24 Wn. App. 357, HALL v. SEATTLE

CITE:          24 Wn. App. 357, 602 P.2d 366
               HALL v. SEATTLE


FILE DATE:     October 1, 1979

CASE TITLE: Hugh A. Hall, et al, Appellants, v. The City
               of Seattle, et al, Respondents.

[1] Administrative Law and Procedure - Decision - Reconsideration - Agency Authority. An administrative agency has a limited inherent power to reconsider or modify one of its final determinations when it is apparent that a mistake has been made. Such power should be exercised promptly and fairly, with notice to all interested parties.

NATURE OF ACTION: Three police officers sought writs of mandamus and prohibition forbidding a municipal civil service commission from reconsidering its action invalidating a civil service examination for the position of police lieutenant.

Superior Court: The Superior Court for King County, No. 835595, Barbara Durham, J., on January 30, 1978, entered a judgment denying the writs of mandamus and prohibition.

Court of Appeals: Holding that the commission had the authority to reconsider its action invalidating the civil service examination and resultant eligibility register, the court AFFIRMS the judgment.






The plaintiffs are three Seattle police sergeants. They appeal from the trial court's denial of their request for writs of mandamus and prohibition against the City of Seattle (City), the Seattle Civil Service Commission and the commissioners thereof.

At issue is the validity of certain Seattle civil service eligibility registers and actions of the Civil Service Commission of the City of Seattle (Commission), and whether the three plaintiffs are entitled to an order directing the Commission to appoint them to the position of police lieutenant. The trial court permitted 14 other police sergeants, some of whom were subsequently appointed police lieutenants, to intervene as defendants.

The following chronology of unchallenged facts explains the controversy.
March 29, 1974           The three plaintiff police sergeants were
                    formally notified by a police department bulletin
                    that they had passed a civil service examination
                    for police lieutenant and were put on the
                    eligibility register.
January, 1977           The 1974 eligibility register was extended
                    for 1 year or until a new test could be given
                    and a new eligibility register promulgated.
March 12, 1977          A new civil service examination for police
                    lieutenant was held. As of that date, the
                    three plaintiffs were on top of the extended
                    eligibility register.
May 13, 1977           A new eligibility register for police lieutenant
                    was published and posted by the Commission's
                    secretary and chief examiner. The 3 plaintiffs
                    and the 14 intervenors all passed the examination.
                    The plaintiffs ranked 30, 39 and 49 out of
                    the 82 persons named on the new register,
                    thus making it unlikely they would be appointed
                    as lieutenants. The ranks of the intervenors,
                    on the other hand, included 11 of the first
                    12 names on the list and all of the intervenors
                    ranked ahead of the 3 plaintiffs.
May 13 to
October 5, 1977      During this period of time, 3 police lieutenant
                    appointments were made by the chief of police
                    from the top 25 percent of the new (May 13th)
                    eligibility register.
October 5, 1977      In a virtual ex parte proceeding, without
                    notice to most of the persons affected, the
                    Commission overruled its secretary and chief
                    examiner thus invalidating the March 12, 1977
                    examination along with the new eligibility
October 19, 1977      The Commission unanimously voted to reconsider
                    its October 5th action by which it had invalidated
                    the examination and set a new hearing on the
                    matter for November 9, 1977.
                         The basis for the Commission's decision to                     reconsider was that it may have made a mistake or                     misperceived certain facts at the time of its October 5th
November 9, 1977      The superior court issued a temporary restraining
                    order forbidding the Commission from reconsidering
                    its October 5th decision.
December 13, 1977      Following a trial, the superior court judge
                    to whom the case was tried filed a memorandum
                    decision holding:
                    "It is the opinion of this Court that the
                    Commission's decision to rehear its ruling
                    of October 5, 1977 falls within its inherent
                    powers and is neither arbitrary nor capricious.
                    Accordingly, the temporary restraining order
                    entered herein previously is dissolved."
December 20, 1977      The Commission thereupon reversed its October
                    5, 1977 action and validated the examination
                    and new eligibility register. No appeal was
                    taken from that action and other appointments
                    have since been made from the new register.
January 30, 1978      An order denying writs of mandamus and prohibition
                    was formally entered by the superior court
                    along with findings of fact and conclusions
                    of law.

This appeal followed.

One ultimate issue is presented.


In the absence of statute, charter or ordinance authorizing an administrative agency to reconsider or modify one of its final determinations, does it have the authority to do so?


CONCLUSION. An administrative agency such as the Civil Service Commission of the City of Seattle does have a limited inherent power to reconsider, absent a statute, charter, ordinance or rule prohibiting same.

[1] In support of their arguments that the Commission had no authority to reconsider its action throwing out the civil service examination and new eligibility register, the three plaintiffs rely primarily on STATE EX REL. WORSHAM v. BROWN, 126 Wash. 175, 218 P. 9 (1923) and STATE EX REL. HEARTY v. MULLIN, 198 Wash. 99, 87 P.2d 280 (1939).

In WORSHAM, the civil service commission sitting as a quasi judicial tribunal, upheld the discharge of a police officer by the chief of police. Approximately 5 months later, after one of the commissioners had been replaced, the discharged officer petitioned for a rehearing. Two months thereafter, a rehearing was held and the officer reinstated. On appeal, the State Supreme Court held that the civil service commission, being a body of limited jurisdiction when acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, had no inherent power to grant the rehearing or annul its own final order discharging an employee.

In HEARTY, the court held that when the civil service commission, after a full examination, published an eligible list for the civil service position of truck driver, it had no right to thereafter regrade the examination and change the grades and ratings of the persons on the eligible list. In so ruling, the court followed WORSHAM.

In WORSHAM, a final quasi-judicial decision was overturned by the commission after over one-half year had elapsed, and after there had been a change in commission membership. In HEARTY, the civil service applicants were regraded and rerated after their names were revealed and their standings on the eligibility list had been established. Unquestionably, the practices condemned in WORSHAM and HEARTY were arbitrary and capricious as well as destructive of the civil service concept. As stated in HEARTY, "the principle underlying civil service, is to make free and open the opportunity to enter the public service in accordance with certain tests as to qualification, and not to leave anything 'to whim or caprice of the appointive power.'" STATE EX REL. HEARTY v. MULLIN, SUPRA at 103.

As important as maintaining the integrity of civil service systems is, it will ill serve the public interest to deny an agency the right to correct its own obvious mistakes when that can be done promptly and fairly. Other courts, which have held to the same effect as the State Supreme Court has in WORSHAM and HEARTY, have recognized that in such limited circumstances, there is an exception to the general rule that an agency does not have the authority to reopen and reconsider a final decision in the absence of a specific statute, charter or ordinance authorizing it. SEE COMMENT NOTE: POWER OF ADMINISTRATIVE AGENCY TO REOPEN AND RECONSIDER FINAL DECISION AS AFFECTED BY LACK OF SPECIFIC STATUTORY AUTHORITY, Annot., 73 A.L.R.2d 933, 951-52 (1960); 2 Am. Jur. 2d ADMINISTRATIVE LAW 524, at 336 (1962).

We think the proper view is that expressed by the Supreme Court of Minnesota in an analogous case:

"     Where through fraud, mistake, or misconception of facts the commissioner enters an order which he promptly recognizes may be in error, there is no good reason why, on discovering the error, he should not, after due and prompt notice to the interested parties, correct it. ANCHOR CAS. CO. v. BONGARDS CO-OPERATIVE CREAMERY ASS'N, 253 Minn. 101, 106, 91 N.W.2d 122, 126, 73 A.L.R.2d 933 (1958).

What is involved in the present case is not of the same genre of conduct as was involved in WORSHAM and HEARTY at all. Here the trial court specifically found that the Commission's actions were not arbitrary and capricious and that reconsideration was promptly ordered by the Commission when it ascertained that it may well have made a mistake and misperceived facts in peremptorily invalidating the entire civil service examination and new eligibility register. The requisite extraordinary circumstances and lack of any unfairness or arbitrary and capricious conduct on the part of the Commission was established. Due and prompt notice was given to all the parties of the new hearing. No legal rights of the three plaintiffs were prejudiced. The trial court did not err in denying the writs of mandamus and prohibition seeking to invalidate the eligibility register.



Swanson, A.C.J., and Williams, J., concur.