The state’s highest court held Friday that the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development must give state residents a full contested case hearing before revoking their federal low-income housing vouchers.
The Court of Appeals said the termination of Section 8 housing benefits must meet the requirements of Maryland’s Administrative Procedures Act. Therefore, a revocation must be supported by findings of fact and conclusions of law — requirements not present in the department’s previous “informal” hearings.
Friday’s decision arose from the case of Tonya Walker v. Department of Housing and Community Development in the Wicomico County Circuit Court. Robert McCaig, the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau’s chief attorney for that court, represented Walker in her fight against the revocation of her housing voucher.
“We’re real happy about the decision,” McCaig said. “Hopefully this is going to help a lot of low income people who really need to have a disciplined and fair hearing.”
The state attorney general’s office did not respond to requests for comment by the close of business Friday.
McCaig said that in the past when residents challenged the termination of their vouchers, their informal hearings, at least on the Eastern Shore, often were adjudicated by an apartment complex manager appointed by the department as a hearing officer.
“That person is typically not trained in how to go about resolving factual disputes,” McCaig said. “They may have some familiarity with the subsidy program, but as far as figuring out who’s telling the truth … they really are not very familiar with that.”
McCaig said that led to termination hearings full of “rumor, innuendo and phantom witnesses.”
In Walker’s case, her housing voucher was terminated in August 2009 after she was accused of twice failing to make her home available for inspection. At her hearing, she said the inspector didn’t show up for the first scheduled inspection and she was at the hospital during the second scheduled inspection because her son had a medical emergency. Without trying to determine who was telling the truth, the hearing officer wrote a summary of each side’s position and then a two-paragraph “decision” upholding the termination.
“This does not come close to the findings required by” the Administrative Procedure Act, wrote Judge Mary Ellen Barbera in the appellate court’s majority decision. “We have explained time and time again, ‘not only the importance but the necessity that administrative agencies resolve all significant conflicts in the evidence and then chronicle, in the record, full, complete and detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law.’”
Judges Glenn T. Harrell Jr. and Joseph F. Murphy Jr. dissented. The court heard arguments on March 7.
WHAT THE COURT HELD
Tonya Walker v. Department of Housing and Community Development, CA No. 97, Sept. Term 2010. Opinion by Barbera, J. Dissent by Harrell, J. Argued March 7, 2011. Filed Sept. 23, 2011.
Is a Maryland resident whose Section 8 housing voucher is terminated entitled to a formal hearing with finding of facts and conclusions of law under the Maryland Administrative Procedure Act?
Yes; the housing department must provide Tonya Walker with a new hearing consistent with the Maryland Administrative Procedure Act.
Robert McCaig for petitioner; Kathleen Wherthey for respondent
RecordFax #9-1210-20 (10 pages)