Arnold v. Lebel – Case Brief Summary (Rhode Island)

In Arnold v. Lebel, 941 A.2d 813 (R.I. 2007), medical assistance applicants brought an action against the Rhode Island Department of Human Services (DHS), seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent DHS hearing officers from engaging in ex parte, off-the-record communications about their cases which were pending before the DHS hearing officer. Aronld, 941 at 816.

The Supreme Court ruled that under the RIAPA, hearing officers may not engage in ex parte communications with anyone, including DHS staff, about facts and opinions relating to a pending case. Id. at 821.

With respect to ex parte communications in the administrative context, the Arnold Court decided, "§ 42-35-13 of the APA prohibits ex parte communication with anyone about contested or material adjudicatory facts or opinions concerning the merits of an applicant's pending appeal . . . to prevent litigious facts from reaching the decision-maker off the record in an administrative hearing." Id. at 820.

However, the Arnold Court limited the prohibition against ex parte communications by explaining that hearing officers could engage in discussion of general matter, like hearing schedules, procedural matters, and general information about how hearings are conducted at DHS.

The hearing officers may also attend staff meetings and participate in discussions about general, agency policy. Id. at 821-22.

If an agency decision-maker were to consult staff, our Supreme Court required the following:

"In accordance with § 42-35-9(e) and § 42-35-10(4), the hearing officer must provide notice to the parties before a hearing if he or she intends to consult any documentary source or person concerning facts or opinions about the merits of an appeal. In addition, the parties must be afforded an opportunity to contest any such evidence and to cross-examine any people consulted. Id. at 821."

Lastly, the Arnold Court added that all evidence received or considered must be on the administrative record. Id.

The Arnold Court summarized as follows:

"Unless the parties are given notice and an opportunity to respond on the record, including cross-examination, if appropriate, a DHS hearing officer may not communicate with anyone, including DHS staff members, about contested adjudicatory facts-including, but not limited to, test results, specific diagnostic information, opinions concerning the severity of an applicant's medical conditions, or overall assessment of a client's disabilities or disability status. All facts and opinions, including opinions of agency professionals and staff, as well as information obtained from an outside source, such as medical texts or the Internet, must be included on the record if the hearing officer plans to base his final decision on such facts. In short, no litigious facts should reach the decision-maker off the record in an administrative hearing. Id."

The Rhode Island Supreme Court held that:

Unless the parties are given notice and an opportunity to respond on the record, including cross-examination, if appropriate, a DHS hearing officer may not communicate with anyone, including DHS staff members, about contested adjudicatory facts--including, but not limited to, test results, specific diagnostic information, opinions concerning the severity of an applicant's medical conditions, or overall assessment of a client's disabilities or disability status. All facts and opinions, including opinions of agency professionals and staff, as well as information obtained from an outside source, such as medical text or Internet, must be included on the record if the hearing officer plans to base his final decision on such facts. In short, no litigious facts should reach the decision-maker off the record in an administrative hearing. Id. at 17.

The Court further explained that "DHS hearing officers are required to guard against the inherent unfairness of secret evidence, but they are not required to isolate themselves from the agency." Id. at 18.

The Court held that, under the Administrative Procedures Act, Department of Human Services ("DHS") hearing officers were prohibited from engaging in ex parte communications with DHS staff members and outside resources about medical assistance applicants' pending cases without giving applicants an opportunity to challenge the information gleaned through such communications. Id. at 819-21.