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Medicine Creek LLC v. Middle Republican Natural Resources District

Supreme Court of Nebraska

March 10, 2017

Medicine Creek LLC, appellee and cross-appellant,
v.
Middle Republican Natural Resources District, appellant and cross-appellee.

         1. Jurisdiction: Appeal and Error. A jurisdictional question which does not involve a factual dispute is determined by an appellate court as a matter of law.

         2. Administrative Law: Judgments: Appeal and Error. A judgment or final order rendered by a district court in a judicial review pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act may be reversed, vacated, or modified by an appellate court for errors appearing on the record. When reviewing an order of a district court under the Administrative Procedure Act for errors appearing on the record, the inquiry is whether the decision conforms to the law, is supported by competent evidence, and is neither arbitrary, capricious, nor unreasonable.

         3. Natural Resources Districts: Political Subdivisions: Legislature. A natural resources district, as a political subdivision, has only that power delegated to it by the Legislature, and a grant of power to a political subdivision is strictly construed.

         4. Natural Resources Districts. A natural resources district possesses and can exercise the following powers and no others: first, those granted in express words; second, those necessarily or fairly implied in or incident to the powers expressly granted; and third, those essential to the declared objects and purposes of the district-not simply convenient, but indispensable.

         5. Administrative Law. When a board or tribunal is required to conduct a hearing and receive evidence, it exercises judicial functions in determining questions of fact.

         [296 Neb. 2] 6. Administrative Law: Waters: Natural Resources Districts: Appeal and Error. Any person aggrieved by an order of a natural resources district issued pursuant to the Nebraska Ground Water Management and Protection Act may appeal the order, and the appeal shall be in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act.

         7. Administrative Law: Final Orders: Courts: Appeal and Error. In reviewing final administrative orders under the Administrative Procedure Act, the district court functions not as a trial court but as an intermediate court of appeals.

         8. Administrative Law: Appeal and Error. In a review de novo on the record, the district court is not limited to a review subject to the narrow criteria found in Neb. Rev. Stat. § 84-917(6)(a) (Reissue 2014), but is required to make independent factual determinations based upon the record, and the court reaches its own independent conclusions with respect to the matters at issue.

         9. Administrative Law: Evidence: Judicial Notice: Appeal and Error. The Administrative Procedure Act does not authorize a district court reviewing the decision of an administrative agency to receive additional evidence, whether by judicial notice or other means.

         10. Appeal and Error: Words and Phrases. Plain error is error uncomplained of at trial, plainly evident from the record, and of such a nature that to leave it uncorrected would result in damage to the integrity, reputation, or fairness of the judicial process.

         11. Appeal and Error. An appellate court is not obligated to engage in an analysis that is not necessary to adjudicate the case and controversy before it.

         Appeal from the District Court for Frontier County: David Urbom, Judge. Reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

          Jon S. Schroeder, of Schroeder & Schroeder, P.C., for appellant.

          Stephen D. Mossman, of Mattson Ricketts Law Firm, for appellee.

          Donald G. Blankenau, of Blankenau, Wilmoth & Jarecke. L.L.R, for amicus curiae Nebraska Groundwater Coalition.

          Heavican, C.J., Wright, Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, Kelch, and Funke, JJ.

         [296 Neb. 3] Cassel, J.

         INTRODUCTION

         The Middle Republican Natural Resources District (MRNRD) denied a landowner's request for a variance to drill a new well. Upon the landowner's appeal, the district court reversed MRNRD's decision. Because the district court committed plain error by applying the wrong standard of review, we reverse, and remand for reconsideration under the proper standard.

         BACKGROUND

         Medicine Creek LLC, a Nebraska limited liability company, filed a request for a variance from MRNRD's moratorium on new well drilling. MRNRD denied the variance but stated that Medicine Creek "may request a [sic] adjudicatory hearing to appeal this decision." Medicine Creek did so, and a hearing officer presided over a hearing during which three individuals testified and numerous exhibits were received. Following the presentation of evidence, MRNRD's Board of Directors (Board) voted to deny the variance.

         Medicine Creek filed a complaint with the district court for Frontier County. It sought judicial review pursuant to Neb. Rev. Stat. § 46-750 (Reissue 2010) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Medicine Creek alleged that the Board improperly denied its variance request based on a rule applicable to transfers. Medicine Creek also requested declaratory and injunctive relief based on its allegation that two of MRNRD's rules violated its equal protection and due process rights.

         The district court conducted a bench trial, during which it received the record from MRNRD's hearing. It also received 100 additional exhibits and heard testimony from the three individuals who testified before the Board. The court determined that MRNRD's rules and regulations as applied to Medicine Creek's request did not violate Medicine Creek's equal protection and due process rights. It found that [296 Neb. 4] MRNRD's decision "was not supported by the evidence, does not conform to the law and was therefore arbitrary." The court reversed the decision denying the variance and directed MRNRD to grant the variance.

         MRNRD filed a timely appeal, and Medicine Creek filed a cross-appeal. We ...


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