Appealing an Administrative Decision Standard of Review
Submitted by New Jersey Workers Compensation Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
We generally review a tribunal’s evidentiary determinations for abuse of discretion, and here we conclude that the appeals examiner mistakenly exercised her discretion. See Verdicchio v. Ricca, 179 N.J. 1, 34 (2004); N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. N.S., 412 N.J. Super. 593, 422 (App. Div. 2010). In deciding this case, we do not determine whether claimant was, in fact, entitled to benefits. Rather, we determine that the hearing was not conducted consistent with due process or consistent with the agency’s own regulations, and a rehearing is required.
By statute, the Board’s internal hearing procedures may be informal. N.J.S.A. 43:21-6(f). While the tribunal must be impartial, the hearing examiners need not employ “statutory rules of evidence and other technical rules of procedure.” Ibid.; see Unemployed-Employed Council of New Jersey, Inc. v. Horn, 85 N.J. 646, 653-54 (1981); Messick v. Board of Review, 420 N.J. Super. 321, 325-26 (App. Div. 2011).
However, the Board’s internal procedures must be consistent with due process principles, because claimants have a statutory property interest in receiving benefits, which are ‘”protected by due process.'” Rivera v. Board of Review, 127 N.J. 578, 584 (1992) (citation omitted); see also Garzon v. Board of Review, 370 N.J. Super. 1, 9-10 (App Div. 2004). One of the critical components of due process and “fundamental fairness” is the right to call witnesses. Peterson v. Peterson, 374 N.J. Super. 116, 124-25 (App. Div. 2005).
Recognizing that right, and recognizing that claimants will often be self-represented, the agency’s regulations give claimants the right to call witnesses and encourage appeals examiners to assist pro se litigants through the hearing process.
The appellate body shall open the hearing by ascertaining and summarizing the issue or issues involved in the appeal. The parties, their attorneys or representatives may examine or cross-examine witnesses, inspect documents, and explain or rebut any evidence. An opportunity to present argument shall be afforded the parties, which argument shall be made part of the record. Where a party is not represented, the appellate body shall give every assistance that does not interfere with the impartial discharge of its official duties. The appellate body may examine each party or witness to such extent as it deems necessary.
[N.J.A.C. 1:12-14.2(b) (emphasis added).]