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Stoneridge Homes, Inc. v. Alabama State Board For Registration of Architects

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

March 1, 2019

Stoneridge Homes, Inc., and Home Builders Association of Alabama, Inc.
Alabama State Board for Registration of Architects

          Appeal from Montgomery Circuit Court (CV-18-900185)


         Stoneridge Homes, Inc., and Home Builders Association of Alabama, Inc. (hereinafter referred to collectively as "Stoneridge"), appeal from a judgment of the Montgomery Circuit Court affirming a decision of the Alabama State Board for Registration of Architects ("the board"). In its decision, the board concluded that language in a board regulation was consistent with certain statutory language as to when the services of an architect are required.

         The facts in this case are undisputed. In November 2017, Stoneridge Homes submitted an application to the Inspection Department of the City of Huntsville ("the city") seeking a permit to build two buildings, each consisting of ten attached townhouses. The city's chief building inspector denied the application because, among other things, the plans had not been "stamped" or prepared by a registered architect. Stoneridge then filed a petition for a declaratory ruling with the board.

         In the petition, Stoneridge contended that, pursuant to § 34-2-32(b), Ala. Code 1975, townhouses were exempt from the requirement that a registered architect prepare plans and specifications for buildings constructed in Alabama. That statute provides, in pertinent part:

"No person shall be required to register as an architect in order to make plans and specifications for or administer the erection, enlargement, or alteration of any building upon any farm for the use of any farmer, irrespective of the cost of such building, or any single family residence building ...."

§ 34-2-32(b)(emphasis added).

         Stoneridge argued that the exemptions contained in Regulation 100-X-4-.10, Ala. Admin. Code (State Bd. for Registration of Architects) ("the regulation"), conflicted with the exemptions set forth in § 34-2-32(b). That regulation provides, in pertinent part, that "[a]n architect is not required for design of a detached single-family residence ...." (Emphasis added.) Stoneridge sought a declaration that § 34-2-32(b) permitted the exemption of an architect for the design of any single-family residence building, "whether detached or not," and that the regulation stating that the exemption was applicable only to the design of a "detached single-family residence" was not consistent with the statutory exemption. Stoneridge's position is that a townhouse is a single-family dwelling.

         At a specially called meeting of the board on December 20, 2017, Stoneridge presented its arguments regarding the issues presented in its petition. The minutes from that meeting reflected that the regulation had been adopted in 2010. The board's chair, Marzette Fisher, explained that the board's interpretation of single-family residence meant "one dwelling unit." He said that, in his opinion, the ten-unit townhouse structures for which Stoneridge Homes had submitted its application were a multifamily dwellings, not single-family units. He gave an example of a previous denial of a building permit for two buildings containing five townhouses each based on the board's interpretation of its regulations.

         According to the board's minutes, during the discussion of the regulation, board member Jim Seay explained that "a single-family residence building is a one-dwelling unit, and [that] adding the word 'detached' in the regulation was to clarify the exemption already provided" in § 34-2-32(b). A second board member, Dan Bennett, also explained that the word "detached" was specifically added to the regulation to avoid ambiguity. In fact, the board members agreed that, even if the word "detached" were removed from the language in the regulation, their interpretation would remain the same--i.e., if two living units are within the same building, then the building is a multifamily dwelling. At the meeting, the board voted unanimously that the regulation was consistent with § 34-2-32(b).

         On January 3, 2018, the board entered a "preliminary decision" determining that the statute and the regulation were consistent. It added, "[t]his preliminary decision is consistent with the Board's long-standing interpretation that a single family residence building is a detached single family residence, and not a multifamily dwelling unit." The board submitted the preliminary decision to the Legal Division of the Legislative Fiscal Office ("the LFO") for an independent review and final decision.

         On January 20, 2018, the LFO issued a review determination agreeing with the board's preliminary decision and stating that the language in the regulation "mimics" the language in § 34-2-32(b). The LFO review determination was then submitted to the Joint Committee/Legislative Counsel of the state legislature ("the committee"), as required by § 41-22-22.1, Ala. Code 1975. A final decision had not yet been entered at that point. Nonetheless, on January 31, 2018, Stoneridge filed in the circuit court a notice of appeal and a complaint for a declaratory judgment seeking the same relief as it had when it filed its petition before the board.

         On March 2, 2018, the board filed in the circuit court a motion to dismiss Stoneridge's appeal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, asserting that the appeal was premature. In the alternative, the board contended that the appeal was due to be dismissed "based on the well-reasoned action taken by the board." Stoneridge opposed the motion, arguing that the appeal was timely and, further, that the circuit court had independent jurisdiction over the declaratory-judgment action. The circuit court denied the board's motion to dismiss on May 29, 2018.

         Meanwhile, on March 22, 2018, the committee issued a written statement approving the board's preliminary decision. In the statement, the committee concluded that its

"decision conforms with the [LFO's] review wherein it, too, determined that '[t]he language in the [regulation] in question mimics the language in the code almost word for word. The only difference is that the rule refers to a "detached single-family residence" while the code refers to a "single family residence building." We fail to see any discernible difference in these two terms.'"

         The board next met on May 22, 2018, at which time it voted unanimously to adopt its preliminary decision as its final decision. The board's final written decision was issued on May 31, 2018.

         On June 19, 2018, Stoneridge filed in the circuit court a supplemental notice of appeal and a complaint for a declaratory judgment. Stoneridge included the board's final decision with the supplemental notice of appeal. On July 3, 2018, the board responded, incorporating by reference the motions it had submitted to that point. The board later argued for a second time that the circuit court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over the action because, it said, Stoneridge had failed to properly perfect its appeal under the Alabama Administrative Procedure Act (the "AAPA"), § 41-22-1 et seq., Ala. Code 1975.

         The circuit court held a hearing on Stoneridge's complaint, after which, on August 8, 2018, it upheld the board's decision to deny Stoneridge's petition for declaratory relief. The circuit court then purported to dismiss the action. Stoneridge timely filed a notice of appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court. That court transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to § 12-3-10, Ala. Code 1975.

         Before addressing the merits of Stoneridge's appeal, we first must consider the board's argument that the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over this action. Specifically, the board contends that Stoneridge failed to meet the AAPA's requirements for seeking judicial review of the board's decision, as set forth in § 41-22-20(d), Ala. Code 1975. The board asserts that Stoneridge filed its initial notice of appeal before the board had issued a final decision. After the board's final decision was issued on May 31, 2018, Stoneridge filed a supplemental notice of appeal with the circuit court, without first filing a notice of appeal with the board. Therefore, the board argues, because Stoneridge did not file a notice of appeal with the board within 30 days of receipt of the board's final decision, as required by § 41-22-20(d), it failed to file a timely appeal. As a result, the board asserts, the circuit court never obtained subject-matter jurisdiction.

         In its reply brief to this court, Stoneridge contends that, because it petitioned for a declaratory ruling from the board, this is not a contested case within the meaning of § 41-22-3(3), Ala. Code 1975. Therefore, Stoneridge argues, it was required to meet the requirements of § 41-22-11, Ala. Code 1975, which governs the time within which to seek judicial review of declaratory rulings of state agencies.

"Although the [AAPA] does not specifically define a petition for a declaratory ruling, § 41-22-11(a) addresses petitions for declaratory rulings. That section indicates that a person substantially affected by a rule may petition an agency for a declaratory ruling and that 'an agency may issue a declaratory ruling with respect to the validity of the rule or with respect to the applicability to any person, property or state of facts of any rule or statute enforceable by it....' (Emphasis added.) A contested case is, however, defined in the AAPA and is '[a] proceeding, including but not restricted to ratemaking, price fixing, and licensing, in which the legal rights, duties, or ...

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