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Sleeth v. Department of Public Aid

OPINION FILED JULY 24, 1984.

ELEANOR SLEETH, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

THE DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC AID ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Peoria County; the Hon. Robert E. Manning, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE SCOTT DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

This appeal is a consolidation of the grant of five petitions for leave to appeal pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 306 (87 Ill.2d R. 306.) Leave to appeal was sought from orders entered by the circuit court of Peoria County in each of the five cases. By those circuit court orders, the lower court reversed final administrative decisions of the Illinois Department of Public Aid (IDPA) which denied applications for and/or terminated assistance to each of the named plaintiffs. The circuit court orders remanded the administrative review actions to the IDPA for new hearings in accordance with the circuit court's determination that the IDPA's present hearing process which is conducted via telephone conference fails to comport with the due process clauses of the United States Constitution and Illinois Constitution, and that the IDPA's administrative process fails to comply with various State and Federal statutes and/or regulations.

Four of the plaintiffs, Eleanor Sleeth, Cora Anderson, Judith Wilson and Lonnie Cannon, were receiving financial and medical assistance on a presumptively eligible basis from the IDPA under the Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled (AABD) program. This assistance was terminated when the Peoria County IDPA office learned that each of these plaintiffs had been found to be "not disabled" by the Social Security Administration (SSA) pursuant to the plaintiffs' applications to that agency for supplemental security income (SSI). The four plaintiffs were notified that their AABD assistance was going to be terminated.

As a result of the appellate court decision in Watterson v. Miller (1983), 117 Ill. App.3d 1054, 454 N.E.2d 373, the IDPA revised its procedures for disability hearings on February 4, 1983. After that date the IDPA required all persons who had been terminated from their presumptively eligible AABD benefits due to a finding of "not disabled" from SSA to submit proof of disability to the local county office within 14 days of the filing of a notice of appeal protesting that termination. All four of these plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal with the Peoria County office of the IDPA. None of these plaintiffs submitted their medical records within 14 days of filing their notices of appeal.

The appeal hearings in these four cases were held by conference telephone with the plaintiffs, their representatives and witnesses, and county office personnel at the Peoria County IDPA office, while the hearing officers were at the Chicago IDPA office. The hearing officers were not able to observe any of the persons who testified.

Each of the four plaintiffs was permitted to testify at the hearing as to their medical condition. None of the plaintiffs were permitted to submit medical records to substantiate the oral testimony regarding this documentary evidence based upon the failure of each of the plaintiffs to submit the documents within the 14-day rule promulgated by the IDPA in the wake of the Watterson v. Miller case.

The final administrative decisions for each of these four plaintiffs affirmed the termination of their AABD benefits, based upon the hearing officers' conclusions that each plaintiff failed to prove that he or she was permanently and totally disabled.

The fifth plaintiff, Brenda Jackson, received financial and medical assistance from the IDPA under its Aid to Families of Dependent Children (AFDC) program. She was notified that she was going to be sanctioned for the months of May, June, and July, 1983, for her failure to cooperate with the WIN Demonstration Program (WDP). The WDP is designed to help AFDC recipients to locate and obtain employment. The sanction described in the notice consisted of a reduction in the plaintiff's grant for the months of May, June, and July from $348 per month to $206 per month.

All recipients of AFDC benefits must be registered with the WDP as a condition of eligibility unless they fit into a specified exempt category. One such exemption is for medical reasons. Once registered with the WDP, an individual who fails or refuses to participate without good cause is subject to be sanctioned for three months.

The plaintiff Jackson appealed the IDPA's decision to impose sanctions, and 24 days later she was given a hearing by telephone conference with the IDPA. The plaintiff, her representatives, and local county office personnel were in Peoria, and the hearing officer was in Chicago. The plaintiff presented testimony that disproved the allegation of her failure of cooperation, and this testimony was challenged with the testimony of local county office personnel.

The hearing officer acknowledged that this case involved a dispute over the facts. Nevertheless, the final administrative decision affirmed the IDPA sanctions, as the hearing officer resolved all disputed facts and issues in the IDPA's favor.

Each of the five plaintiffs filed a complaint for administrative review in the circuit court of Peoria County. Each plaintiff charged that the IDPA's conduct of its hearings by telephone conference violated due process and various State and Federal statutes and regulations. In addition, the four allegedly disabled plaintiffs complained of the 14-day rule. They asserted that the IDPA's requirement that proof of disability be submitted within 14 days of the filing of the appeal is arbitrary and unreasonable and contravenes the equal protection clauses of the Federal and State constitutions. By orders entered in each case, the circuit court reversed the IDPA's final administrative decisions and remanded the cases to the IDPA for new hearings. The circuit court found that the hearings procedure by telephone conference was both statutorily and constitutionally deficient. Regarding the four allegedly disabled plaintiffs, the circuit court concluded that the 14-day submission of proof of disability requirement deprived those plaintiffs of constitutionally guaranteed due process and equal protection, while also violating State statutes. The Peoria County court gave each plaintiff 45 days prior to the commencement of the new hearing to submit medical records and to have that time extended upon proof of inability to procure the records due to the fault of third parties.

The IDPA appeals the decision of the circuit court and prays that the final administrative decision as previously rendered be affirmed.

At the outset, we note that a reviewing court is not required to consider contentions which are not essential to the determination of the case before it. (Illinois Racing Board v. Hammond (1977), 56 Ill. App.3d 609, 371 N.E.2d 1189; Spunar v. Clark Oil & Refining Corp. (1977), 53 Ill. App.3d 477, 368 N.E.2d 990.) Thus, if the procedures complained of by the plaintiffs are invalid because they contravene State statute, it is unnecessary to consider whether those same procedures might be constitutional if they were allowed by statute. Such issues, those that explore what might be constitutional, are abstract questions which are not properly reviewable. Accordingly, we must first determine whether the procedures utilized ...


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