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Caron v. Town of Poland

Superior Court of Maine, Androscoggin

March 3, 2016

PAUL CARON, Petitioner,
v.
TOWN OF POLAND, Respondent.

Plaintiff's Attorney, Matthew Dyer, Esq.

Defendant's Attorney, Natalie Burns, Esq. Mark Bower, Esq.

DECISION ON RULE 80B APPEAL

MARY GAY KENNEDY JUSTICE, SUPERIOR COURT.

Petitioner Paul Caron brings this action pursuant to Maine Rule of Civil Procedure 80B. Petitioner appeals a denial of emergency general assistance by the Town of Poland. Based on the following, the decision of the fair hearing officer is affirmed.

I. BACKGROUND

Petitioner lives in a mobile home with his 12 year-old son. (Tr. 4:29-32; 9:31-32.) Petitioner was last employed in 2013. (Tr. 6:11-12.) Petitioner is presently applying for Social Security disability benefits. (Tr. 6:9-22.) Petitioner's only source of income for himself and his son are child support payments in the amount of $130.00 per month. (App. 2.)

On June 24, 2015, Petitioner applied for emergency general assistance from the Town of Poland. (Tr. 1:1-6.) Petitioner requested emergency general assistance in the amounts of $280.00 for rent and $100.00 for electricity. (Tr. 3:11.) Petitioner requested the $100.00 for electricity because he was facing disconnection of his electricity service. (Tr. 3:1-6.) Petitioner brought a most recent copy of his electricity bill to his appointment with the general assistance administrator, which showed a past-due balance of $509.00. (Tr. 2:16-3:1.) Petitioner did not bring a disconnection notice to his appointment. (Tr. 2:1-3.) Petitioner testified at the fair hearing that he needed to pay $99.00 to avoid disconnection of his electricity. (Tr. 3:3-10.) The general assistance administrator denied Petitioner's application for emergency general assistance, because he could not provide evidence of his disability or evidence that he was searching for employment. (Tr. 1:1-6; 7:10-8:3.) The general assistance administrator did not consider Petitioner's situation to be an emergency. (Tr. 4:14-15.) Petitioner's electricity was disconnected two days later, on June 26, 2015. (Tr. 5:9-16.)

Petitioner requested a fair hearing, which was held on July 7, 2015, before a fair hearing officer. (App. 17). Petitioner challenged only the general assistance administrator's denial of emergency general assistance to pay his electricity bill. (Id.) Petitioner and the general assistance administrator testified at the fair hearing. The fair hearing officer found that Petitioner had specifically applied for "Emergency General Assistance" and not mere general assistance. (Id.) On July 10, 2015, the fair hearing officer issued a decision denying Petitioner's request for emergency general assistance. (Id.) Petitioner timely appealed.

Oral argument on Petitioner's appeal was held on February 2, 2016. At oral argument, counsel for Petitioner stated that Petitioner's electricity had been restored. The court requested the parties submit memoranda addressing whether this case still presented a judiciable controversy or whether the case had become moot.

II. MOOTNESS

As a threshold matter, the court declines to dismiss Petitioner's Rule 80B appeal as moot. "An issue is moot when there is no real and substantial controversy, admitting of specific relief through a judgment of conclusive character. McGettigan v. Town of Freeport, 2012 ME 28, ¶ 10, 39 A.3d 48 (citation and quotation marks omitted). To determine whether a case is moot, the court examines "whether there remain sufficient practical effects flowing from the resolution of the litigation to justify the application of limited judicial resources. Id. However, there are several exceptions to the mootness doctrine. Specifically, the court will still consider issues that are otherwise moot if "the issues are capable of repetition but evade review because of their fleeting or determinate nature." Anthem Health Plans of Me., Inc. v. Superintendent of Ins., 2011 ME 48, ¶ 8, 18 A.3d 824.

In the case of In re Marcial O., an appellant challenged an involuntary commitment order. In re Marcial O., 1999 ME 64, ¶ 1, 728 A.2d 158. Before the appeal could be heard, appellant was released from involuntary commitment. Id. ¶ 6. The Superior Court and Law Court both considered the case under the exception to the mootness doctrine. Id. ¶¶ 6, 13. The Law Court stated that the case presented more than just evidentiary issues particular to the case, it presented issues regarding the proper application of a statute. Id. ¶ 12. The Law Court held that the specific questions of law raised by the case, i.e. the proper application of the statute, were likely to be repeated, but unlikely to ever be fully litigated. Id.

Here, the factual circumstances of Petitioner's case are not likely to repeat. If Petitioner were to apply for emergency general assistance in future, the fact of Petitioner's situation may differ and Petitioner may present different evidence to the general assistance administrator. However, the issues raised by Petitioner's Rule 80B appeal concern the proper interpretation and application of the emergency general assistance provisions contained in the general assistance statute and the Town of Poland's ordinances. These questions of law are likely to be repeated. Further, given the fleeting nature of emergency situations, these questions of law are also likely to escape judicial review. Therefore, the court declines to dismiss Petitioner's Rule 80B appeal as moot.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When acting as an appellate court pursuant to Maine Rule of Civil Procedure 80B, the court reviews government agency decisions for errors of law, abuse of discretion, or findings not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Aydelott v. City of Portland, 2010 ME 25, ¶ 10, 990 A.2d 1024. The petitioner challenging the decision below bears the burden of proof to overturn the decision. Id. The petitioner must establish that the decision maker's findings are unsupported by record evidence and that the record compels contrary findings. Total Quality, Inc. v. Town of Scarborough, 588 A.2d 283, 284 (Me. 1991).

The court reviews interpretations of statutes and municipal ordinances de novo. Nugent v. Town of Camden, 1998 ME 92, ¶ 7, 710 A.2d 245. In construing a statute or ordinance, the court looks first to the plain meaning of its language to give effect to the legislative intent, and if the meaning of the statute or ordinance is clear, the court need not look beyond the words themselves. Wister v. Town of Mt. Desert, 2009 ME 66, ¶ 17, 974 A.2d 903. The statute or ordinance "must not be construed to create absurd, inconsistent, unreasonable, or illogical results." Duffy v. Town of Berwick, 2013 ME 105, ¶ 23, 82 A.3d 148.

IV. GENERAL ASSISTANCE STATUTE AND MUNICIPAL ORDINANCE

Maine's general assistance statute requires municipalities to administer by ordinance a general assistance program to provide immediate aid to persons who are unable to provide basic necessities essential to maintain themselves or their families. 22 M.R.S. §§ 4301(5), 4305(1). The general assistance program provides a specific amount and type of aid for defined needs during a limited period of time. Id. § 4301(5). The ordinance enacted by municipalities must establish standards, in addition to need, for determining the eligibility of persons applying for relief and the amount of assistance provided to each eligible person. Id. § 4305(3)(A).

Maine's general assistance statute provides that, for first-time applicants, eligibility for general assistance is determined solely on the basis of need. Id. § 4308(1). The eligibility of repeat applicants is determined based on need and other conditions of eligibility established by the statute and municipal ordinance. Id. Section 4316-A of the general assistance statute provides:

An applicant is ineligible for assistance for 120 days in all municipalities in the State when any municipality establishes that ...

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