decided: November 29, 1982.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE, APPELLANT,
IRWIN L. EISENBERG, APPELLEE
No. 81-2-270, Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court, dated July 28, 1981, at No. 1473 C.D. 1981
Bruce G. Baron, Asst. Counsel, Dept. of Public Welfare, Harrisburg, for appellant.
Gilbert B. Abramson, Philip L. Blackman, Philadelphia, for appellee.
O'Brien, C.j., and Roberts, Nix, Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott and Hutchinson, JJ. Roberts, J., files a concurring opinion in which O'Brien, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty and Hutchinson, JJ., join. Flaherty, J., files a concurring opinion in which Hutchinson, J., joins.
[ 499 Pa. Page 531]
This is an appeal of a Commonwealth Court order vacating the suspension of appellee by the Department of Public
[ 499 Pa. Page 532]
Welfare ("Department") and enjoining the Department from further action against him pending a hearing on the merits of this matter. The Department brings this direct appeal and we now reverse.*fn1
Appellee, Irwin L. Eisenberg, D.O., was a participating provider in the Pennsylvania Medical Assistance Program ("Program") operating under the Public Welfare Code.*fn2 On September 30, 1980, the Department, by means of a letter, suspended appellee from further participation in the Program for a three year period, advising him of his right to appeal before the Hearing and Appeals Unit of the Department ("Appeals Unit").*fn3 Appellee initiated the appropriate administrative proceedings before the Appeals Unit, stipulating as to all issues concerning the merits of the case to be raised at the hearing. These issues did not include any constitutional challenge by appellee of the Department's right to suspend him from participation in the Program. Before the hearing on appellee's suspension took place, however, appellee filed an application for special relief with Commonwealth Court raising a constitutional challenge to the Department's action. As a result of the action in Commonwealth Court, further proceedings before the Appeals Unit were suspended and the record indicates that no hearing on the merits has been held.
The Commonwealth Court concluded that the termination of appellee's participation in the Program was an adjudication
[ 499 Pa. Page 533]
within the meaning of the Administrative Agency Law,*fn4 and, therefore, that appellee was entitled to a hearing prior to his termination. The lower court viewed the application for special relief as addressed to its equitable powers and enjoined the Department from further action against appellee. Commonwealth v. Eisenberg, No. 1473 C.D. 1981 (Commonwealth Court, filed July 18, 1981) (mem. opinion).
In challenging the Commonwealth Court's order, the Department raises two issues for our review: 1) whether the court below lacked the power to grant injunctive relief and 2) whether the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding that appellee was entitled to a pre-termination hearing under applicable administrative agency law.
The Commonwealth Court's order is an exercise of equitable jurisdiction which imposes an injunction on the Department.*fn5 Therefore, the standards set forth in Sameric Corp. of Market Street v. Goss, 448 Pa. 497, 295 A.2d 277 (1972), must be met.*fn6
[ 499 Pa. Page 534]
We are in agreement with the Department that these requirements have not been satisfied by appellee. Injunctive relief, therefore, should not have been granted by the court below. Where injunctive relief is sought, our initial focus should be on the threshold question regarding whether equity jurisdiction is appropriate. That equity will not intervene where there is available an adequate statutorily prescribed remedy at law, is a principle well established in this Commonwealth. Cannonsburg General Hospital v. Department of Health, 492 Pa. 68, 422 A.2d 141 (1980); DeLuca v. Buckeye Coal Co., 463 Pa. 513, 345 A.2d 637 (1975); Penn Galvanizing Co. v. Philadelphia, 388 Pa. 370, 130 A.2d 511 (1957).
In the instant case appellee had available legal means of redress which he did not fully pursue before resorting to equitable jurisdiction. One statutory remedy available to appellee was explained in the Department's controversial letter of September 30, 1980. The letter informed appellee that he had a right of appeal before the Hearing and Appeals Unit of the Department of Public Welfare.*fn7 Appellee failed to fully pursue this remedy.*fn8 Consequently, he
[ 499 Pa. Page 535]
could not validly seek before the Commonwealth Court the imposition of equitable jurisdiction. See Deluca; Cannonsburg General Hospital.
Nevertheless, the Commonwealth Court exercised equitable jurisdiction and imposed an injunction before appellee fully utilized the available legal remedies. Appellee argues that this was proper because he had raised a constitutional due process challenge to the Department's action of suspending him prior to a hearing. Administrative agencies, appellee argues, are without power to resolve such constitutional questions. See Borough of Green Tree v. Board of Property Assessments, 459 Pa. 268, 328 A.2d 819 (1974). Therefore, appellee concludes, equitable relief was proper since the available legal remedies did not provide relief for a due process violation.
If we were to accept this argument, it would be a simple matter for any litigant to avoid the rulings of an administrative agency merely by challenging its authority on a constitutional basis. It is precisely in an effort to avoid this problem, that we have consistently held that equity will not intervene where a statutorily prescribed remedy at law is available without a clear showing that the remedy was inadequate.*fn9
[ 499 Pa. Page 536]
In the instant matter, we do not decide the merits of appellee's constitutional argument. Rather we refuse to allow equity to intervene where available statutory remedies have not been exhausted and where there is a lack of sufficient challenge to the adequacy of these remedies. The administrative process should not be weakened by unpredictable judicial intrusions in the absence of those circumstances which this Court has indicated are necessary prerequisites to such interference. See Sameric. The court below, therefore, was without power to exercise equitable jurisdiction or impose injunctive relief.
Because we have answered in the negative the threshold question as to whether the court below had the power to exercise equitable jurisdiction, we need not address the merits of appellant's second contention which challenges the Commonwealth Court's interpretation of Sections 101 and 504 of the Administrative Agency Law.
Moreover, our conclusion would be no different if we were to decide, as did the Commonwealth Court, that the equitable powers of that court were properly invoked. Assuming that the termination of appellee's participation in the Program constituted an adjudication within the meaning of Section 504 of the Administrative Agency Law,*fn10 we are compelled to conclude, contrary to the holding of the Commonwealth Court, that no pre-termination hearing is required.
As we stated recently in a case raising the same issue:
[ 499 Pa. Page 537]
This due process right has been met by a full administrative hearing accorded to appellees before the Hearing and Appeals Unit of [the Department].
Commonwealth v. Forbes Health System, 492 Pa. 77, 90, 422 A.2d 480, 486 (1980) (emphasis supplied). See also, Philadelphia School District v. Twer, 498 Pa. 429, 442, 447 A.2d 222, 227 (1982). The procedures provided in the Administrative Agency Law comport with the requirements of due process.
Accordingly, the order of the Commonwealth Court is reversed.
ROBERTS, Justice, concurring.
The injunction must be set aside, not because the Commonwealth Court lacked jurisdiction, but because appellee has failed to demonstrate any constitutional or statutory infirmities with respect to the administrative remedies available to contest his suspension. Accordingly, I concur in the judgment only.
The opinion of Mr. Justice McDermott states the issue in this case to be "whether the court below lacked the power to grant injunctive relief." At 514. The opinion concludes that, because the Department of Public Welfare provides a procedure through which appellee ultimately could have had his suspension lifted, his failure to exhaust available administrative remedies precluded the Commonwealth Court from entertaining challenges to the validity of those remedies.
[ 499 Pa. Page 538]
Although courts should not prematurely interfere with ongoing administrative proceedings or excuse an unjustified failure to pursue them, see Canonsburg General Hospital v. Department of Health, 492 Pa. 68, 422 A.2d 141 (1980), the mere fact that some administrative remedy is available does not deprive a court of the power to entertain claims challenging an agency's failure to afford a constitutionally or statutorily required remedy. The availability of the administrative remedy bears only on the appropriateness of granting the relief requested.
In his application for relief filed with the Commonwealth Court, appellee alleged that his suspension without a prior hearing denied him due process and violated statutory provisions relating to the practice and procedure of Commonwealth agencies, particularly the Administrative Agency Law, 2 Pa.C.S. § 504. Appellee has failed to meet his burden of establishing either allegation.
Appellee's due process allegation is clearly foreclosed by this Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Forbes Health System, 492 Pa. 77, 422 A.2d 480 (1980), in which this Court held that due process does not require that physician-providers be afforded pretermination hearings. "[D]ue process [is] met by full administrative hearings accorded appellees before the Hearings and Appeals Unit of DPW." 492 Pa. at 90, 422 A.2d at 486. Appellee's statutory argument is equally without merit. Section 504 of the Administrative Agency Law states: "No adjudication shall be valid as to any party unless he shall have been afforded reasonable notice of a hearing and an opportunity to be heard." As the statutory definition of "adjudication" makes clear, see 2 Pa.C.S. § 101, section 504 does not affect the authority of an administrative agency to take preliminary action with respect to persons within the agency's jurisdiction. Section 504 merely provides that a party subjected to such action is entitled to reasonable notice and an opportunity to be heard on the permissibility of the action taken. See Callahan v. Pennsylvania State Police, 494 Pa. 461, 431 A.2d 946 (1981).
[ 499 Pa. Page 539]
Thus, although the Commonwealth Court had jurisdiction to entertain appellee's claim, the issuance of the injunction was improper because appellee failed to establish his entitlement to relief.
FLAHERTY, Justice, concurring.
I concur in the result reached by Mr. Justice McDermott, and his reasoning insofar as it denies appellee resort to equitable relief under the circumstance where appellee has not exhausted available statutory remedies, which, at least in the first instance, were not shown to be inadequate to remedy the underlying harm suffered, to wit, termination of appellee's participation in the Pennsylvania Medical Assistance Program. In a proper case, however, in which due process is at stake and in which there is an inadequacy of the statutory remedy, equity would certainly have jurisdiction to intervene.