MAINE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES DIVISION OF SUPPORT ENFORCEMENT AND RECOVERY, Petitioner
MICHAEL T. WOOD and LORRI L. MORIN, Respondents
Hon. MaryGay Kennedy, Justice, Superior Court
This matter is before the court on Petitioner Maine Department of Health and Human Services Division of Support Enforcement and Recovery's ("DSER") Rule 80C appeal of the Decision of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services Division of Administrative Hearings ("DAH") finding that Respondent Michael Wood was not required to pay child support during the time when he lived with his other child who received Supplemental Security Income (SSI). DSER is asking that this court reverse the decision made by DAH, and find that DAH's decision demonstrates an error of law and is in violation of the statute, and modify the decision with regard to Wood's child support debt. Lorrie Morin, the custodial parent, has joined DSER's appeal of DAH's Decision. Mr. Wood has opposed DSER's Appeal. This court held a hearing on this matter on May 7, 2014.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
Mr. Wood and Ms. Morin were previously married and they have two daughters together: Miranda Wood, born September 10, 1996, and Cordelia Wood, born on May 9, 2000. (Ex. D-l 1.) When they divorced on October 14, 2004, Ms. Wood was awarded primary residential care of their children. (Id. 1, 5) At the time of the divorce judgment the parties agreed that Mr. Wood would not pay child support. (Ex. D-l 2-3.) On September 13, 2005, however, the court issued an Interim Child Support Order providing that Mr. Wood was to pay Ms. Morin $71.00 per week for child support commencing on September 16, 2005. (Ex. D-2 6, 8.) On October 12, 2005, the court entered an Order Amending Divorce Judgment with an incorporated Child Support Order whereby Mr. Wood's child support obligation increased to $78.20 per week commencing on October 14, 2005. (Ex. D-3 1-4; R. at 7.) Ms. Morin applied for DHHS's child support enforcement services. (HO-3 at 6.)
Mr. Wood has a son with Sarah Frederick-Wood; Michael Frederick-Wood was born on September 28, 2005. (R. at 5.) Mr. Wood has lived with his son continuously, except for an approximately 12-month-period when Mr. Wood and Ms. Frederick-Wood were separated. (R. at 9-10; Dec. 2; Ex. C; Ex. B.) Michael Frederick Wood started receiving disability benefits in December of 2006 and has continued to receive them. (R. at 6.) Michael Frederick Wood receives $10.00 per month in State Supplement payments, and Ms. Frederick-Wood represented that Michael Frederick-Wood receives Social Security. (R. at 8.) Unfortunately, the Record is less than clear regarding the exact nature of the child's benefits. At the administrative hearing, the Hearing Officer stated that he "didn't want to bother to get" the paperwork regarding Michael Frederick-Wood's disability benefits into the record. (R. at 9.) "So that's going to be a stipulated fact then that Michaels [sic] been receiving SSI benefits continuously since December 2006." (R. at 9.)
On July 10, 2013, DHHS issued a notice of debt to Mr. Wood stating that from October 14, 2004 to July 10, 2013 he owed $21, 945.40 for unpaid child support for his two daughters, and that his debt was continuing to accrue by $78.20 per week. (HO Ex. 3 3.)
After Mr. Wood requested an appeal of the notice of debt, an administrative review was conducted pursuant to 19-A M.R.S.A. § 2451. A hearing was held on August 7, 2013 where Cindy Peterson appeared on behalf of DHHS, Mr. Wood and Ms. Frederick-Wood appeared on behalf of Mr. Wood (Ms. Frederick-Wood acted as his representative), and Ms. Morin appeared as the custodial parent. (Dec. 1; R. at 1.)
The hearing was conducted to determine the amount of Mr. Wood's net child support debt as of July 10, 2013. (Dec. 1.) In his Decision, the Hearing Officer noted that "The parties agreed to the total amount of Mr. Wood's child support obligation under the various child support orders, and agreed to the total child support payments made by Mr. Wood, and agreed that the DHHS Notice of Debt reflected those amounts." (Dec. at 3.) The total child support obligation (without any exemptions) was $31, 876.80, and the amount paid by Mr. Wood was $9, 931.40 leaving a total potential debt of $21, 945.40. (Ex. D5; Ex. HO-3 3; Dec. 2; R. at 2, 7.)
The Hearing Officer came to the conclusion that rather than owing a debt of over twenty-thousand dollars, Mr. Wood has actually paid $498.00 more than he owed in child support. (Dec. 2-4.) The Hearing Officer determined that Mr. Wood had overpaid, because of a regulatory exemption that was in effect until February 3, 2013, which he found applicable to Mr. Wood based on Michael Frederick-Wood's receipt of Social Security. (Dec. 3-4.) The Hearing Officer found that DSER had failed to address the issue of retroactivity, and that the repeal of the exemption did not have retroactive effect. (Dec. 3)
II. Standard of Review
In its appellate capacity, the court reviews agency decisions for "abuse of discretion, error of law, or findings not supported by the evidence." Rangeley Crossroads Coal. v. Land Use Reg. Comm'n 2008 ME 115, ¶ 10, 955 A.2d 223. The burden of proof is on the petitioner to prove that "no competent evidence supports the [agency's] decision and that the record compels a contrary conclusion." Bischoff v. Maine State Ret. Sys., 661 A.2d 167, 170 (Me. 1995). "Inconsistent evidence will not render an agency decision unsupported." Id. "Judges may not substitute their judgment for that of the agency merely because the evidence could give rise to more than one result." Gulick v. Bd. of Envtl. Prot, 452 A.2d 1202, 1209 (Me. 1982).
The court must give great deference to an agency's construction of a statute it is charged with administering. Rangeley Crossroads Coal, 2008 ME 115, ¶ 10, 955 A.2d 223. "A court will 'not vacate an agency's decision unless it: violates the Constitution or statutes; exceeds the agency's authority; is procedurally unlawful; is arbitrary or capricious; constitutes an abuse of discretion; is affected by bias or an error of law; or is unsupported by the evidence in the record.'" Kroeger v. Dep't of Environmental Prot., 2005 ME 50, ¶ 7, 870 A.2d 566) (quoted in Alexander, Maine Appellate Practice § 452 at 312 (4th ed. 2013)).
Where there have been multiple levels of administrative decision-making, the most recent decision will be the one subject to Superior Court review, if the most recent decision maker had de novo capacity and/or the authority to conduct additional fact-finding. See Alexander, Maine Appellate Practice § 455(b) at 315; see also ...