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Carol Stern v. Department of Public Welfare

July 23, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: P. Kevin Brobson, Judge

Submitted: March 16, 2012




Petitioner Carol Stern (Stern), acting pro se, petitions for review of an order of the Final Administrative Action (Final Order) of the Chief Administrative Law Judge of the Department of Public Welfare's (DPW) Bureau of Hearings and Appeals (Bureau). The Final Order affirmed an adjudication by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which granted Stern's appeal from a determination by the Philadelphia County Assistance Office-Blvd. District (CAO), regarding Stern's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)*fn1 benefits. CAO's determination reduced Stern's SNAP benefits from $140 per month to $108 per month. We vacate DPW's Final Order and remand the matter to the Bureau for further proceedings.

We rely upon the ALJ's factual findings in summarizing the following history. Stern was receiving $140 in monthly benefits when, on January 28, 2010, CAO issued a "Confirming Notice." The Confirming Notice advised Stern that her monthly benefits were being reduced to $108 monthly, effective February 2010. Stern appealed from CAO's Confirming Notice, and the Bureau, through ALJ Jeffrey H. Sunday, issued an adjudication dated March 25, 2010, which noted that the parties had reached a stipulation, providing: (1) Stern would provide all pertinent information regarding her then-current financial status to CAO, which agreed to meet with Stern in her home on April 2, 2010; (2) CAO would reassess Stern's eligibility for benefits following its receipt of Stern's financial information; (3) CAO would issue a new notice regarding Stern's eligibility; (4) if Stern failed to provide financial information, CAO's January 28, 2010 order would stand; and (5) CAO and Stern would complete all actions by April 6, 2010. (Certified Record (C.R.) Item 3, Exhibit C-2.) CAO, however, did not issue a new decision, a Confirming Notice Change, until July 27, 2010 (July 2010 Confirming Notice). The July 2010 Confirming Notice changed Stern's SNAP benefit from $108 per month to $160 per month.*fn2

On September 27, 2010, Stern appealed the July 2010 Confirming Notice. The Bureau assigned the appeal to ALJ James Bobeck, who conducted a hearing on November 15, 2010. During the course of the hearing, Stern asserted that she was entitled to the maximum amount of SNAP benefits and that her entitlement to such benefits was retroactive to the original date of her eligibility for such benefits, January 1, 2005.*fn3 ALJ Bobeck evaluated Stern's income, assets, and medical expenses, for the period of January 2010 onward, and determined that Stern has had a net income of $00.00 since that date. ALJ Bobeck found that CAO, in determining Stern's net income for SNAP benefit purposes, "has consistently failed since January 2010 to the present time period to credit [Stern] with reoccurring, monthly medical expenses in excess of $35.00."*fn4 (Finding of Fact no. 13.) ALJ Bobeck also found that Stern's financial situation and medical expenses required her to use a reverse mortgage, which she is required to pay back in full to her lender. (Finding of Fact no. 14.) Based upon his calculations, ALJ Bobeck determined that Stern, who suffers from a documented disability, is entitled to the maximum amount of SNAP benefits for a one-person household such as hers-$200 per month.*fn5

ALJ Bobeck rejected Stern's claim that she was entitled to the maximum amount of SNAP benefits retroactive to her initial date of eligibility in January 2005. While recognizing that beginning in October 2009, and through September 30, 2011, the maximum amount of SNAP benefits was $200 per month, ALJ Bobeck observed that the "origins of the current appeal only date back to February 2010, and the [ALJ] lacks any legal discretion to grant retroactive payment for any time period not connected to the current appeal." ALJ Bobeck's Order directed CAO to issue Stern retroactive payments dating back to February 2010, and to take such action by November 30, 2010.

Stern filed the subject petition for review with this Court,*fn6 seeking to challenge ALJ Bobeck's conclusion that he lacked the authority to grant benefits retroactive to the date Stern initially became eligible for SNAP benefits.*fn7 Stern asserts in her petition for review that she became automatically eligible on the date that she began receiving Social Security benefits, January 1, 2005, but admits that she did not submit a written application for SNAP benefits until 2008 or 2009. Stern contends, however, that, despite ALJ Bobeck's reference to February 2010 as the pertinent date regarding her claim, she actually commenced her appeal in 2009, when her benefits were reduced from $200 per month to $140 per month. Stern contends that she initiated her appeal verbally in 2009, but a "worker" (purportedly employed by DPW) did not take any action in response to the alleged appeal. Stern filed a written appeal only after the "worker" reduced her SNAP benefits to $108 per month.

Stern's brief includes a section labeled "Basis of Appeal," which includes a narrative describing some of the chronological history in this case. With few exceptions, however, the recitation does not refer to specific dates. In the only section of her brief devoted to any mention of legal authority, Stern notes:

Appellant contends that this recent calculation is again incorrect under Federal guidelines and denies appellant her MAXIMUM benefits under law once allowable factors are taken into consideration. The determination fails to restore the food coupons denied appellant in an unlawful and unjustified punitive action during this current period of time. The food coupons DPW took from the appellant were rightfully hers under law and need to be returned, in full. This determination fails to address the issue and amount of food coupons entitled to the appellant retroactively to the primary date of eligibility under Federal Law. (Petitioner's Brief at 9.)

In its responsive brief, DPW contends that Stern lacks standing to appeal the Bureau's Final Order. As DPW notes, only aggrieved parties have standing to appeal an appealable order. Pa. R.A.P. 501. DPW argues that Stern cannot claim to be aggrieved because the Bureau's Final Order sustained her appeal. In this case, however, Stern requested more relief than ALJ Bobeck, and the Final Order, provided-she sought retroactive SNAP benefits. Because Stern was not successful in obtaining all of the relief to which she believed she was entitled, we disagree with DPW's argument that Stern is not an aggrieved party. Consequently, we will address, to the extent we are able, the issues Stern raises in her petition for review. These issues pertain to her assertion that she is entitled to retroactive benefits from the date of her eligibility for Social Security. As DPW notes, the federal statute relating to SNAP benefits includes a provision specifically limiting the period for which a state may grant retroactive benefits, and provides, as follows:

(11) upon receipt of a request from a household, for the prompt restoration in the form of benefits to a household of any allotment or portion thereof which has been wrongfully denied or terminated, except that allotments shall not be restored for any period of time more than one year prior to the date the State agency receives a request for such restoration from a household or ...

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