Interpreting Administrative Regulations–Part One

I hope everyone who celebrates Easter enjoyed the holiday!  Now, back to work.

Last Thursday the Connecticut Supreme Court issued its slip opinion in Sarrazin v. Coastal, Inc., a case concerning the circumstances under which an employee’s “travel time” between his home and work must be treated as compensable work time under state or federal wage and hour law.  The case is a must-read for employment lawyers, which I am not.  What attracted my interest was the Court’s discussion about how administrative regulations should be interpreted.  First, the Court stated that General Statutes section 1-2z–which codifies the “plain meaning rule”–applies to administrative regulations.  Second, it concluded that the State Department of Labor’s interpretation of its own administrative regulation (31-60-10) was not entitled to any judicial deference.

I respectfully dissent from both of these conclusions.  This post addresses the first issue, to wit, the relevance of section 1-2z to interpreting administrative regulations.  A subsequent post will address the issue of deference.

* * *

As noted, Department of Labor regulation 31-60-10 defines “travel time.”  The specific language of the regulation is not relevant to this post.  What matters is how the Court went about interpreting the regulation.  Here is how the Court began its analysis:

Administrative regulations have the full force and effect of statutory law and are interpreted using the same process as statutory construction, namely, under the well established principles of General Statutes § 1-2z.’ (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Alexandre v. Commissioner of Revenue Services, 300 Conn. 566, 578, 22 A.3d 518 (2011).

OK.  Seems simple enough.  Now let’s unpack that statement.  Here is what section 1-2z says:

The meaning of a statute shall, in the first instance, be ascertained from the text of the statute itself and its relationship to other statutes. If, after examining such text and considering such relationship, the meaning of such text is plain and unambiguous and does not yield absurd or unworkable results, extratextual evidence of the meaning of the statute shall not be considered.  (Italics supplied.)

By its terms–by its plain language–section 1-2z only applies to statutes.  A statute is a formal, written enactment by a legislative body.  Indeed, the term “statute” is generally defined to exclude administrative regulations.  If the General Assembly wanted section 1-2z to apply to administrative regulations, i.e., regulations adopted by the Executive Branch,  it easily could have said so.  But it did not.  And if the term “statute” as used in section 1-2z is ambiguous and can reasonably be interpreted to include regulations, ordinances and all manner of other legal “rules,” well, then, everything is ambiguous, words mean whatever anyone wants them to mean (see Humpty Dumpty) and section 1-2z is pointless.

But, the Supreme Court said that administrative regulations have the “full force and effect” of statutes and, therefore, should be interpreted the same way.  I agree with the first part of the statement, but the second part of the sentence does not automatically follow from the first.  First, section 1-2z does not say, “the meaning of any legal rule that has the force and effect of a statute. . . .”  It just says “the meaning of a statute. . . .”  Second,  just because something has the “force and effect” of a statute does not mean that it is a statute or that it must be interpreted using the same rules of construction that apply to statutes.  There are many kinds of legal rules that are sort of or kind of like statutes, or similar, analogous or comparable to statutes.  But they are not statutes.  The Practice Book is composed of legal rules that, according to the Supreme Court, have the “force of law.”  See State v. DeJesus, 288 Conn. 418, 507 (2008) (Katz, J. dissenting).  Does the Supreme Court actually believe that the term “statute” in section 1-2z applies to the Practice Book?  And, if so, does the Court really relieve that the legislature has the constitutional authority to tell the Court how to interpret its own rules of practice?

What about the case the Supreme Court cited for the proposition that section 1-2z applies to administrative regulations?  To be sure, Alexandre v. Commissioner of Revenue Services states the proposition at issue.  But it purports to justify the proposition by citing to two other cases:  Hasychak v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals, 296 Conn. 434, 443 (2010) and Rainforest Cafe v. Dept. of Revenue Services, 293 Conn. 363, 375 (2009).

Hasychak involved the interpretation of a local zoning regulation.  Admittedly, a zoning regulation is closer to a statute than an administrative regulation, although I still don’t think it falls within the plain meaning of the term “statute.”  Even if I’m wrong, however, nothing in Hasychak supports the proposition that section 1-2z applies to administrative regulations.

Rainforest Cafe involved the interpretation of several statutes and an administrative regulation.  The Court said section 1-2z applied to the statutes, and later said that administrative regulations have the “full force and effect” of law.  However, the Court never specifically said section 1-2z applied to regulations.  And even if one were to infer such a conclusion from the opinion, the Court made no attempt in Rainforest Cafe to justify that conclusion.  Merely saying something is so is not an argument, much less a convincing one, that it is so.

Although section 1-2z tells courts not to consult legislative history if a statute is plain and unambiguous, and although I think the word “statute” is plain and unambiguous, it is also worth remembering that section 1-2z arose out of a battle of sorts between the judicial branch and the General Assembly.  It is about the relationship between those two branches of government.   It is a statement by the legislature to the courts: “On those occasions (rare as they may be  🙂 ) when we speak with crystal clarity on a subject, you must follow the plain meaning of our words, even though extratextual evidence may lead you to a different conclusion about our intent.”  This legislative history lends no support to the Court’s conclusion that section 1-2z applies to the interpretation of Executive Branch regulations.

If the Supreme Court wants to apply the plain meaning rule to administrative regulations, it certainly has the authority to do so as a matter of common law.  See State v. Courschesne.  My point is only that section 1-2z, by its plain language, does not to apply to administrative regulations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s