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Friday, March 26, 2010

Due process in administrative hearings requirements

Due process in administrative hearings requirements
Goohya v Walsh-Tozer, App. Div., 292 A.D.2d 384, motion for leave to appeal denied, 99 N.Y.2d 551

The Goohya decision sets out a number of pitfalls that an administrative hearing officer must avoid if his or her determination and recommendation is to survive judicial review.

Mary Ann Walsh-Tozer, Rockland County Commissioner of Mental Health, filed disci­plinary charges against Indrakumar Goohya. Commissioner Walsh-Tozer subsequently adopted the findings and recommendations of the disciplinary hearing officer and dis­missed Goohya from his employment as a psychiatrist with the Rockland County De­partment of Mental Health. Goohya appealed.

The Appellate Division, Second Department, annulled Walsh-Tozer's determination and returned the matter to the Department "for a new hearing before a different Hearing Officer and thereafter for a new determination" by the Commissioner.

The court said that "[d]ue process considerations mandate that findings of fact be made in a manner wherein the parties are assured that the decision is based on evidence in the record, uninfluenced by extralegal considerations, and that both an intelligent challenge by a party aggrieved by the determination and an adequate judicial review are possible," citing Simpson v Wolansky, 38 NY2d 391.

The problem here, said the court, was that:

1. Under the guise of making findings of fact, the Hearing Officer merely reiterated the parties' testimony and other evidence submitted at the hearing.

2. Other than the Hearing Officer rejecting one or two portions of the testimony of Goohya's expert, there is no indication of the evidence he relied upon in reaching his ultimate conclusions in deciding the matter.

3. After setting forth all of the evidence in the record, the Hearing Officer merely stated, in conclusory fashion, that each charge was supported by substantial evidence.

Acknowledging that "while it is clear that strict rules of evidence are not applicable to administrative hearings," the Appellate Division pointed out that an administrative determination may be annulled "where prejudice so permeates the underlying hearing as to render it unfair."

Here, said the court, the Hearing Officer "committed errors which so prejudiced Goohya that a new hearing is warranted."

Among the faults attributed to the Hearing Officer by the court was the Hearing Officer's rejection of Goohya's request for disclosure of the medical records of the two patients who testified at the hearing, despite the fact that the Department had access to, and used, these same records at the hearing.

According to the decision, the Hearing Officer had determined that the records were confidential. On this issue -- the confidentiality of patient records -- the Appellate Divi­sion said that "The need for maintaining the confidentiality of the patients' records must be balanced against the concern for [Goohya's] rights and any adverse impact on his reputation, live­lihood and future employment. Clearly, confidentiality, on these facts, must yield to [Goohya's] right to conduct an effective defense to the disciplinary action ... [t]he confi­dentiality accorded the hospital records of mental patients by the Mental Hygiene Law is not absolute. In a proper case, it must yield to the needs of justice."

Presumably the Appellate Division would apply the same principle and criteria to other types of "confidential records" in appropriate situations.

The Appellate Division also noted that the Hearing Officer ruled that while Goohya's witness qualified as an expert in psychiatry, "his testimony would be accorded dimin­ished weight and he would not in fact be given expert status because he had never before testified in an administrative proceeding." In the words of the Appellate Division: "this ruling has absolutely no basis in law.”

In addition, the court faulted the Hearing Officer because he "failed to indicate in his report what weight, if any, he gave to Goohya's expert's testimony."

The Appellate Division concluded that these errors, together with the failure of the Hearing Officer to make findings of fact, prevented it from properly reviewing the final administrative determination by the Commissioner.

The Appellate Division decided that granting Goohya's appeal and annulling the discipli­nary determination was warranted.

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As a coda to the initial litigation summarized above, following the remand and consideration of the matter by a new hearing officer, new litigation was initiated challenging the Commissioner’s decision rejecting the new hearing officer’s recommendation.

Commissioner Walsh-Tozer found Goohy guilty of patient abuse, professional misconduct, and sexual harassment. The penalty imposed: termination from employment with the Rockland County Department of Mental Health.

The Appellate Division sustained the Commissioner’s action [33 A.D.3d 798, leave to appeal denied, 8 N.Y.3d 806].

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