September 29, 2010

Ex parte communications by the hearing officer not permitted while he or she is preparing the final determination in an administrative proceeding

Ex parte communications by the hearing officer not permitted while he or she is preparing the final determination in an administrative proceeding
Meislahn v McCall, App. Div., Third Dept., 264 AD2d 957

The lesson of the Meislahn decision: a hearing officer may not have ex parte* dealings with litigants in an administrative hearing.

A Town of Clarkstown police officer, William Meislahn, filed an application for accidental disability retirement after he fell while at work and injured himself. A hearing was held by the Retirement System. Meislahn’s application was rejected on the ground that “[Meislahn] had not sustained an accident within the meaning of the Retirement and Social Security Law.” Meislahn appealed the ruling, claiming that his right to due process had been violated.

According to the Appellate Division, after the hearing ended the hearing officer sent her decision to the attorney for the Retirement System. She, however, did not send a copy to Meislahn’s attorney. The attorney for the Retirement System then drafted a proposed final determination based on the hearing officer’s decision and sent it to the hearing officer. The hearing officer signed it on behalf of Comptroller and returned it to the attorney for the Retirement System.

The Retirement System’s attorney then sent a copy of the Hearing Officer’s decision and the Comptroller’s determination as signed by the Hearing Officer to Meislahn’s attorney. Meislahn argued that such a procedure violated his right to administrative due process.

Referring to an earlier opinion, Le Pore v McCall, 262 AD2d 919, the Appellate Division said in Le Pore it had concluded that a similar procedure violated State Administrative Procedure Act Section 307(2) and “created such an appearance of impropriety and bias to warrant an annulment of the determination.”

In Le Pore the Appellate Division found that:

Upon the Hearing Officer's request, the Retirement System attorney drafted the findings of fact, conclusions of law and final determination in this matter and sent it back to the Hearing Officer, who then signed it for [Retirement System] on July 25, 1997 and returned the determination to the Retirement System's attorney. It was not until August 29, 1997 that the decision of the Hearing Officer and [Comptroller's] determination were first sent to [Le Pore's] attorney.

The court agreed with Le Pore that he was denied due process by the Hearing Officer's clear and flagrant violation of State Administrative Procedure Act Section 307(2), which prohibits ex parte communications.

As it did in La Pore, the Appellate Division remanded the matter to the Comptroller for a de novo determination based on the record.

* The term ex parte is used to describe situations in which only one of the parties in an action appears before a judge, an arbitrator or a hearing officer without the knowledge of the other party or parties to discuss the case. Such meetings or communications are prohibited to prevent influencing a judicial or quasi-judicial decision as a result of a one-sided or partisan point of view.
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