Thursday, September 14, 2006

admin. law - local agency - standard of review

Nevling v. Borough of Pleasant Hills - Commonwealth Court - June 26, 2006 (designated to be reported 9-12-06)

The common pleas court "exceeded its limited standard of review" when it overruled borough council's decision -- including credibility and factual findings -- to deny former police officer disability pension benefits under the borough's pension plan, where a full and complete record was made before the local agency, and the agency's findings were supported by substantial evidence.

At the hearing before the borough council under the local agency law, 2 Pa. C.S. sec. 551 et seq., the only items of evidence were written reports of examining physicians for each party. Those reports were admitted without objection. The borough council credited the report of the borough physician over that of the officer's physician.

The officer appealed to the court of common pleas under the local agency law., 2 Pa. C.S. sec. 751 et seq. The parties stipulated that a "full and complete record was made before Borough Council" and the "trial court did not accept additional evidence." The trial court "made its own determinations concerning credibility and evidentiary weight" and found that "the evidence in this matter clearly and unequivocally establishes that [the officer] qualifies for a disability pension benefit under the plan."

The borough appealed to Commonwealth Court, which said that when a full and complete record is made before the local agency, the reviewing court's standard of review is limited to determining whether there has been an error of law or constitutional violation, or where findings of fact are not supported by substantial evidence. "A reviewing court…must accept the credibility determinations made by the local agency which hears the testimony, evaluates the credibility of the witnesses, and serves as a fact-finder….The reviewing court is not to substitute its judgment for that of the local agency….Assuming the record demonstrates the existence of substantial evidence, the court is bound by the local agency's findings…..[B]ecause all of Borough Council's findings are supported by Borough's Physician's credited report…the trial court exceeded its limited standard of review."