Did the Circuit Court of Cabell County err in finding that the West Virginia Department of Transportation, Division of Motor Vehicles, was not entitled to qualified immunity because it was required to submit a licensee’s medical file to the medical board for review?
On January 19, 2013, Wilma Ann King was the passenger in a car, driven by her daughter, Vicky Stickler, when they were struck by another vehicle, driven by Doris Fay Peyton. Wilma Ann King was fatally injured in the collision. Ms. Peyton had a long history of seizures, including multiple episodes of seizures each year since 1989. Ms. Peyton had been receiving treatment for her seizures from Ijaz Ahmad, M.D., since 1998. In 2005, Ms. Peyton sought to renew her driver’s license, which she had not held for several years prior. The West Virginia Department of Transportation, Division of Motor Vehicles (hereinafter “DMV”) received information pertaining to Ms. Peyton’s seizure condition, and required Ms. Peyton to submit a medical report from a medical doctor as part of the reapplication process. Ms. Peyton did not initially supply the report, and her driving privileges were suspended for a two year period as a result. In January 2008, Ms. Peyton was referred by Dr. Ahmad to St. Mary’s Medical Center for a driving skills evaluation, which resulted in the conclusion that, while she had the skills to drive, she would need treatment for cataracts and a behind-the-wheel assessment before being approved to drive again. In October 2008, Dr. Ahmad submitted a medical report to the DMV which indicated that Ms. Peyton had suffered from epilepsy and blackout spells, but these had been controlled for 19 months. Dr. Ahmad’s report did not make any specific statement regarding whether it was safe for Ms. Peyton to drive, but recommended that she pass a driving test administered by the DMV.
Ms. Peyton took a driving test in January 2009, passing the written portion but failing the road test. She retook the test again in February 2009, and passed. She received corrective treatment for her cataracts, as previously recommended, in October 2009, and her license was reinstated pursuant to the DMV’s policy as outlined in a memorandum written by DMV Director of Driver Services. This policy states that when it comes to seizure disorders and driving, there are no specific regulations on which the DMV must rely, but that where no seizure activity has been reported within the past year, the application will be approved if no other significant health problems are found to exist. The general guideline of being seizure-free for a year is based upon recommendation of the Medical Advisory Board, a group of five licensed physicians who advise the DMV regarding medical conditions and driving. Ms. Peyton was required to submit another medical report from Dr. Ahmad a year after her driving privileges were reinstated, which was done. This report recommended another evaluation a year later. It also stated that Ms. Peyton could safely operate a motor vehicle, and that the final decision about her license would be up to the DMV. The DMV granted medical approval and issued a license to Ms. Peyton. No follow-up report was requested by the DMV, even though one had been recommended by Dr. Ahmad. The DMV did not submit Ms. Peyton’s file to the Medical Advisory Board for review.
The cause of the January 19, 2013 incident which resulted in the death of Wilma Ann King was cited as being related to Ms. Peyton’s medical condition. Ms. Peyton also admitted to having been in two accidents in the year 2012, as the result of seizures. On June 2, 2014, David King, as Administrator of the Estate of Wilma Ann King, filed an Amended Complaint in the Circuit Court of Cabell County, alleging that the DMV was negligent in reinstating Ms. Peyton’s driver’s license without requiring a follow-up medical report or referring her medical file to the Medical Advisory Board. The DMV filed its motion for summary judgment, arguing that it was entitled to qualified immunity, because it is a political subdivision and the review and approval of Ms. Peyton’s application for a license constituted a discretionary act. A hearing on the motion was held on June 18, 2015, and on June 26, 2015, the court entered an order denying Defendant’s motion for summary judgment. In the Order, the court found that the act of referring an applicant’s license to the Medical Advisory Board was a nondiscretionary function, and the DMV was therefore not entitled to qualified immunity in this matter. The DMV appealed this decision.
The DMV, Petitioner herein and Defendant below, argues that the court erred in finding that it was required to refer Ms. Peyton’s medical file to the Medical Advisory Board. In support of their argument, the DMV points to specific sections of the West Virginia Code which they contend are not ambiguous, but rather clearly set forth that the DMV is permitted but not required to submit medical files, such as Ms. Peyton’s, to the Medical Advisory Board. Specifically, the DMV argues that the court erred when it failed to rely upon W. Va. Code § 17B-2-7a, which states, in relevant part, that “[t]he board shall, upon request, advise the commissioner of motor vehicles as to the mental or physical fitness of an applicant. . .” DMV points to the inclusion of the words “upon request,” arguing that this clearly makes such referral discretionary, and not mandatory, and that the court violated well-established principles of statutory construction which require that every word in the statute be given its effect and meaning. The DMV also argues that any administrative rule which contravenes this statute cannot be found to prevail over the statute, and that the court committed further error when it ignored the policy of the DMV, upon which it relied in deciding to reinstate Ms. Peyton’s license. The act of referring an applicant’s license to the medical board for review is, in the position of the DMV, clearly a discretionary function, for which the DMV was entitled to qualified immunity.
David King, as Administrator of the Estate of Wilma Ann King (hereinafter “King”), Respondent herein and Plaintiff below, asserts that the court properly determined that the act of referring Ms. Peyton’s medical file to the Medical Advisory Board was mandatory, not discretionary, and that the DMV was therefore not entitled to qualified immunity with respect to that act. In support of this argument, King refutes the DMV’s contention that W. Va. Code § 17B-2-7a makes referral to the Medical Advisory Board discretionary, rather than mandatory. King argues that the DMV’s interpretation of the inclusion of the words “upon request” focuses on what the Board is permitted to do, rather than what the DMV is required to do. King claims that none of the arguments proffered by the DMV illustrate its duty regarding referral to the Board, and that this is because the DMV is not focusing on the correct legislative enactment. King points to W. Va. Code R. § 91-5-3.3c as authoritative, which he argues required the DMV to (1) receive a medical report on Ms. Peyton, (2) submit that report to the Medical Advisory Board for review, and (3) receive a recommendation from the Board based on its findings. The Board cannot review “upon request” unless the DMV makes such a request, and King argues that W. Va. Code R. § 91-5-3.3c directed the DMV to make such a request in this matter. Their failure to do so, he asserts, was negligent and led to the death of Wilma Ann King. King also argues that the policy invoked by the DMV regarding epilepsy and driving is not authoritative, nor has it been proven that this particular policy was even in place at the time that the DMV reviewed Ms. Peyton’s license application. King asserts that the court properly determined that the referral of Ms. Peyton’s license application to the Medical Advisory Board was mandatory, and therefore, properly denied the DMV’s motion for summary judgment, finding that it was not entitled to qualified immunity.
This case will give the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals another opportunity to examine the issue of qualified immunity with respect to a particular government entity, this time the Division of Motor Vehicles. This case also provides the opportunity for the Court to explain the interaction between statutes, regulations, and agency decisions, and which prevails when they are in conflict.