hear an appeal from a decision rendered pursuant to R.C. 3314.08(K)(2)(b).
CASE BACKGROUND: ECOT STATE FUNDING
In Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Ohio’s former largest charter school, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), appealed the Department of Education and Ohio State Board of Education’s decisions to claw-back approximately $60 million the Board had paid to ECOT in overfunding. The agencies determined that in order for ECOT to receive state funding, ECOT had to provide at least five hours of learning opportunities per day. However, after an investigation, ECOT’s students remained online for only one hour per day.
As typical after an agency issues an adverse ruling, ECOT appealed the ruling to the trial court, which dismissed the appeal at the Board’s request. ECOT then appealed further to the appellate court and then the Ohio Supreme Court, which denied the appeal. ECOT also initiated an original action at the Ohio Supreme Court requesting a writ of mandamus, but the Ohio Supreme Court quickly dismissed ECOT’s writ.
WHAT THE SUPREME COURT’S DECISION COULD MEAN FOR OTHER INDUSTRIES
The Supreme Court’s decision to consult the enabling statute could have widespread effects across multiple industries. Where individuals and businesses appearing before agencies could fall back on an appeal, they may no longer be afforded that luxury. The result underscores the importance of winning at the agency level; no longer can businesses rely on an appeals process. Consequently, administrative agencies are now empowered to issue final decisions without contemplating how a trial court judge may scrutinize its decision. And, before preparing an appeal, the enabling statute of the administrative agency should be reviewed to avoid a result similar to Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.
If you or your business is facing an administrative agency or preparing an appeal from a decision, or if you have questions about the implications of this ruling, please contact one of KJK’s highly skilled attorneys such as Jim Sammon (email@example.com; 216.736.7235) or Kyle Stroup (firstname.lastname@example.org; 216.736.7231).