Friday, February 15, 2013

admin. law - body that did not hear case CAN decide facts w/o violating due process

Graff v. DPW - Cmwlth. Court - November 21, 2011 - unreported memorandum decision

Claimant contends that the Secretary lacked authority to alter the ALJ‟s factual finding that she was permanently disabled by her work injury. The Department counters that the Secretary is vested with final fact-finding authority, and, thus, error did not occur.

In Siemon’s Lakeview Manor Estate v. DPW, 703 A.2d 551, 553-554 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1997), the Secretary reversed the factual findings of the Bureau in holding that a nursing facility was not entitled to reimbursement of certain costs associated with nursing care services. The nursing facility appealed to this Court, claiming that the Secretary did not have authority to reverse the Bureau's factual findings.

In deciding this legal issue, we reviewed the applicable statutes and regulations. Section 206 of the Administrative Code of 1929, provides that the Secretary of Public Welfare shall "personally" or through a "duly authorized agent" carry out his duties as agency head. 71 P.S. § 66. The General Rules of Administrative Practice and Procedure, which govern hearings before state agencies, such as the Department, authorize the "agency head" to personally conduct hearings or to appoint a presiding officer to conduct hearings. 1 Pa. Code §§35.123, 35.185. Here, the legislature has expressly made "the Secretary" the "head" of the Department. 71 P.S. §66. Consistent with these principles, we held that even though the Secretary did not view the demeanor of witnesses, this did not preclude the Secretary from exercising final fact-finding authority.

Again, in A.O. v. Department of Public Welfare, 838 A.2d 35 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2003), we reiterated that the Secretary, as the agency head, is vested with fact-finding authority. We further explained as follows:

While a fact finder‟s observation of the demeanor of a witness has traditionally been viewed as an important factor in determining credibility, administrative adjudicators are permitted to determine the credibility of testimony from the reading of a transcript. Administrative agencies often use a system of adjudication where a hearing examiner or presiding officer takes evidence and the ultimate fact finder is a board or commission, which has the power to make findings of fact based solely on a review of the record. See, e.g., Kramer v. Department of Insurance, 654 A.2d 203 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1995) (presiding officer conducted an evidentiary hearing, but the adjudication was issued by the Insurance Commissioner); … An adjudicative method where the ultimate decision in a case is made by an administrative fact finder who did not hear the testimony does not deny a litigant due process of law. Id.
at 38, n.5 (emphasis added) (citation omitted).  
More recently in Duvall v Department of Corrections, 926 A.2d 1220 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007), we considered whether the Secretary of Corrections could reject a hearing examiner‟s factual findings made in a hearing to determine eligibility for Heart and Lung benefits. The Secretary found that the claimant had fully recovered and was able to return to work. The claimant appealed to this Court, arguing that the Secretary could not make credibility determinations contrary to those of the hearing examiner. We disagreed, explaining that the hearing examiner was merely the designee of the Secretary, who was "the ultimate finder of fact in the instant matter" and able to make different credibility determinations. Id. at 1225.

We reject Claimant's contention that it was impermissible for the Secretary to make new factual findings, including credibility determinations, that differed from those of the administrative law judge appointed to take evidence and make the record for the Secretary. The contrary principle has been well established in legislation, regulations and case law precedent.

The opinion, though not reported, may be cited "for its persuasive value, but not as binding precedent."
210 Pa. Code § 67.55. Citing Judicial Opinions.