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§273.15 Fair hearings.
(a) Availability of hearings. Except as provided in §271.7(f), each State agency shall provide a fair hearing to any household aggrieved by any action of the State agency which affects the participation of the houshold in the Program.
(b) Hearing system. Each State agency shall provide for either a fair hearing at the State level or for a hearing at the local level which permits the household to further appeal a local decision to a State level fair hearing. State agencies may adopt local level hearings in some project areas and maintain only State level hearings in other project areas.
(c) Timely action on hearings—(1) State level hearings. Within 60 days of receipt of a request for a fair hearing, the State agency shall assure that the hearing is conducted, a decision is reached, and the household and local agency are notified of the decision. Decisions which result in an increase in household benefits shall be reflected in the coupon allotment within 10 days of the receipt of the hearing decision even if the State agency must provide a supplementary ATP or otherwise provide the household with an opportunity to obtain the allotment outside of the normal issuance cycle. However, the State agency may take longer than 10 days if it elects to make the decision effective in the household's normal issuance cycle, provided that the issuance will occur within 60 days from the household's request for the hearing. Decisions which result in a decrease in household benefits shall be reflected in the next scheduled issuance following receipt of the hearing decision.
(2) Local level hearings. Within 45 days of receipt of a request for a fair hearing, the State agency shall assure that the hearing is conducted, and that a decision is reached and reflected in the coupon allotment.
(3) Appeals of local level decisions. Within 45 days of receipt of any request for a State level review of a decision or for a new State level hearing, the State agency shall assure that the review or the new hearing is conducted, and that a decision is reached and reflected in the coupon allotment.
(4) Household requests for postponement. The household may request and is entitled to receive a postponement of the scheduled hearing. The postponement shall not exceed 30 days and the time limit for action on the decision may be extended for as many days as the hearing is postponed. For example, if a State level hearing is postponed by the household for 10 days, notification of the hearing decision will be required within 70 days from the date of the request for a hearing.
(d) Agency conferences. (1) The State agency shall offer agency conferences to households which wish to contest a denial of expedited service under the procedures in §273.2(i). The State agency may also offer agency conferences to households adversely affected by an agency action. The State agency shall advise households that use of an agency conference is optional and that it shall in no way delay or replace the fair hearing process. The agency conferences may be attended by the eligibility worker responsible for the agency action, and shall be attended by an eligibility supervisor and/or the agency director, and by the household and/or its representative. An agency conference may lead to an informal resolution of the dispute. However, a fair hearing must still be held unless the household makes a written withdrawal of its request for a hearing.
(2) An agency conference for households contesting a denial of expedited service shall be scheduled within 2 working days, unless the household requests that it be scheduled later or states that it does not wish to have an agency conference.
(e) Consolidated hearings. State agencies may respond to a series of individual requests for hearings by conducting a single group hearing. State agencies may consolidate only cases where individual issues of fact are not disputed and where related issues of State and/or Federal law, regulation or policy are the sole issues being raised. In all group hearings, the regulations governing individual hearings must be followed. Each individual household shall be permitted to present its own case or have its case presented by a representative.
(f) Notification of right to request hearing. At the time of application, each household shall be informed in writing of its right to a hearing, of the method by which a hearing may be requested, and that its case may be presented by a household member or a representative, such as a legal counsel, a relative, a friend or other spokesperson. In addition, at any time the household expresses to the State agency that it disagrees with a State agency action, it shall be reminded of the right to request a fair hearing. If there is an individual or organization available that provides free legal representation, the household shall also be informed of the availability of that service.
(g) Time period for requesting hearing. A household shall be allowed to request a hearing on any action by the State agency or loss of benefits which occurred in the prior 90 days. Action by the State agency shall include a denial of a request for restoration of any benefits lost more than 90 days but less than a year prior to the request. In addition, at any time within a certification period a household may request a fair hearing to dispute its current level of benefits.
(h) Request for hearing. A request for a hearing is defined as a clear expression, oral or written, by the household or its representative to the effect that it wishes to appeal a decision or that an opportunity to present its case to a higher authority is desired. If it is unclear from the household's request what action it wishes to appeal, the State agency may request the household to clarify its grievance. The freedom to make a request for a hearing shall not be limited or interfered with in any way.
(i) State agency responsibilities on hearing requests. (1) Upon request, the State agency shall make available without charge the specific materials necessary for a household or its representative to determine whether a hearing should be requested or to prepare for a hearing. If the individual making the request speaks a language other than English and the State agency is required by §272.4(c)(3) to provide bilingual staff or interpreters who speak the appropriate language, the State agency shall insure that the hearing procedures are verbally explained in that language. Upon request, the State agency shall also help a household with its hearing request. If a household makes an oral request for a hearing, the State agency shall complete the procedures necessary to start the hearing process. Households shall be advised of any legal services available that can provide representation at the hearing.
(2) The State agency shall expedite hearing requests from households, such as migrant farmworkers, that plan to move from the jurisdiction of the hearing official before the hearing decision would normally be reached. Hearing requests from these households shall be processed faster than others if necessary to enable them to receive a decision and a restoration of benefits if the decision so indicates before they leave the area.
(3) The State agency shall publish clearly written uniform rules of procedure that conform to these regulations and shall make the rules available to any interested party. At a minimum, the uniform rules of procedure shall include the time limits for hearing requests as specified in paragraph (g) of this section, advance notification requirements as specified in paragraph (i)(1) of this section, hearing timeliness standards as specified in paragraph (c) of this section, and the rights and responsibilities of persons requesting a hearing as specified in paragraph (p) of this section.
(j) Denial or dismissal of request for hearing. (1) The State agency must not deny or dismiss a request for a hearing unless:
(i) The State agency does not receive the request within the appropriate time frame specified in paragraph (g) of this section, provided that the State agency considers untimely requests for hearings as requests for restoration of lost benefits in accordance with §273.17;
(ii) The household or its representative fails, without good cause, to appear at the scheduled hearing;
(iii) The household or its representative withdraws the request in writing; or
(iv) The household or its representative orally withdraws the request and the State agency has elected to allow such oral requests.
(2) The State agency electing to accept an oral expression from the household or its representative to withdraw a fair hearing may discuss the option with the household when it appears that the State agency and household have resolved issues related to the fair hearing. However, the State agency is prohibited from coercion or actions which would influence the household or its representative to withdraw the household's fair hearing request. The State agency must provide a written notice to the household within 10 days of the household's request confirming the withdrawal request and providing the household with an opportunity to request a hearing. The written notice must advise the household it has 10 days from the date it receives the notice to advise the State agency of its desire to request, or reinstate, the hearing. If the household timely advises the State agency that it wishes to reinstate the fair hearing, the State agency must provide the household with a fair hearing, within the time frames specified in paragraph (c) of this section and beginning the date the household advises the State agency that it wishes to reinstate its request. The State agency must reinstate a fair hearing as requested from a household at least once. The State agency must not deny a household's request for a fair hearing if the household is aggrieved by a State agency action that differs from the reinstated action.
(k) Continuation of benefits. (1) If a household requests a fair hearing within the period provided by the notice of adverse action, as set forth in §273.13, and its certification period has not expired, the household's participation in the program shall be continued on the basis authorized immediately prior to the notice of adverse action, unless the household specifically waives continuation of benefits. The form for requesting a fair hearing shall contain space for the household to indicate whether or not continued benefits are requested. If the form does not positively indicate that the household has waived continuation of benefits, the State agency shall assume that continuation of benefits is desired and the benefits shall be issued accordingly. If the State agency action is upheld by the hearing decision, a claim against the household shall be established for all overissuances, with one exception. In the case of an EBT adjustment, as defined in §274.12(f)(4)(ii) of this chapter, once an adverse action is upheld, the State agency shall immediately debit the household's account for the total amount stated in its original notice. If there are no benefits or insufficient benefits remaining in the household's account at the time the State agency action is upheld, the State agency may only make the adjustment from the next month's benefits, regardless of whether this satisfies the full adjustment amount. If a hearing request is not made within the period provided by the notice of adverse action, benefits shall be reduced or terminated as provided in the notice. However, if the household establishes that its failure to make the request within the advance notice period was for good cause, the State agency shall reinstate the benefits to the prior basis. When benefits are reduced or terminated due to a mass change, participation on the prior basis shall be reinstated only if the issue being contested is that food stamp eligibility or benefits were improperly computed or that Federal law or regulation is being misapplied or misinterpreted by the State agency.
(2) Once continued or reinstated, the State agency must not reduce or terminate benefits prior to the receipt of the official hearing decision unless:
(i) The certification period expires. The household may reapply and may be determined eligible for a new certification period with a benefit amount as determined by the State agency;
(ii) The hearing official makes a preliminary determination, in writing and at the hearing, that the sole issue is one of Federal law or regulation and that the household's claim that the State agency improperly computed the benefits or misinterpreted or misapplied such law or regulation is invalid;
(iii) A change affecting the household's eligibility or basis of issuance occurs while the hearing decision is pending and the household fails to request a hearing after the subsequent notice of adverse action;
(iv) A mass change affecting the household's eligibility or basis of issuance occurs while the hearing decision is pending; or
(v) The household, or its representative, orally withdrew its request for a fair hearing and did not advise the State agency of its desire to reinstate the fair hearing within the time frame specified in paragraph (j)(2) of this section.
(3) The State agency shall promptly inform the household in writing if benefits are reduced or terminated pending the hearing decision.
(l) Notification of time and place of hearing. The time, date, and place of the hearing shall be arranged so that the hearing is accessible to the household. At least 10 days prior to the hearing, advance written notice shall be provided to all parties involved to permit adequate preparation of the case. However, the household may request less advance notice to expedite the scheduling of the hearing. The notice shall:
(1) Advise the household or its representative of the name, address, and phone number of the person to notify in the event it is not possible for the household to attend the scheduled hearing.
(2) Specify that the State agency will dismiss the hearing request if the household or its representative fails to appear for the hearing without good cause.
(3) Include the State agency hearing procedures and any other information that would provide the household with an understanding of the proceedings and that would contribute to the effective presentation of the household's case.
(4) Explain that the household or representative may examine the case file prior to the hearing.
(m) Hearing official. Hearings shall be conducted by an impartial official(s) who: Does not have any personal stake or involvement in the case; was not directly involved in the initial determination of the action which is being contested; and was not the immediate supervisor of the eligibility worker who took the action. State level hearings shall be conducted by State level personnel and shall not be conducted by local level personnel.
(1) Designation of hearing official. The hearing official shall be:
(i) An employee of the State agency;
(ii) An individual under contract with the State agency;
(iii) An employee of another public agency designated by the State agency to conduct hearings;
(iv) A member or official of a statutory board or other legal entity designated by the State agency to conduct hearings; or
(v) An executive officer of the State agency, a panel of officials of the State agency or a person or persons expressly appointed to conduct State level hearings or to review State and/or local level hearing decisions.
(2) Power and duties. The hearing official shall:
(i) Administer oaths or affirmations if required by the State;
(ii) Insure that all relevant issues are considered;
(iii) Request, receive and make part of the record all evidence determined necessary to decide the issues being raised;
(iv) Regulate the conduct and course of the hearing consistent with due process to insure an orderly hearing;
(v) Order, where relevant and useful, an independent medical assessment or professional evaluation from a source mutually satisfactory to the household and the State agency;
(vi) Provide a hearing record and recommendation for final decision by the hearing authority; or, if the hearing official is the hearing authority, render a hearing decision in the name of the State agency, in accordance with paragraph (q) of this section, which will resolve the dispute.
(n) Hearing authority. The hearing authority shall be the person designated to render the final administrative decision in a hearing. The same person may act as both the hearing official and the hearing authority. The hearing authority shall be subject to the requirements specified in paragraph (m) of this section.
(o) Attendance at hearing. The hearing shall be attended by a representative of the State agency and by the household and/or its representative. The hearing may also be attended by friends or relatives of the household if the household so chooses. The hearing official shall have the authority to limit the number of persons in attendance at the hearing if space limitations exist.
(p) Household rights during hearing. The household may not be familiar with the rules of order and it may be necessary to make particular efforts to arrive at the facts of the case in a way that makes the household feel most at ease. The household or its representative must be given adequate opportunity to:
(1) Examine all documents and records to be used at the hearing at a reasonable time before the date of the hearing as well as during the hearing. The contents of the case file including the application form and documents of verification used by the State agency to establish the household's ineligibility or eligibility and allotment shall be made available, provided that confidential information, such as the names of individuals who have disclosed information about the household without its knowledge or the nature or status of pending criminal prosecutions, is protected from release. If requested by the household or its representative, the State agency shall provide a free copy of the portions of the case file that are relevant to the hearing. Confidential information that is protected from release and other documents or records which the household will not otherwise have an opportunity to contest or challenge shall not be introduced at the hearing or affect the hearing official's decision.
(2) Present the case or have it presented by a legal counsel or other person.
(3) Bring witnesses.
(4) Advance arguments without undue interference.
(5) Question or refute any testimony or evidence, including an opportunity to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses.
(6) Submit evidence to establish all pertinent facts and circumstances in the case.
(q) Hearing decisions. (1) Decisions of the hearing authority shall comply with Federal law and regulations and shall be based on the hearing record. The verbatim transcript or recording of testimony and exhibits, or an official report containing the substance of what transpired at the hearing, together with all papers and requests filed in the proceeding, shall constitute the exclusive record for a final decision by the hearing authority. This record shall be retained in accordance with §272.1(f). This record shall also be available to the household or its representative at any reasonable time for copying and inspection.
(2) A decision by the hearing authority shall be binding on the State agency and shall summarize the facts of the case, specify the reasons for the decision, and identify the supporting evidence and the pertinent Federal regulations. The decision shall become a part of the record.
(3) The household and the local agency shall each be notified in writing of: The decision; the reasons for the decision in accordance with paragraph (q)(2) of this section; the available appeal rights; and that the household's benefits will be issued or terminated as decided by the hearing authority. The notice shall also state that an appeal may result in a reversal of the decision. The following are additional notice requirements and the available appeal rights:
(i) After a State level hearing decision which upholds the State agency action, the household shall be notified of the right to pursue judicial review of the decision. In addition, in States which provide for rehearings of State level decisions, the household shall be notified of the right to pursue a rehearing.
(ii) After a local level hearing decision which upholds the State agency action, the household shall be notified of the right to request a completely new State agency level hearing, and that a reversal of the decision may result in the restoration of lost benefits to the household. In addition, the household shall be advised that if a new hearing would pose an inconvenience to the household, a State level review of the decision based on the hearing record may be requested instead of a new hearing. A clear description of the two appeal procedures must be included to enable the household to make an informed choice, if it wishes to appeal. If the household indicates that it wishes to appeal, but does not select the method, the State agency shall proceed with a new State level hearing.
(4) If the household wishes to appeal a local level hearing decision, the appeal request must be filed within 15 days of the mailing date of the hearing decision notice. Within 45 days of receipt of any request for a State level review of the decision or for a new State level hearing, the State agency shall assure that the review or the hearing is conducted, and that a decision is reached and reflected in the coupon allotment. If a new hearing will not be held, the State level hearing official will review the local level hearing record to determine if the local decision was supported by substantial evidence. State level review procedures shall provide for notifying the local agency and the household that each may file a summary of arguments which shall become a part of the record if timely received. Both parties shall be advised that failure to file a summary will not be considered in deciding the case and that the summary must be postmarked within 10 days of receipt of the notice.
(5) All State agency hearing records and decisions shall be available for public inspection and copying, subject to the disclosure safeguards provided in §272.1(c), and provided identifying names and addresses of household members and other members of the public are kept confidential.
(r) Implementation of local level hearing decision. (1) In the event the local hearing decision upholds the State agency action, any benefits to the household which were continued pending the hearing shall be discontinued beginning with the next scheduled issuance, regardless of whether or not an appeal is filed. Collection action for any claims against the household for overissuances shall be postponed until the 15-day appeal request period has elapsed, or if an appeal is requested, until the State agency upholds the decision of the local hearing authority.
(2) In the event the local hearing authority decides in favor of the household, benefits to the household shall begin or be reinstated, as required by the decision, within the 45-day time limit allowed for local hearing procedures. Any lost benefits due to the household shall be issued as soon as administratively feasible. The State agency shall restore benefits to households which are leaving the project area before the departure whenever possible. If benefits are not restored prior to the household's departure, the State agency shall forward an authorization to the benefits to the household or to the new project area if this information is known. The new project area shall accept an authorization and issue the appropriate benefits whether the notice is presented by the household or received directly from another project area.
(s) Implementation of final State agency decisions. The State agency is responsible for insuring that all final hearing decisions are reflected in the household's coupon allotment within the time limits specified in paragraph (c) of this section.
(1) When the hearing authority determines that a household has been improperly denied program benefits or has been issued a lesser allotment than was due, lost benefits shall be provided to the household in accordance with §273.17. The State agency shall restore benefits to households which are leaving the project area before the departure whenever possible. If benefits are not restored prior to the household's departure, the State agency shall forward an authorization to the benefits to the household or to the new project area if this information is known. The new project area shall accept an authorization and issue the appropriate benefits whether the notice is presented by the household or received directly from another project area.
(2) When the hearing authority upholds the State agency's action, a claim against the household for any overissuances shall be prepared in accordance with §273.18.
(t) Review of appeals of local level decisions. State agencies which adopt a local level hearing system shall establish a procedure for monitoring local level hearing decisions. The number of local level decisions overturned upon appeal to a State level hearing shall be examined. If the number of reversed decisions is excessive, the State agency shall take corrective action.
(u) Departmental review of decisions contrary to Federal law and regulations. [Reserved]
[Amdt. 132, 43 FR 47889, Oct. 17, 1978, as amended by Amdt. 132, 44 FR 33385, June 8, 1979; Amdt. 146, 46 FR 1427, Jan. 6, 1981; Amdt. 269, 51 FR 10793, Mar. 28, 1986; Amdt. 356, 59 FR 29713, June 9, 1994; 64 FR 48938, Sept. 9, 1999; Amdt. 378, 65 FR 41325, July 5, 2000; Amdt. 388, 65 FR 70211, Nov. 21, 2000]