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J.P. v. Department of Human Services

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

September 12, 2017

J.P., Petitioner
v.
Department of Human Services, Respondent

          Submitted: May 26, 2017

          BEFORE: HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge HONORABLE JULIA K. HEARTHWAY, Judge [1] HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Senior Judge.

          OPINION

          P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge.

         J.P. (Petitioner) petitions for review of an adjudication of the Department of Human Services (Department), Bureau of Hearings and Appeals (Bureau), which dismissed his appeal of an indicated report of student abuse under the Child Protective Services Law[2] as untimely. In doing so, the Bureau adopted the recommendation of its administrative law judge, who concluded that Petitioner's appeal was untimely and that the delay in filing his appeal was not caused by a breakdown in the administrative process or non-negligent reasons beyond Petitioner's control. For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand.

         I. Background

         On June 2, 2000, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (Philadelphia DHS) submitted a report of student abuse to the ChildLine and Abuse Registry, naming Petitioner as the perpetrator. On June 12, 2000, the Department of Public Welfare (now the Department of Human Services)[3] sent a letter to Petitioner, informing him that he was named on an indicated report of student abuse. The June 12, 2000 letter provided, in pertinent part:

Only perpetrators of child abuse or school employees named in reports for student abuse may request that indicated reports be amended or destroyed if they believe the report is inaccurate or that it is not being maintained in accordance with the law. ALL REQUESTS MUST BE MADE IN WRITING WITHIN 45 DAYS FROM THE DATE OF THIS NOTICE to the Secretary of Public Welfare []. If this request is denied, perpetrators may have a right to a hearing.

(Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 13a (emphasis in original).)

         On July 25, 2000, Petitioner sent a letter in response, received by the Department on July 27, 2000, in which he requested that the indicated report be "destroyed or amended . . . ." based on "errors in this report." (R.R. at 14a.) He explained: "If necessary, I would like to appeal or dismiss this claim. If a hearing is necessary, I would like one." (Id.)

         Thereafter, on August 8, 2000, the Department sent a second letter to Petitioner, informing him that the Department received the request. Further, the August 8, 2000 letter described the following two-step appeal process. First, the Department will conduct a review of Petitioner's case and issue a written decision. Second, either party-Petitioner or the Department-could appeal an unfavorable decision, which would result in a hearing before the Bureau. Moreover, the August 8, 2000 letter informed Petitioner that he could "bypass the first level of the appeal process" by sending "a written request for the hearing[, ] . . . postmarked within ten days" of the August 8, 2000 letter. (R.R. at 16a (emphasis omitted).)

         Finally, the Department sent Petitioner a third letter, dated February 22, 2001. This letter informed Petitioner that the Department had completed its review and provided the following:

We believe the report is accurate and being maintained in a manner consistent with the Child Protective Services Law.
If it is your desire to have a hearing, please submit your request in writing within 45 days of the date of this letter to [the Director of the Division of State Services] at the above address. [The Director of the Division of State Services] will forward your request to the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals who will schedule a hearing and notify you of the time and place.

(R.R. at 17a (emphasis omitted).) Petitioner did not respond to the August 8, 2000 letter or the February 22, 2001 letter. Although the police interviewed Petitioner regarding the underlying incident, the police never arrested or charged him with any crime. Approximately fifteen years passed, and Petitioner continued to work as a teacher.

         In 2016, Petitioner's school district employer required him to renew his background check. As a result of that submission, the school district discovered that Petitioner is listed on the ChildLine Registry. On June 1, 2016, Petitioner's school district sent a letter to Petitioner, informing petitioner that his background check "raised an issue, " adding: "This issue may effect [sic] your continued employment with The District." (R.R. at 34a.) The letter also informed Petitioner that the school district scheduled a hearing on the matter. At the hearing, in response to Petitioner's contention that the underlying incident was a misunderstanding, the school district instructed Petitioner to resolve the matter before the end of the school year.

         As a result of his school district's directive, Petitioner requested that the Department provide a copy of the indicated report. Thereafter, on June 14, 2016, Petitioner's former counsel requested a hearing before the Bureau on the indicated report.

         On August 9, 2016, an administrative law judge from the Bureau conducted an evidentiary hearing on the timeliness of Petitioner's appeal of the indicated report. Regarding the incident that led to his placement on the ChildLine Registry, Petitioner testified that he was interviewed by the police, but he was never arrested or charged with any crime. Petitioner testified that following the underlying incident, he received the June 12, 2000 letter from the Department. He testified that he responded in writing that he wanted a hearing if one was necessary. Petitioner testified that he did not receive the August 8, 2000 letter from the Department. He testified that had he received the August 8, 2000 letter, "[he] would [have] file[d] the same papers, requesting a hearing." (R.R. at 98a.) Petitioner testified that he also did not receive the February 22, 2001 letter. Petitioner explained that he moved in October 2000, from southwest Philadelphia to northeast Philadelphia.[4] He testified that he believed he filed a change of address with the Commonwealth and that he did file a forwarding address with the postal service. He testified that he did not keep the copies of the form to change his address with the postal service, because he did not know that his change in residence would be a topic of dispute. Petitioner testified that he did not hear anything about the placement on the ChildLine Registry until his school district notified him in 2016. As to why he took no action regarding the matter between his July 25, 2000 response and 2016, he responded that he "thought everything was fine, and [his] appeal was successful." (R.R. at 103a-104a.) Petitioner additionally testified that he thought "if it was a problem, [he] would've been fired from [his] job." (R.R. at 108a.)

         The Department called ChildLine Appeal Unit administrative assistant Tiffinee McClendon-Spencer (McClendon-Spencer) to testify. She testified that she began working for ChildLine in 1999, and she began her current position as an administrative assistant in 2002. McClendon-Spencer testified that her position with ChildLine entails "keeping track of all appeal records." (R.R. at 118a.) McClendon-Spencer testified that there was nothing in Petitioner's file that indicated that either the August 8, 2000 letter or the February 22, 2001 letter was returned as "undeliverable." In response to a line of questioning by the administrative law judge as to ChildLine's typical policy or procedure when receiving a vague request or response, using Petitioner's July 25, 2000 ...


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