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Support Center for Child Advocates as G.A.L. v. Department of Services

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

June 22, 2018

Support Center for Child Advocates as G.A.L. for the Minor Child H.M. and H.M., the Minor Child, Petitioners
v.
Department of Human Services, Respondent

          Argued: June 7, 2018

          BEFORE: HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, Senior Judge.

          OPINION

          ANNE E. COVEY, JUDGE.

         Support Center for Child Advocates as Guardian Ad Litem (G.A.L.) for the minor child H.M., and H.M. (collectively, GAL) petition this Court for review of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Human Services (DHS), Bureau of Hearings and Appeals' (BHA) May 11, 2017 order (Order) denying H.M.'s G.A.L.'s Motion to Acknowledge Party Status (Motion). There are two issues before this Court: (1) whether BHA's Order is a collateral order pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure (Rule) 313; and, (2) whether BHA erred or abused its discretion by denying the Motion.[1] After review, we affirm.

         On January 12, 2012, the Common Pleas Court appointed the Support Center for Child Advocates as attorney and G.A.L. to represent H.M.'s interests in connection with criminal and civil proceedings related to abuse.[2] H.M.'s father J.C. is the indicated perpetrator of abuse against H.M., and the appellant in the underlying administrative appeal seeking to have the indicated report expunged. The indicated report was based on allegations that J.C. raped H.M. On February 14, 2017, H.M.'s G.A.L. submitted a letter to BHA requesting acknowledgement of party status based on BHA's Standing Practice Order (SPO), [3] which governs practice before BHA.

         On February 24, 2017, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a Rule to Show Cause why H.M.'s G.A.L. should not be considered a party to the proceedings. J.C. and DHS did not object or respond to the Rule. H.M.'s G.A.L., upon receiving no response from his request, filed the Motion on May 3, 2017. On May 11, 2017, the ALJ denied the Motion. The ALJ determined that H.M. was represented by the existing parties therein, that H.M.'s G.A.L.'s request for party status in the underlying matter was a Petition to Intervene under Section 35.28 of the General Rules of Administrative Practice and Procedure (GRAPP), [4] and H.M.'s G.A.L. did not meet the required criteria to intervene.

         On June 7, 2017, GAL appealed to this Court.[5] By September 7, 2017 order, this Court instructed the parties to address in their respective briefs whether BHA's Order constitutes a collateral order and is subject to appeal to this Court pursuant to Rule 313.

          Collateral Order

Initially, Rule 313 provides:
(a)General rule. An appeal may be taken as of right from a collateral order of an administrative agency or lower court.
(b)Definition. A collateral order is 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. "An appeal of an order denying intervention may fall within the definition of an appealable collateral order pursuant to [Rule] 313(b)." Twp. of Radnor v. Radnor Recreational, LLC, 859 A.2d 1, 4 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2004).

         GAL argues: (1) the issue in the underlying matter is whether substantial evidence supports the indicated report of child abuse and BHA's Order involves the issue of whether H.M.'s G.A.L. is entitled to party and/or intervenor status, thus the Order is separable from and collateral to the main cause of action; (2) H.M.'s G.A.L.'s right to be a party in the underlying child abuse expunction and BHA's failure and/or refusal to apply BHA's procedural rules enacted to govern practice before BHA, and the direct impact of the expunction appeal on H.M.'s future, are issues that are too important to be denied review; and, (3) if the denial of the Motion is not reviewed by this Court, the right to participate in the proceeding will be irreparably lost, along with H.M.'s right to appeal any BHA determinations. DHS rejoins that the rights involved are J.C.'s reputational interests and H.M.'s interests are represented by DHS.

As noted above, the collateral order doctrine permits an appeal as of right from a non-final collateral order if the order satisfies the three requirements set forth in Rule 313(b). With regard to the first prong of the collateral order doctrine, an order is separable from the main cause of action if it is 'entirely distinct from the underlying issue in the case' and if 'it can be resolved without an analysis of the merits of the underlying dispute.' Commonwealth v. Blystone, . . . 119 A.3d 306');">119 A.3d 306, 312 ([Pa.] 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).

K.C. v. L.A., 128 A.3d 774, 778 (Pa. 2015). Here, because the issue of whether H.M.'s G.A.L. is entitled to party and/or intervenor status "is a conceptually distinct legal question which has no bearing on the central issue within the [expunction] action" - whether substantial evidence supports the indicated report of child abuse -"we find that [GAL] ha[s] established that [BHA's] Order is separable from the main cause of action."[6] Id. at 779. Accordingly, GAL has met the first prong of the collateral order doctrine.

[W]ith respect to the second prong of the doctrine, the importance prong, a right is important if 'the interests that would go unprotected without immediate appeal are significant relative to the efficiency interests served by the final order rule.' [Commonwealth v.] Williams, 86 A.3d [771, ] 782 [(Pa. 2014)]. Notably, the rights involved must implicate more than just the individual parties in the matter, and, instead, must be 'deeply rooted in public policy going beyond the ...

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