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decided: April 11, 1978.


Appeal from the Order of the Department of Public Welfare in case of In Re: Appeal of Mabel Edwards, dated November 19, 1976.


Michael Buncher, with him Carol Hewett, for petitioner.

Robert B. Hoffman, Assistant Attorney General, for respondent.

Judges Crumlish, Jr., Wilkinson, Jr. and Mencer, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by Judge Wilkinson, Jr.

Author: Wilkinson

[ 34 Pa. Commw. Page 623]

Petitioner, a former patient at Polk State School and Hospital (Polk), has been presented with a notice of assessment in the amount of $894.00 by the respondent Department of Public Welfare (Department). This alleged liability arises from the cost of caring for the petitioner at Polk from July 1974, through September 1975. The petitioner has pursued the appropriate administrative remedies for contesting this

[ 34 Pa. Commw. Page 624]

    liability, and following an order of the administrative law judge upholding the claim, has appealed to this Court. For the reasons set forth below we must remand this case for the consideration of additional testimony and findings.

Petitioner, who is 50 years old and mentally retarded, was involuntarily committed to Polk on December 12, 1939 where she remained a resident until her release on a leave status to a group home on September 10, 1975. After her first year at the institution, petitioner was assigned housekeeping and institutional jobs at Polk for the benefit of the institution. She was not compensated for this work until January 1975 when she began to receive wages of approximately $1.05 an hour. Petitioner continued to receive this rate of pay for her work until her discharge receiving a total compensation of $531.54 for 514 hours during the nine month period. In 1964 petitioner was awarded Social Security disability benefits with the revenue agent at Polk named as the representative payee of these funds. From 1964 to July 1974 the agent assessed these benefits for her care and treatment at Polk. From July 1974 through September 1975 the revenue agent credited petitioner's account with $2,060.64 in Social Security payments and assessed petitioner $1,514.68 for care and maintenance at the institution. These Social Security checks and the bill from the State for her care and maintenance were presented to the petitioner on November 14, 1975. By this time petitioner had moved from the group home to her own apartment where she was able to maintain an independent living status with income from a part-time job and her Social Security benefits. In furnishing the apartment petitioner expended a portion of the earlier Social Security payment leaving a balance of $1,614.68 in an escrow account maintained by her attorney.

[ 34 Pa. Commw. Page 625]

Pursuant to Section 504 of the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act of 1966 (Act), Act of October 20, 1966, Special Sess. No. 3, P.L. 96, as amended, 50 P.S. ยง 4504, the petitioner sought an abatement of the $1,514.68 assessment. At the hearing before the Department hearing officer the Department reduced its claim for maintenance and care to $894. The hearing officer determined, inter alia, that the petitioner's right to offset the value of unpaid labor commenced April 19, 1975, the date of new Department regulations on this issue, at which time she was receiving compensation, and that the imposition would not result in a substantial hardship on the petitioner, the statutory basis for abatement under Section 504.

Because this case involves the consideration and application of two federal court decisions and Department regulations promulgated pursuant thereto, we will outline their history and substance at this time for the sake of convenience and clarity. In Downs v. Department of Public Welfare, 368 F. Supp. 454 (E.D. Pa. 1973), certain named plaintiffs instituted a class action seeking damages and injunctive relief to end involuntary labor in state mental health facilities in that such forced work violated the thirteenth amendment of the United States Constitution. The court granted a motion to dismiss the claim against the Commonwealth on the basis of no jurisdiction to grant the relief and against the individual defendants as to damages, but held that the allegations of the complaint were sufficient, if proven, to support an injunction against the individual defendants. On May 6, 1974, five months later, a consent decree was entered whereby the ...

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