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C.R.-F. v. Department of Human Services

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

January 12, 2017

C.R.-F., Petitioner
v.
Department of Human Services, Respondent

          Submitted: March 18, 2016

          BEFORE: HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Senior Judge

          OPINION

          P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge

         Petitioner C.R.-F. petitions for review of an order of the Department of Human Services (Department), Bureau of Hearings and Appeals (BHA), dated October 29, 2015, denying reconsideration of BHA's order, dated October 9, 2015.[1] BHA's order, dated October 9, 2015, granted a motion filed by the Northampton County Department of Human Services, Children, Youth & Families Division (County Human Services), [2] seeking a stay of a child abuse expunction appeal filed by Petitioner. We now affirm BHA's order denying reconsideration.

         The background of this matter is as follows. On or about June 25, 2015, County Human Services filed an indicated report of child abuse against Petitioner, relating to an allegation that Petitioner slapped or struck her minor child on April 27, 2015, thereby causing bodily injury.[3] As a result of the indicated report of child abuse, Department placed Petitioner's name on the Childline Registry.[4]

         On June 29, 2015, Petitioner's spouse (the minor child's other parent) filed in a court of common pleas a petition for protection from abuse (PFA) against Petitioner on behalf of their minor child, based, in part, on the alleged incident that took place on April 27, 2015. The court of common pleas entered a temporary PFA order on June 29, 2015, and scheduled a hearing for October 5, 2015.[5]

         Petitioner then appealed the indicated report of child abuse to BHA, seeking expunction of the report, and BHA scheduled a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Andrew P. Maloney (ALJ) to be conducted on October 21, 2015. Petitioner filed an unopposed application for continuance of the PFA hearing, seeking to have the matter continued by agreement of counsel for Petitioner and Petitioner's spouse until after the decision on the child abuse expunction appeal. (R.R. at 46.) The court of common pleas granted the application for continuance, continuing the matter until December 2, 2015.

         On or about October 7, 2015, County Human Services filed with BHA a motion to stay the child abuse expunction appeal, observing that the PFA action "involve[s] the same factual circumstances" as the appeal before BHA. (R.R. at 17.) County Human Services also observed that Section 6303 of the Child Protective Services Law (CPSL), 23 Pa. C.S. § 6303, was amended, effective December 18, 2014, to provide that the granting of a final PFA order in certain circumstances serves as the basis for the filing of a founded report.[6] County Human Services, citing Section 6303 of the CPSL, contended that disposition of the PFA action "may provide the basis for a founded report, which in turn would provide the basis for dismissal of the instant appeal." (R.R. at 18.) County Human Services averred that if the hearing on the child abuse expunction appeal precedes the final hearing in the PFA action, "the possibility exists for inconsistent determinations" from BHA and the court of common pleas "on the same set of factual circumstances." (Id.) County Human Services further averred that if BHA were to dispose of the child abuse expunction appeal prior to resolution of the PFA, then Petitioner would be circumventing the provisions of Section 6303 of the CPSL, which allows final PFA orders to serve as a basis for a founded report. (Id.)

         In addition to challenging the factual allegations contained in the indicated report of child abuse, Petitioner countered that the child abuse expunction appeal should proceed first, because the PFA is based upon the indicated report. Thus, the outcome of the appeal would have an impact upon the PFA action and could warrant dismissal of the PFA action. Petitioner does not dispute that the alleged factual circumstances contained in the indicated report are central to the PFA action.

         By order dated October 9, 2015, BHA granted County Human Services' motion for a stay. On October 21, 2015, Petitioner filed a motion for reconsideration, which BHA denied by order dated October 29, 2015. Petitioner then petitioned this Court for review.

         On appeal, Petitioner argues that BHA abused its discretion by granting County Human Services' request for a stay. By order dated November 18, 2015, this Court, sua sponte, directed the parties to address in their briefs the additional question of whether the underlying order is a non-appealable interlocutory order.[7] Thus, the Court is also faced with the question of whether the order, dated October 29, 2015, denying reconsideration is an appealable order.

         In order to determine whether the order denying reconsideration is an appealable order, we will consider whether BHA's underlying order, dated October 9, 2015, granting a stay, is an appealable order. In so doing, we observe that while the order purports to merely grant a stay of the child abuse expunction appeal by Petitioner, it effectively denies Petitioner the right to a timely hearing under Section 6341(c.2) of the CPSL, 23 Pa. C.S. § 6341(c.2). Section 6341(c.2) of the CPSL provides, in part, that a person making an appeal under subsection (a)(2) or (c) of Section 6341 of the CPSL, such as Petitioner in this matter,

shall have the right to a timely hearing to determine the merits of the appeal. A hearing shall be scheduled according to the following procedures:
(1) Within ten days of receipt of an appeal pursuant to this section, the department shall schedule a hearing on the merits of the appeal.
(2) The department shall make reasonable efforts to coordinate the hearing date with both the appellee and appellant.
(3) After reasonable efforts required by paragraph (2) have been made, the department shall enter a scheduling order, and proceedings before the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals shall commence within 90 days of the date the scheduling order is entered, unless all parties have agreed to a continuance. Proceedings and hearings shall be scheduled to be heard on consecutive days whenever possible, but if not on consecutive days, then the proceeding or hearing shall be concluded not later than 30 days from commencement.

(Emphasis added.) The only apparent exception to the right to a timely hearing is contained in Section 6341(d) of the CPSL, 23 Pa. C.S. § 6341(d), which provides for an automatic stay of proceedings relating to a request to expunge an indicated report "upon notice to [DHS] by either of the parties when there is a pending criminal proceeding or a dependency or delinquency proceeding pursuant to 42 Pa. C.S. Ch. 63 (relating to juvenile matters), including any appeal thereof, involving the same factual circumstances as the administrative appeal." (Emphasis added.) No other provision of the CPSL abrogates a person's right to a timely hearing. [8]

         With that background in mind, we consider whether BHA's order, dated October 9, 2015, is an appealable order. Pa. R.A.P. 341 provides that "an appeal may be taken as of right from any final order of a government unit, " and it defines a final order as an order that "disposes of all claims and of all parties" or "is entered as a final order pursuant to Pa. R.A.P. 341(c)." Certain enumerated categories of interlocutory appeals are permitted as of right, Pa. R.A.P. 311, and in other circumstances, a party may seek permission to appeal an interlocutory order, Pa. R.A.P. 312. Appeals may also be taken as of right from a collateral order of an administrative agency, which is defined as "an order separable from and collateral to the main cause of action where the right involved is too important to be denied review and the question presented is such that if review is postponed until final judgment in the case, the claim will be irreparably lost." Pa. R.A.P. 313. Here, there is no dispute that the order in question is not a final order. Moreover, the order in question does not fall within any of the enumerated categories of interlocutory orders that are appealable as of right, and Petitioner did not seek permission to appeal under Pa. R.A.P. 1311. BHA's order, dated October 9, 2015, granting a stay of the child abuse expunction appeal by Petitioner, however, constitutes a collateral order under Pa. R.A.P. 313, because it effectively denies Petitioner the right to a timely hearing that is afforded to her under Section 6341(c.2) of the CPSL. The issue of whether Petitioner is entitled to a timely hearing is "separable from and collateral to" the merits of her request for expungement, the right to a timely hearing "is too important to be denied review, " and, if review is postponed until BHA disposes of her appeal, the "claim will be irreparably lost." See Pa. R.A.P. 313(b). Because the underlying order dated October 9, 2015, is appealable as a collateral order, we will consider an order denying reconsideration of the October 9, 2015 order to be appealable as a collateral order as well.

         In reviewing an order denying reconsideration, we are limited to considering whether BHA abused its discretion in denying reconsideration. Payne v. Workers' Comp. Appeal Bd. (Elwyn, Inc.), 928 A.2d 377, 379 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007). An abuse of discretion in the denial of reconsideration of an administrative agency decision occurs only where the challenger establishes that the order ...


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