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Webb v. Nebraska Department of Health And Human Services

Supreme Court of Nebraska

December 7, 2018

Azar Webb, appellee,
v.
Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services et al., appellants.

         1. Jurisdiction. A jurisdictional question which does not involve a factual dispute presents a question of law.

         2. Statutes. Statutory interpretation presents a question of law.

         3. Judgments: Appeal and Error. Appellate courts independently review questions of law decided by a lower court.

         4. Jurisdiction: Appeal and Error. Before reaching the legal issues presented for review, it is the duty of an appellate court to determine whether it has jurisdiction over the matter before it.

         5. Courts: Jurisdiction: Legislature: Appeal and Error. In order for the Nebraska Supreme Court to have jurisdiction over an appeal, appellate jurisdiction must be specifically provided by the Legislature.

         6. Jurisdiction: Final Orders: Appeal and Error. When an appeal presents the two distinct jurisdictional issues of appellate jurisdiction and the trial court's lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the first step is to determine the existence of appellate jurisdiction by determining whether the lower court's order was final and appealable.

         7. ___: ___: ___. For an appellate court to acquire jurisdiction of an appeal, the party must be appealing from a final order or a judgment.

         8. Final Orders: Appeal and Error. The three types of final orders that an appellate court may review are (1) an order that affects a substantial right and that determines the action and prevents a judgment, (2) an order that affects a substantial right made during a special proceeding, and (3) an order that affects a substantial right made on summary application in an action after a judgment is rendered.

         9. Judgments: Final Orders: Civil Rights: Appeal and Error. A court's decision on the merits of an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012) is an appealable order.

         [301 Neb. 811] 10. Courts: Jurisdiction: Appeal and Error. The matter of acquiring jurisdiction by an appellate court is indeed a technical matter and one over which courts have no discretion.

         11. Jurisdiction: Words and Phrases. The term "jurisdictional" properly applies only to prescriptions delineating the classes of cases (subject matter jurisdiction) and the persons (personal jurisdiction) implicating that authority.

         12. Jurisdiction: Presumptions. In a court of general jurisdiction, jurisdiction may be presumed absent a record showing the contrary.

         13. Administrative Law: Courts: Appeal and Error. An Administrative Procedure Act proceeding in district court for review of a decision by an administrative agency is not an "appeal" in the strict sense of the term, meaning the power and authority conferred upon a superior court to reexamine and redetermine causes tried in inferior courts, but, rather, is the institution of a suit to obtain judicial-branch review of a nonjudicial-branch decision.

          Appeal from the District Court for Lancaster County: Susan I. Strong, Judge. Affirmed.

          Douglas J. Peterson, Attorney General, and David A. Lopez for appellants.

          Robert E. McEwen and Sarah C. Helvey, of Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, for appellee.

          Heavican, C.J., Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, Funke, Papik, and Freudenberg JJ.

          FUNKE, J.

         The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and two of the department's officers, in their official capacities (collectively DHHS), appeal the district court for Lancaster County's determinations in favor of Azar Webb. After DHHS ended Webb's Medicaid benefits and denied his petition for reinstatement, Webb filed a claim in district court under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA)[1] for unlawful termination [301 Neb. 812] of Medicaid eligibility. Webb's district court pleading added, along with his administrative appeal, a claim of violation of federal rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012).

         The court reversed DHHS' decision and ordered reinstatement of Webb's coverage and reimbursement of medical expenses which should have been covered. The court also found in Webb's favor on the merits of his § 1983 claim and enjoined DHHS officials from denying Webb Medicaid eligibility. The court denied Webb's request for attorney fees under state law; granted his request for attorney fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (2012); provided Webb 10 days to submit evidence of his fees; and, following a hearing, awarded Webb attorney fees pursuant to § 1988. DHHS filed a notice of appeal within 30 days of the order regarding attorney fees. DHHS' sole argument on appeal is that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider Webb's § 1983 claim in the same lawsuit in which the court considered an appeal from a contested case under the APA and that, as a result, the court lacked the authority to award Webb attorney fees.

         We conclude that both the court's judgment on the merits and its order for attorney fees are final and appealable. We have appellate jurisdiction to consider DHHS' appeal, because DHHS timely appealed from the attorney fees order and DHHS' challenge goes to the district court's authority to grant relief under §§ 1983 and 1988.

         We find that the district court is a court of general, original jurisdiction with authority to consider a § 1983 claim and that the APA does not include any provisions limiting a district court's general jurisdiction with respect to claims independent of the APA. It falls to the Legislature, and not to this court, to limit a district court's authority to consider a § 1983 claim in conjunction with an APA claim. As a result, once the district court separately and independently resolved Webb's APA claim, the court had the authority to grant Webb relief under §§ 1983 and 1988. We therefore affirm.

         [301 Neb. 813] BACKGROUND

         Webb was a participant in the bridge to independence program, a Medicaid program provided under the Young Adult Bridge to Independence Act, Neb. Rev. Stat. §§ 43-4501 to 43-4514 (Reissue 2016). In July 2015, the separate juvenile court of Douglas County made a determination that participating in the program was in Webb's best interests. Webb entered into a "Voluntary Placement Agreement" with the State of Nebraska and was placed under the care and responsibility of DHHS. When Webb turned 21 years of age, DHHS determined that Webb was no longer eligible for Medicaid and discharged him from the program. Webb appealed and argued that pursuant to title XIX of the Social Security Act, he was Medicaid eligible until the age of 26 under 42 U.S.C. § 1396a(a)(10)(A)(i)(IX) (Supp. V 2017). DHHS affirmed its decision to terminate Webb's coverage on the basis that it was not certain that Webb's participation in the bridge to independence program constituted "foster care" under the responsibility of the State, one of the four statutory requirements for eligibility under 42 U.S.C. § 1396a(a)(10)(A)(i)(IX). DHHS acknowledged that Webb had met the other statutory criteria.

         Webb filed a petition in district court which asserted two grounds for relief against DHHS. Webb's first claim for relief was for judicial review under the APA. Webb alleged that the court had jurisdiction over his APA claim pursuant to § 84-917. In addition, Webb asserted a claim for deprivation of federal rights under § 1983. Webb's petition alleged that jurisdiction over the § 1983 claim was proper pursuant to Neb. Rev. Stat. § 24-302 (Reissue 2016), which provides that "[t]he district courts shall have and exercise general, original and appellate jurisdiction in all matters, both civil and criminal, except where otherwise provided." Webb's petition alleged that he had significant healthcare needs which were urgent and ongoing.

         DHHS moved to dismiss the § 1983 claim pursuant to Neb. Ct. R. Pldg. § 6-1112(b)(6). Webb responded by moving for [301 Neb. 814] summary judgment on the § 1983 claim. The court held a hearing on these motions and Webb's APA claim.

         On May 10, 2017, regarding Webb's APA claim, the court issued an order which determined that Webb was in "foster care" through his participation in the bridge to independence program. The court ruled that because Webb had entered into a "Voluntary Placement Agreement" with DHHS, he was under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, he was under DHHS' placement and care, DHHS was responsible for supervising and managing his services, and he was placed in a supervised independent living setting. As a result, the court found that Webb had met all eligibility requirements of 42 U.S.C. § 1396a(a)(10)(A)(i)(IX) and concluded that Medicaid coverage for Webb was mandatory until he is 26 years of age. The court reversed DHHS' decision and remanded the cause with directions to reinstate Webb's Medicaid coverage and to reimburse him for medical expenses which should have been covered.

         Once the court determined the merits of Webb's APA claim, in the same written order, the court considered the parties' motions concerning the § 1983 claim. In regard to the motion to dismiss, the court considered whether it had jurisdiction to adjudicate a claim for judicial review under the APA and a § 1983 claim in the same proceeding. The court found that it did based on our decision in Maldonado v. Nebraska Dept. of Pub. Welfare, [2] which cited the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Maine v. Thiboutot[3] for the proposition that "a claim under § 1983 may be brought in a state court in the procedural context of a state court's reviewing the actions of a state administrative agency, and attorney fees may be awarded under § 1988 in such a case."[4]

         [301 Neb. 815] The court granted in part DHHS' motion to dismiss the § 1983 claim, finding that Webb's § 1983 claim could not be pursued against DHHS. The court denied the remainder of the motion and found the claim was properly brought against the official capacity defendants based on their unlawful termination of Webb's Medicaid eligibility. The court then sustained Webb's motion for summary judgment on his § 1983 claim, because there was no genuine issue of material fact that (1) Webb was an intended beneficiary of 42 U.S.C. § 1396a(a)(10)(A)(i)(IX), (2) the rights Webb sought to be enforced were specific and enumerated, and (3) the obligation imposed on the State was unambiguous and binding. The court granted Webb's request for injunctive relief in the form of enjoining the official capacity defendants from denying Webb Medicaid eligibility.

         The court's May 10, 2017, order denied Webb's request for attorney fees under state law, Neb. Rev. Stat. § 25-1803 (Reissue 2016), but granted Webb's request for attorney fees under § 1988 and provided Webb 10 days to submit evidence in support of a fee award. The court held a hearing on the amount of attorney fees to be awarded and, on August 7, issued an order which determined that Webb was a prevailing party under § 1988(b) and awarded him attorney fees in the amount of $27, 815 against the individual defendants in their official capacities.

         On August 30, 2017, DHHS filed a notice of appeal. The notice sought to appeal the district court's May 10 and August 7 orders. Webb filed motions for summary dismissal, arguing that the court's May 10 order was a final, appealable order and had not been appealed within 30 days. The Nebraska Court of Appeals overruled Webb's motions without prejudice, and we granted DHHS' motion to bypass the Court of Appeals under our statutory authority to regulate the caseloads of the appellate courts of this State.[5]

         [301 Neb. 816] ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

         DHHS claims, restated, that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to (1) consider Webb's § 1983 claim in the same proceeding in which it reviewed Webb's claim for judicial review under the APA and (2) award Webb attorney fees pursuant to § 1988.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A jurisdictional question which does not involve a factual dispute presents a question of law.[6] Statutory interpretation presents a question of law.[7] Appellate courts independently review questions of law decided by a lower court.[8]

         ANALYSIS

         DHHS asserts that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider Webb's § 1983 claim, because Webb "added [his § 1983 claim] to his petition for judicial review under the APA."[9] DHHS contends, "Nebraska's APA statutes do not confer authority on a district court sitting in review of an administrative agency decision to consider a freestanding 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim in combination with the APA appeal."[10]DHHS "does not contend that Webb is barred from bringing a § 1983 claim or even from bringing such a claim in state court. But he must have done so in a separate civil action and not simply as an extra cause of action in an APA appeal."[11] DHHS argues that because the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider Webb's § 1983 claim, the court necessarily lacked jurisdiction to consider an award of attorney fees under § 1988.

         [301 Neb. 817] Webb's primary argument in response is that this court lacks appellate jurisdiction to consider DHHS' subject matter jurisdiction argument, because DHHS did not appeal within 30 days of the court's order on the merits. Webb contends that even though a request for attorney fees was outstanding, based on our rules governing the finality of the disposition of § 1983 claims, the court's judgment on the merits was a final, appealable order.[12] Webb contends that DHHS timely appealed only the court's order awarding attorney fees and that DHHS' argument is collaterally attacking the judgment on the merits.

         No Independent Appellate Jurisdiction

         Over May 10, 2017, Order

         Before reaching the legal issues presented for review, it is the duty of an appellate court to determine whether it has jurisdiction over the matter before it.[13] DHHS seeks to appeal both the district court's judgment on the merits and the court's attorney fees order. Because DHHS did not file a notice of appeal within 30 days of the court's judgment on the merits, we are confronted with the issue of whether we have appellate jurisdiction to review DHHS' challenge to the district court's May 10, 2017, order.

         Appellate jurisdiction is the power and authority conferred upon a superior court to reexamine and redetermine causes tried in inferior courts.[14] The Nebraska Constitution confers the Nebraska Supreme Court with only "such appellate jurisdiction as may be provided by law."[15] In order for this court to have jurisdiction over an appeal, appellate [301 Neb. 818] jurisdiction must be specifically provided by the Legislature.[16]An appellate court acquires no jurisdiction unless the appellant has satisfied the statutory requirements for appellate jurisdiction.[17]

         When an appeal presents the two distinct jurisdictional issues of appellate jurisdiction and the trial court's lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the first step is to determine the existence of appellate jurisdiction by determining whether the lower court's order was final and appealable.[18] For an appellate court to acquire jurisdiction of an appeal, the party must be appealing from a final order or a judgment.[19] The Legislature has defined a "judgment" as "the final determination of the rights of the parties in an action."[20] Conversely, every direction of a court or judge, made or entered in writing and not included in a judgment, is an order.[21]

         The three types of final orders that an appellate court may review are (1) an order that affects a substantial right and that determines the action and prevents a judgment, (2) an order that affects a substantial right made during a special proceeding, and (3) an order that affects a substantial right made on summary application in an action after a judgment is rendered.[22] To be a final order under the first category of § 25-1902, the order must dispose of the whole merits of the case and leave nothing for the court's further consideration.[23]

         If a lower court has issued a final, appealable order, the next step is to determine whether an appellant has satisfied [301 Neb. 819] the statutory requirements necessary for this court to obtain appellate jurisdiction over the order. Under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 25-1912 (Supp. 2017), to vest an appellate court with jurisdiction, a party must timely file a notice of appeal.[24] A party must file a notice of appeal within 30 days of the judgment, decree, or final order from which the party is appealing.[25]

         For the reasons set forth below, we find that the May 10, 2017, order was final and appealable and that because DHHS did not appeal that order within 30 days, DHHS did not satisfy the statutory requirements to obtain appellate review of that order.

         The court's May 10, 2017, order meets the statutory definition of "judgment" provided under § 25-1301. The order was a comprehensive decision on the merits of all of Webb's claims. The order resolved the APA claim and granted Webb's motion for summary judgment on his § 1983 claim. The merits order also addressed Webb's request for attorney fees. The order denied Webb's request for attorney fees pursuant to state law, granted Webb's request for ...


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