Court overturns judge's ruling allowing additional time to appeal administrative disability denial.
Valerie Hammond worked for the State as a prison nurse for 18 years. She left that job in 2007 after she was brutally assaulted by a prisoner. She was diagnosed with PTSD, panic disorder and major depressive disorder and granted full disability. After two years, however, the administrator for the State's disability coverage, Citizens Insurance Company, decided that she should be able to return to some form of employment and sent her for medical examinations by doctors of Citizens' choice. Not surprisingly, the doctors whom Citizens chose disagreed with Hammond's doctors and deemed her capable of employment. Citizens discontinued her LTD benefits.
Hammond and her attorney were notified of the denial and given 14 days to appeal. Unfortunately, the attorney claimed he did not receive this notification and later offered that a receptionist at his firm had signed for the notice but had not circulated it to him. He sought an extension of the time to appeal, which was denied.
The attorney then filed a Circuit Court action, asking the judge to overturn Citizens' denial of the extension and appeal. The judge agreed that the attorney had presented "extenuating circumstances" and reversed the decision made by the State and Citizens. The Office of the State Employer then appealed the judge's decision, arguing that the judge had exceeded his authority in reversing the State.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the State and upheld the denial of benefits to Ms. Hammond. It did not rule on the merits, but rather concluded that the judge had over-stepped his authority. Under the pertinent statute, the judges ruled that the administrative decision could be over-turned only if it was not "authorized by law," meaning that it exceeded the agency's authority, violated a statute, relied upond materially prejudicial procedure, or was arbitrary and capricious. The Court found that the administrative decision in Hammond's case did not fall into any of these categories, and therefore the judge exceeded his authority in evaluating the evidence and reversing it.