An administrative law judge violated the petitioners’ due process rights by not letting them present their arguments at a hearing on the denial of a support subsidy for their adopted child, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.
In Jones v Dep’t of Health and Human Services (Docket No. 339080), the respondents denied the petitioners’ request for an adoption support subsidy under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. Title IV-E provides funds for states to provide adoption assistance for children with special needs, among other things. The respondents determined the petitioners did not timely appeal their subsidy denial to an administrative law judge (ALJ) and dismissed the petitioners’ case. The Genesee County Probate Court affirmed the dismissal.
The petitioners appealed, arguing their case was timely brought before the ALJ. They claimed an evidentiary hearing would have shown this to be true, but the ALJ made factual findings against them without giving them the opportunity to present their evidence. The petitioners requested their appeal to the ALJ be reinstated and a hearing be conducted.
The respondents, however, claimed the petitioners did not timely request a hearing before an ALJ and could not overcome the “deferential standard of review” given to administrative appeals. The respondents further asserted that, even if the petitioners’ request was timely, it was “substantively inadequate” to trigger a hearing.
The Court of Appeals rejected the respondents’ arguments. “Because the proceedings below were determined on an inadequate record, we agree with petitioners,” Judges Jonathan Tukel, Jane M. Beckering and Douglas B. Shapiro ruled.
According to the Court of Appeals, the ALJ violated the petitioners’ due process rights, as well as the administrative rules for hearings, “by making critical factual findings on an incomplete record, which denied petitioners the right to be heard as to whether they had timely appealed the denial of the adoption support subsidy.”
Due Process Deprivation
The main issue before the Court of Appeals was whether, after the denial of the petitioners’ application for an adoption support subsidy and the signing of the Order Placing Child (PCA 320), the petitioners had timely requested a hearing before the ALJ.
This issue was considered at an April 14, 2016 hearing, where the respondents sought to dismiss the petitioners’ appeal as untimely. At that hearing, the ALJ said the “sole purpose” of the hearing was oral argument on the pending motion to dismiss. The ALJ stated, “This is a motion hearing. I was not expecting to take any testimony … this is a motion hearing.”
However, the ALJ made factual findings at this April 14, 2016 hearing “without having made or having afforded respondents the opportunity to make a full factual record …,” the Court of Appeals said. For example, the ALJ acknowledged the petitioners’ argument that their initial hearing request was submitted on May 10, 2009, “which was timely as it was only 10 days after the adoption was finalized.” But without hearing any testimony regarding that argument, the ALJ then stated that he “carefully considered and weighed the parties’ arguments and submissions filed in this matter” and the petitioners “had 90 days from October 6, 2008, or until January 4, 2009, to request a hearing to dispute the adoption support subsidy issue.” As a result, the ALJ concluded the petitioners “failed to request a hearing concerning the adoption support subsidy matter within 90 days.”
In making these factual findings, the Court of Appeals said the ALJ “particularly relied” on a purported Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) policy that all requests for a hearing on an adoption support subsidy are time-stamped. However, “1605 Forms are not time stamped,” the appeals court observed.
“The ALJ was not free to simply find petitioners’ proffered evidence factually inadequate without having afforded them an opportunity to testify, to offer their documentary evidence, and to present any other evidence they may have been able to marshal in support of their position that they timely requested a hearing; by doing so, the ALJ denied petitioners their due process right to be heard,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “That is not to say that, on a full record, the ALJ may not have been permitted to find that petitioners failed to establish their position factually. However, the ALJ could not do so without a full hearing and a weighing of the evidence, including, if necessary, credibility determinations of the witnesses involved. By failing to do so, the ALJ not only violated petitioners’ due process rights, but he also violated the Michigan Administrative Hearing System Administrative Hearing Rule applicable to this issue ….”
In other words, “it was not sufficient for the ALJ to point to the disparity in the parties’ positions articulated by counsel in briefs and choose one; rather, he was required to first take testimony, receive whatever documentary evidence the parties wanted to offer, and then resolve the factual disputes,” the Court of Appeals stated. “The ALJ wholly failed to do so. Thus, it is clear that the ALJ violated petitioners’ due process rights, and DHHS’s own rules regarding ALJ hearings, by making critical factual findings on an incomplete record, which denied petitioners the right to be heard as to whether they had timely appealed the denial of the adoption support subsidy.”
As a result, the probate court made the same error in its order affirming the dismissal of the petitioners’ case. “That conclusion is invalid as a matter of law given that the ALJ denied petitioners the opportunity to demonstrate such conditions and that such denial constituted a deprivation of petitioners’ due process rights,” the Court of Appeals wrote.
Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reverses the probate court’s order and remanded the case to the ALJ to create a factual record and determine whether the petitioners, not later than July 23, 2009, filed written and signed requests for a hearing before an ALJ. “If on remand the ALJ determines that petitioners did not make such requests, he must again dismiss the case, and petitioners will have appellate rights to review that decision. If the ALJ finds that petitioners did timely request a hearing, then he must conduct proceedings consistent with this opinion on the merits of their claim for the adoption subsidy.”