Utley v Mill Man Steel, Inc.

Mill appealed summary judgment to Utley on Utley’s wage claim arguing that it was entitled under 34-28-3(5)(c) to seek on offset for employee theft. The Court, 5-0 (3-2 on reasoning) on whether a district court judge could hear the claim and 3-2 on whether the offset must be proven before wages are paid or after, reversed. As to the judge issue, 2 justices argued that “hearing officer” was ambiguous as judges preside over hearings and some cases, like probation violations, are before district judges as hearing officers. Thus, reading hearing officers to include district judges avoids the absurd result of claims over 10,000.00 being excluded from the statute. Three justices argued that “hearing officer” is unambiguous as dictionaries and the specialized meaning derived from administrative law all exclude district court judges. They agreed that the statute as written leads to the absurd result identified in the other opinion, but, argued applying absurdity doctrine is correct as no legislator would have voted for the law as literally written and this cabins future courts form interposing their policy judgments in similar cases. As to when the claim must be brought, three justices held that claims for offset can be brought after the withholding of funds as requiring preclearance would result in a system where employers would have 24 hours to bring and resolve the claim and there is no civil procedure mechanism available for that kind of process. The majority held that the fact other parts of subsection 5 have to occur before the payment does not mean 3(5)(c) should be so read as this would essentially repeal the provision. The dissent on the timing issue argued that “unless” in the statute requires a finding by an administrative or district judge before withholding, this reading is consistent with the timing of the other subsection 5 exceptions, serves the main purpose of the statute in getting employees paid, does not require employers to risk criminal prosecution to make an offset claim, would only require presenting evidence that would justify the offset not require a full adversarial hearing, and prevents the employer form having a de facto lien on the wages.