Monday, October 10, 2011

Judicial review of administrative decisions


Judicial review of administrative decisions
Albano v NYC Fire Pension Fund, Court of Appeals, 98 N.Y.2d 548

What are the controlling rules to be followed by the courts in cases involving challenges to administrative decisions that concern the interpretation or application of a statute? In the Albano case, the Court of Appeals sets out the criteria used by courts in determining the weight to be accorded such administrative determinations.

The basic rule applied in such cases, said the court, is as follows:

In contrast to matters requiring "pure statutory interpretation" of the controlling law by the courts, where the interpretation or application of a statute "involves knowledge and understanding of underlying operational practices or entails an evaluation of factual data" within the expertise of the agency administering the statute, courts accord great deference to the agency's judgment unless it is "irrational or unreasonable"

Here the statute involved was General Municipal Law Section 207-kk, the so-called Cancer Bill.

Section 207-kk provides that:

Notwithstanding any other provisions of this chapter to the contrary, any condition of impairment of health caused by (i) any condition of cancer affecting the lymphatic, digestive, hematological, urinary or prostate systems ... [of a] member of a fire department in a city with a population of one million or more, who successfully passed a physical on entry into the service of such department, which examination failed to reveal any evidence of such condition, shall be presumptive evidence that it was incurred in the performance and discharge of duty unless the contrary be proved by competent evidence.

Section 207-kk was enacted after medical data demonstrated that there was a high incidence of cancer in firefighters, as compared with the average adult population. The statute creates a rebuttable presumption that a firefighter who develops certain enumerated types of cancers, incurred them in the course of performing his or her duties, thereby eliminating the burden of proving causation.

In other words, the "rebuttable presumption" provided by the Section 207-kk permits the disabled firefighter to establish a prima facie case that his or her cancer incurred as the result of his or her performing firefighter duties. The employer may then attempt to rebut this presumption by introducing evidence that establishes that the cancer was the result of some other cause or does not involve the types of cancers described in the statute.

Emil Albano, a New York City firefighter for 30 years, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He filed an application for an accident disability pension [ADR] on the ground that his cancer had presumptively been caused by the performance of his firefighting duties. The Medical Board of the New York City Fire Department Pension Fund found that Albano was, in fact, disabled, but recommended he be awarded an ordinary disability retirement allowance [ODR] rather than the ADR retirement allowance for which he had applied.

The reasons given by the Medical Board:

Although Albano is disabled from performing full fire duties due to testicular cancer, there was no evidence that Albano's lymphatic or urinary systems were involved as a result of his medical condition.

The Board of Trustees split on the question and, under its longstanding practice in such situations, the recommendation of the Medical Board was adopted: i.e., Albano's application for ADR benefits was denied but the Medical Board's recommendation that Albano be awarded ODR pension benefits was approved.

The issue before the Court of Appeals:

Was the denial of ADR benefits based on the Medical Board's finding that Albano's testicular cancer is not a cancer "affecting the lymphatic, digestive, hematological, urinary or prostate systems" rational and supported by substantial evidence?

The court said that the decision was both rational and supported by substantial evidence. In this instance the court concluded that the resolution of the issue "involves knowledge and understanding of underlying operational practices or entails an evaluation of factual data” and thus the Board's administrative ruling was entitled to great deference because it was not shown to be either irrational or unreasonable.

In contrast, where, the question is one of pure statutory interpretation there is little basis to rely on any special competence or expertise of the administrative agency, courts "need not accord any deference to the agency's determination" and can undertake its function of statutory construction.

In Albano's case, in order to decide whether Albano was entitled to an ADR pension, the Medical Board and the Trustees were called upon to interpret the applicability of the statute in Albano’s case. This interpretation involved its respective expertise in the evaluation of factual data. Accordingly, said the Court of Appeals, the administrative decision is to be afforded deference.

In addition, the court ruled that because testicular cancer is not enumerated as a cancer entitled to the statutory presumption -- the statute offers presumptive coverage for cancers affecting the lymphatic, digestive, hematological, urinary or prostate systems -- the Board was required to use its medical expertise to decide whether testicular cancer "affects the urinary or prostate systems." Again, this question was a question involving the expertise of the Medical Board and the Retirement Board of Trustees.

Concluding that there was a rational basis for the Medical Board's decision, the Court of Appeals dismissed Albano's appeal.

Handbooks focusing on State and Municipal Public Personnel Law continue to be available for purchase via the links provided below:

The Discipline Book at http://thedisciplinebook.blogspot.com/

Challenging Adverse Personnel Decisions at http://nypplarchives.blogspot.com

The Disability Benefits E-book: at http://section207.blogspot.com/

Layoff, Preferred Lists at http://nylayoff.blogspot.com/

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