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Sullivan v. Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management

Superior Court of Rhode Island

May 19, 2017

PETER K. SULLIVAN Appellant
v.
RHODE ISLAND DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT Appellee

          For Plaintiff: Peter K. Sullivan, Pro Se.

          For Defendant: Gary Powers, Esq.

          DECISION

          VAN COUYGHEN, J.

         On February 10, 2016, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management's (RIDEM) Office of Boat Registration & Licensing (the Division) denied Peter K. Sullivan's application to renew his expired multi-purpose commercial fishing license.[1] Mr. Sullivan appealed that denial to RIDEM's Administrative Adjudication Division (the AAD). On April 18, 2016, via a written decision (the Decision), the AAD affirmed and sustained the denial. Mr. Sullivan timely appealed to this Court. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court vacates the Decision and remands this matter for further proceedings consistent with this decision.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         At the outset, the Court notes that there is no transcript of the April 5, 2016 hearing from which the Decision was rendered (the Hearing). The following is a brief recitation of the facts gleaned from the documents filed, including the Decision.

         Mr. Sullivan is a resident of the Town of Bristol, Rhode Island. Until December 31, 2009, he was the holder of Multi-Purpose License # 000981 (the License). See Div.'s Hr'g Ex. 2. On December 31, 2009, the License expired. See id. On July 27, 2015-nearly five years and seven months after the License had expired-Mr. Sullivan wrote a letter to Margaret McGrath (Ms. McGrath), the Programming Services Officer for the Division, requesting that he be provided a waiver to renew the License despite his having missed the application deadline. See Div.'s Hr'g Ex. 5. Mr. Sullivan cited health issues and doctors' advice as the basis for not renewing the License sooner. See id. Mr. Sullivan also requested that he be allowed to obtain a 65 and Over Shellfish License, [2] as he would be turning sixty-five in approximately fourteen months. See id.

         In a letter dated August 17, 2015, Ms. McGrath responded and explained that Mr. Sullivan's request to renew the License would be denied in accordance with Rule 6.7-4[3] of the Commercial and Recreational Saltwater Fishing Licensing Regulations (the Licensing Regulations). See Div.'s Hr'g Ex. 6. Ms. McGrath explained that because Mr. Sullivan "did not possess a valid multi-purpose license as of 12/31/2014, [he was] unable to obtain a multi[-]purpose [license] in 2015." Id. Likewise, Mr. Sullivan's request to obtain a 65 and Over Shellfish License prior to reaching the age of sixty-five was denied pursuant to Rule 6.8-6. See id. Ms. McGrath advised Mr. Sullivan that he could appeal the decisions to the AAD within thirty days of his receipt of the letter. See id. Mr. Sullivan did not appeal those decisions.

         On February 4, 2016, Mr. Sullivan filed a "2016 Multi-Purpose License Renewal Application" (the Application) with the Division. See Div.'s Hr'g Ex. 1. Mr. Sullivan included with the Application letters from two doctors and landing records from 2009. See id. The landing records purported to show that the License was in use when Mr. Sullivan was physically able to fish. See id. On February 10, 2016, Ms. McGrath denied Mr. Sullivan's application on the grounds that he "did not possess a valid multi-purpose license as of 12/31/2015." Div.'s Hr'g Ex. 2. Ms. McGrath cited Rule 6.7-4(c) as the basis for the decision, and informed Mr. Sullivan that he could appeal the decision to the AAD within thirty days of his receiving the letter. Id. On February 16, 2016, Mr. Sullivan appealed the February 10, 2016 decision to the AAD. See Div.'s Hr'g Ex. 3.

         On April 5, 2016, pursuant to §§ 42-17.7-1 et seq., this matter came before the Hearing Officer to determine whether the February 10, 2016 denial of Mr. Sullivan's application violated the Licensing Regulations.[4] The Division was represented by counsel, and Mr. Sullivan appeared pro se. Neither an electronic nor a stenographic recording of the Hearing was taken.[5]

         On April 18, 2016, the Hearing Officer issued the Decision denying and dismissing Mr. Sullivan's appeal, and affirming and sustaining the Division's decision to deny Mr. Sullivan's application. The Decision included findings of fact and conclusions of law, and ultimately held, "[b]ased on all of the facts, circumstances, and evidence presented, " that "[Mr. Sullivan] failed to sustain his burden of proof, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the Division's determination and letter of February 10, 2016 denying his request for renewal of his Multi-Purpose Fishing License (#MPURP000981) violated the Department of Environmental Management's Commercial and Recreational Saltwater Fishing License Regulations." Decision 7-8.

         On May 13, 2016, Appellant timely filed the present appeal.

         II

         Standard of Review

         The Superior Court has jurisdiction to hear appeals from the decisions of administrative agencies pursuant to the Rhode Island Administrative Procedures Act (APA), § 42-35-15. See Champlin's Realty Assocs. v. Tikoian, 989 A.2d 427, 434 (R.I. 2010). The Court's review of an agency's decision is governed by the standards set forth in § 42-35-15(g), which provides:

"(g) The court shall not substitute its judgment for that of the agency as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact. The court may affirm the decision of the agency or remand the case for further proceedings, or it may reverse or modify the decision if substantial rights of the appellant have been prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions, or decisions are:
"(1) In violation of constitutional or statutory provisions;
"(2) In excess of the statutory authority of the agency;
"(3) Made upon unlawful procedure;
"(4) Affected by other error or law;
"(5) Clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the ...

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