July 23, 2012
CAROL STERN, PETITIONER
DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE, RESPONDENT
The opinion of the court was delivered by: P. Kevin Brobson, Judge
Submitted: March 16, 2012
BEFORE: HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge
HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge
OPINION BY JUDGE BROBSON
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 the State Agency is notified or otherwise discovers that a loss to a household has occurred . . . .
7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(11).
Federal regulations also limit a state's power to "restore" a household's SNAP benefits: § 273.17 Restoration of lost benefits.
(a) Entitlement . . .
(2) The State agency shall restore to households benefits which were found by any judicial action to have been wrongfully withheld. If the judicial action is the first action the recipient has taken to obtain restoration of lost benefits, then benefits shall be restored for a period of not more than twelve months from the date the court action was initiated. When the judicial action is a review of a State agency action, the benefits shall be restored for a period of not more than twelve months from the first of the following dates:
(i) The date the State agency receives a request for restoration.
7 C.F.R. § 273.17 (emphasis added).
We believe that the highlighted language provides insight into the proper review, recognizing again that Stern, acting pro se, has not provided any legal discussion of these issues. Neither the federal statutory provisions nor the regulations relating to SNAP benefits define the term "judicial action." We have little difficulty, however, concluding that the proceeding before ALJ Bobeck constituted a "judicial action" for the purpose of the regulation. Thus, under this regulation, if, as ALJ Bobeck concluded, Stern was entitled to "restoration," a term we view as encompassing the correction of a SNAP determination resulting in an increase of SNAP benefits, then ALJ Bobeck was authorized under this provision to entertain a request for a correct allotment, including a retroactive award. His authority, however, was limited by the twelve-month look back provision, which in this case appears to be the twelve-month period preceding Stern's challenge to the January 28, 2010 Confirming Notice.
Although Stern's appeal of CAO's July 2010 Confirming Notice was the trigger for the judicial action taken by ALJ Bobeck, that CAO Confirming Notice was generated following (1) Stern's initial request for restoration following CAO's January 28, 2010 Confirming Notice, and (2) ALJ Sunday's March 2010 adjudication that directed CAO and Stern to engage in an attempt to resolve the matter through communication and the sharing of information. Thus, when CAO issued its July 2010 Confirming Notice, and ALJ Bobeck considered Stern's claim for retroactive SNAP benefits, it is reasonable to regard the date of Stern's request for restoration as the date Stern initially sought to challenge the January 2010 Confirming Notice, rather than the July 2010 Confirming Notice. In short, under the above-noted regulation, we view the twelve-month look-back period to be triggered by Stern's initial challenge to CAO's January 2010 Confirming Notice.
DPW does not disagree with this conclusion, but argues that it has paid Stern $200 per month in SNAP benefits between 2009 and 2010. In this regard DPW points to copies of documents DPW generated, and included in a motion to dismiss that DPW submitted to this Court after Stern filed her petition for review.*fn8 Those documents include an acknowledgment that Stern was entitled to $200 per month in SNAP benefits beginning in February 2009. The documents also indicate that DPW actually paid Stern $200 per month in SNAP benefits from July 2009 onward. This Court is not in a position to opine on the factual accuracy of these documents, and DPW does not offer any legal authority that would support this Court's acceptance of these documents for the purpose of appellate review. Thus, we reject DPW's reliance upon this information.
We note that ALJ Bobeck concluded that he lacked jurisdiction to
consider any period of time preceding Stern's challenge to CAO's
January 28, 2010 Confirming Notice. Based upon our discussion above,
however, we conclude that ALJ Bobeck erred in concluding he lacked
jurisdiction with regard to the twelve-month period that preceded
Stern's challenge. The federal law noted above provides him with the
authority to consider the twelve-month period preceding Stern's
challenge to the January 28, 2010 CAO Conforming Notice. While ALJ
Bobeck appears in part to have based his refusal to address this
earlier twelve-month period upon the documentary evidence of Stern's
then-current financial status and medical expenses,*fn9
we cannot discern whether the ALJ's
apparent misapprehension regarding his authority to consider the
relevant look-back period also caused him to abbreviate Stern's
presentation of evidence, including possibly her own testimony
regarding her finances during that period. Such evidence might have
supported her claim, at least for the look-back period, and enabled
the ALJ to resolve the question regarding her entitlement to SNAP
benefits for the twelve-month look-back period.
Accordingly, we conclude that we must vacate the Final Order and remand the matter to the Bureau for further proceedings, including a hearing, consistent with this opinion. The ALJ should consider the amount of SNAP benefits to which Stern is entitled for the twelve-month period preceding her request for re-evaluation of her benefits. The ALJ should also direct CAO and DPW, as appropriate, if those entities have not already done so, to identify the correct amount of monthly benefits for the period in question and to pay Stern the appropriate amount of SNAP benefits to which she is entitled.*fn10 Accordingly, we vacate the Final Order of the Bureau and remand the matter to the Bureau for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
IN THE COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA
Carol Stern, : Petitioner : : v. Department of Public Welfare, : Respondent :
No. 2792 C.D. 2010 :
AND NOW, this 23rd day of July, 2012, the Final Order of the Department of Public Welfare, Bureau of Hearings and Appeals (Bureau), is VACATED, and this matter is REMANDED to the Bureau for further proceedings, including a hearing, consistent with the accompanying opinion.
Jurisdiction relinquished. P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge