Friday, October 19, 2018

UC - fair hearing - unrepresented party - duty of referee to assist - "full and fair hearing"


Scott v. UCBR – Cmwlth. Court – October 19, 2018 – unreported* memorandum opinion

Held:  Case remanded because claimant was not afforded a “full and fair hearing.”   The referee “precluded claimant from introducing potentially relevant evidence that would support his claim that he was discharged” rather than had quit his job.  The referee “could have taken a few minutes to review the additional documents [that] Claimant had submitted to the Service Center, given Claimant an opportunity to explain their relevance, and compared those documents to the claims [that] Claimatn sought to introduce, before precluding the evidence.”

Admission of evidence
In UC proceedings, the Referee has “wide latitude” regarding the admission of evidence. Creason v. UCBR, 554 A.2d 177, 179 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1989). However, the Referee “is not free to disregard rules of evidence and if evidence is not relevant[,] the [R]eferee may exclude it.” Id. Despite this broad discretion, the Referee “may not improperly refuse to accept relevant competent and material evidence.” Healey v. UCBR, 387 A.2d 1025, 1027 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1978).

Duty to assist pro se claimant
The [R]eferee has a responsibility . . . to assist a pro se claimant at a hearing so that the facts of the case necessary for a decision may be adequately developed to “insure that compensation will not be paid in cases in which the claimant is not eligible and that compensation will be paid if the facts, thoroughly developed, entitled the claimant to benefits.” The [R]eferee, of course, need not advise a party on evidentiary questions or on specific points of law but must act reasonably in assisting in the development of the necessary facts, and any failure to develop an adequate record must be prejudicial to the claimant and not mere harmless error or else a reversal will not be found. Bennett v. UCBR, 445 A.2d 258, 259-60 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1982); see also 34 Pa. Code § 101.21(a).  While the Referee is not obligated to advocate on behalf of a pro se claimant, see Stugart v. UCBR, 85 A.3d 606, 609 (Pa. Cmwlth.  2014), the Referee is required to reasonably assist a pro se claimant in developing the necessary facts.

In this case, a key issue before the Referee was whether Claimant was discharged from his employment or whether he voluntarily quit.   Rather than assist Claimant, however, the Referee precluded Claimant from introducing potentially relevant evidence that would support his claim that he was discharged.   Because the Referee excluded both the missing Service Center documents and the emails, we do not know the extent of any overlap between the documents and the emails or whether any of that evidence was relevant to the issues before the Referee. The Referee could have taken a few minutes to review the additional documents Claimant had submitted to the Service Center, given Claimant an opportunity to explain their relevance, and compared those documents to the emails Claimant sought to introduce before precluding the evidence. Because the Referee 9 failed to take these steps, we conclude that she did not “act reasonably in assisting in the development of the necessary facts.” Hackler v. UCBR, 24 A.3d 1112, 1115 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011).
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*An unreported Commonwealth Court case may not be cited binding precedent but can be cited for its persuasive value.  See 210 Pa. Code § 69.414(b) and Pa. R.A.P.  3716


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