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Blais v. Rhode Island Airport Corp.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 20, 2019

Kevin M. Blais
v.
Rhode Island Airport Corporation et al.

          Providence County Superior Court, (PC 15-4893), Sarah Taft-Carter Associate Justice.

          For Plaintiff: Kevin C. Cain, Esq.

          For Defendants: Matthew C. Reeber, Esq. Patrick J. McBurney, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          FLAHERTY JUSTICE.

         The Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) and its director, Kelly Fredericks, seek review of a Superior Court judgment that reversed RIAC's 2015 order prohibiting the plaintiff, Kevin Blais, from entering the North Central State Airport. This matter reaches us by way of writ of certiorari in accordance with the Uniform Aeronautical Regulatory Act (UARA), G.L. 1956 chapter 4 of title 1, and the Administrative Procedures Act, G.L. 1956 chapter 35 of title 42. In this case of first impression, we are tasked with deciding whether or not RIAC is cloaked with the inherent authority to preclude an individual from entering an airport within its jurisdiction without having first issued a formal order and, if a formal order was required, whether the communications issued by RIAC purporting to bar the plaintiff from North Central State Airport complied with the procedural requirements of the UARA. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm the well reasoned decision and judgment of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         RIAC was created as, in the words of the statute, a "subsidiary public corporation" of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, in accordance with G.L. 1956 § 42-64-7.1(b) and (h).[1]See In re Advisory Opinion to Governor, 627 A.2d 1246, 1248 (R.I. 1993). The director of RIAC is responsible for the management and safe operation of several airports in Rhode Island, including the North Central State Airport in Smithfield (North Central). See § 1-4-9.

         In 2010, Kevin Blais purchased a "gate key," which provided him with operational access to the airfield at North Central and allowed him to store his airplane at that facility. For the next several years, Blais regularly flew his airplane from North Central although, according to RIAC, those years were not without incident. Reports of Blais's troubling conduct plagued his tenure at North Central and, according to RIAC, prompted RIAC to direct its attorneys to send Blais a "no-trespass" letter that advised him that he was no longer welcome at North Central. That letter, dated February 14, 2014, read, in its entirety:

"This firm represents the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (the 'RIAC').
"Please be advised that you are not allowed to enter the premises of North Central State Airport. If you ignore this directive, you will be deemed a trespasser pursuant to Rhode Island General Laws Section 11-44-26 and RIAC will take appropriate legal action."

         The no-trespass letter was signed by an attorney from a law firm that represented RIAC, and it did not include any additional information or attachments.

         Several days after he received the no-trespass letter, Blais attended a safety seminar that was being conducted at North Central, but his presence was soon discovered by airport personnel and airport police escorted him from the airport. In connection with that incident, Blais was subsequently prosecuted for criminal trespass pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 11-44-26. Blais was convicted in the District Court and appealed to the Superior Court for a trial de novo. However, before the matter could be tried, the Attorney General dismissed the case.[2]

         In May 2015, RIAC issued a Notice of Hearing concerning the February 2014 no-trespass letter. The Notice of Hearing informed Blais that a hearing would be held in June 2015 at North Central and that a hearing officer had been retained to investigate the "facts concerning the potential lifting of the No Trespass issued to Kevin Blais in connection with the North Central Airport." The hearing officer would be empowered to hear testimony and take evidence from any witnesses who wished to be heard, and he would ultimately author a report and recommendation "regarding whether the No Trespass should be lifted and, if so, under what, if any, restrictions." The Notice of Hearing made it clear that the hearing would "not proceed in the manner of a formal adversarial adjudication"; that the hearing officer's report would "not constitute a final determination of the matter"; and that "[t]he Executive Director [of RIAC] shall make such final determination following a review of the report and recommendation."

         Even though Blais did not attend the hearing personally, he was represented by counsel who appeared on his behalf. In total, ten witnesses testified and were cross-examined at the hearing. Most of those witnesses testified about incidents involving Blais that had made them feel, at best, uncomfortable and, at worst, unsafe.

         Frank Sherman, an eighty four year old flight instructor, testified that late one afternoon he was landing at North Central with one of his students.[3] Sherman said that Blais announced his intention over the radio to make a landing from the direction through which Sherman had just been flying. According to Sherman, "[t]he visibility in the area was terrible" that day and, believing Blais would have difficulty seeing the other planes in the area, Sherman "suggested to him that that wasn't a good way to come into the traffic pattern." Later, after both aircraft had landed, Blais approached Sherman and his student as they were securing their airplane. According to Sherman, "[Blais] landed and came over to me in the most belligerent, violent way that you can imagine. I was somewhat frightened. The woman that I was flying with was frightened." Sherman testified that Blais told him he was "an unfit person" and that Sherman was "trying to teach people to fly on the radio" by "using the common traffic advisory frequency in a way that should not be used[.]"

         David LaChapelle claimed to have been present for the confrontation between Sherman and Blais, and, according to LaChapelle: "It wasn't a discussion. It was just yelling, screaming." LaChapelle, tempering the actual four letter word that had been used, told the hearing officer that he had heard Blais call Sherman "a fricking idiot."

         Lance Eskelund testified that he also witnessed the confrontation. According to Eskelund, Blais was acting "threatening, belligerent" and "[h]e actually lunged at Frank." Eskelund testified that he believed at the time "that Frank was probably going to get punched[, ]" but that Blais instead walked away when he saw Eskelund approaching.

         Paul Harry Smith, the airport manager at North Central, testified about a different incident. According to Smith, in January 2013, Blais entered Smith's office at North Central, demanding to know who had deactivated his gate key. Although Smith explained that the gate key had been turned off because Blais no longer kept a plane at the airport, Smith said that the situation kept escalating. According to Smith, Blais punctuated his disturbance by telling Smith that "bad karma is coming [Smith's] way" and that Smith "could not be that much of a fucking dick." Smith said that, because he believed Blais's foul-mouthed opprobrium to be a threat, he called the RIAC police, at which point Blais "turned around and left." John Sulyma, a pilot who flew out of North Central, said that he was in Smith's office immediately after Smith's confrontation with Blais, and that Smith had told him "[h]e felt threatened by Mr. Blais. He felt his family was threatened."[4]

         Several more witnesses testified about other minor incidents that involved Blais. Paul Carroll, a pilot of forty years who had previously promoted safety initiatives for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said that he was concerned about what he termed as Blais's "cavalier attitude." Carroll recounted a conversation that he had had with Blais in which Blais had bragged about flying into the clouds. That behavior, Carroll testified, was "an extremely dangerous position for a private pilot, let alone a student pilot" such as Blais. He also related an incident in which Blais had crossed an active runway while Carroll was attempting to land his airplane, and he claimed that Blais had "accosted" him on more than one occasion. According to Carroll, Blais had told him "directly that he has a permit to carry a gun, and he wears a bulletproof vest[, ]"-a comment that Carroll took to be a threat.

         Kevin DiLorenzo, Blais's flight instructor, testified that he had never seen Blais acting belligerently or disrespectfully. Nevertheless, he recounted an episode in which Blais, then DiLorenzo's student, called to let DiLorenzo know that he intended to make a flight without DiLorenzo's signature in his logbook. According to DiLorenzo, the flight would not be legal without his signature, so he told Blais not to fly until DiLorenzo could drive to the airport. DiLorenzo told the hearing officer that he believed Blais would have made the flight with or without his signature in the logbook because Blais's plane was already on the ramp when DiLorenzo intercepted him, and Blais was walking to his plane with a loaded flight bag. Since that incident, DiLorenzo had refused to fly with Blais and had in fact stayed away from the airport for about four to five months-long enough for his obligation to remain as Blais's flight instructor to expire.

         John Guerin and Raymond Venticinque also testified that their own interactions with Blais had been less than pleasant. Guerin reported that he had once delivered a letter to Blais while he was in his aircraft and that Blais "started wigging out," threw the letter out from the cockpit window, and then later complained to RIAC that Guerin had "assaulted his airplane." Venticinque testified that he thought that Blais "wants to be a pilot, but he doesn't want to do what is necessary to acquire the license and do the proper practice lessons[.]" According to Venticinque, Blais "goes against the grain" and "likes to do things his way, which obviously isn't the right way."

         Edouard DeCelles, however, provided a very different view of events. DeCelles testified that "[t]here is a group of people at this airport who don't like Mr. Blais. They just keep attacking him. He has been attacked enough that he just retaliated." According to DeCelles, Blais acted in the same manner in which DeCelles himself would have acted if confronted with the same situations that Blais had faced.

         The hearing officer provided his report and recommendation to the director of RIAC in September 2015. The hearing officer found that all the witnesses who testified at the hearing were credible and he noted the concern that most of them had over Blais's alleged conduct. The hearing officer reported that Blais had demonstrated that he was unwilling to follow FAA regulations and that he was "contemptuous" of his comrades' concern for their safety and that of others. He found that Blais presented "an ongoing risk to himself and fellow pilots[, ]" and therefore he recommended that the ban against Blais at North Central not be lifted.

         On October 8, 2015, the director of RIAC sent a letter to Blais, purporting to be a final order, which stated:

"I am writing to advise you that I have adopted the findings, conclusion and recommendations of [the hearing officer]. As such, you are directed to remain off the premises of North Central State Airport. This restriction applies only to the North Central State Airport. You may use any of the other Rhode Island Airport Corporation facilities, and may use North Central State Airport in the event of aviation emergency.
"* * *
"It is my intention to review this matter within six (6) months of today's date. I will request that [the hearing officer] reconvene the hearing and would welcome your participation. You will receive notice of the location, date and time of the hearing."

         The order was signed by Kelly Fredericks, the director of RIAC, and attached to it was a document entitled "Notice of Appeal Rights of Party Aggrieved by Final Order of Director." The attached document informed Blais of his right to appeal RIAC's "final order" by the filing of a complaint in Superior Court within thirty days of the mailing of the order, in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act.

         On November 6, 2015, Blais did just that, filing a complaint in Superior Court that appealed RIAC's October 8, 2015 order, and seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. Following briefing by the parties, the trial justice concluded that, although Blais was not entitled to injunctive or declaratory relief, neither the February 14, 2014 letter nor the October 8, 2015 order constituted a valid order because each had failed to comply with the statutory mandates set forth in the UARA. Specifically, she found that the February 14, 2014 letter failed to state the reasons for the order or provide the requirements that needed to be met before the order might be modified, as required for a final order by § 1-4-15. She also concluded that, because the October 8, 2015 order purported to extend the ban imposed by the February 2014 letter, which she had found to be invalid, it followed that the 2015 order was also invalid. Accordingly, the trial justice reversed the decision of RIAC, but denied Blais's requests for declaratory and injunctive relief.

         RIAC petitioned this Court for the issuance of a writ of certiorari, which petition we granted on November 27, 2017.[5] Additional facts will be provided as necessary to resolve the issues raised in this review.

         II

         Standard of Review

         When this Court reviews an administrative appeal brought under the Administrative Procedures Act, G.L. 1956 chapter 35 of title 42, our review is limited to questions of law. Beagan v. Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, 162 A.3d 619, 625-26 (R.I. 2017). "This Court does not substitute its judgment for that of the agency concerning the credibility of witnesses or the weight of the evidence concerning questions of fact." Id. at 626 (quoting Tierney v. Department of Human Services, 793 A.2d 210, 213 (R.I. 2002)). Although we afford great deference to the factual findings of the administrative agency, "questions of law- including statutory interpretation-are reviewed de novo." Iselin v. Retirement Board of Employees' Retirement System of Rhode Island, 943 A.2d 1045, 1049 (R.I. 2008). Pursuant to § 42-35-15(g), when reviewing an administrative appeal, this 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 ...

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