State 'agency of last resort' resolves disputes

One on one

July 15, 1991

One on One is a weekly feature offering excerpts of interviews conducted by The Evening Sun with newsworthy business leaders. John Hardwicke is chief administrative law judge of the new Office of Administrative Hearings, which was formed last year to try to resolve disputes between state agencies and citizens and businesses.

Q.What are the most common disputes that businesses would have with government agencies?

A. Probably in the area of the environment and natural resources. Those would almost always involve businesses, whether it's a gasoline station with a buried tank that's leaking gasoline or oil into the subterranean strata of Maryland or whether it's an environmental pollution matter involving a little business or a big business.

Q. What types of cases are heard by the Office of Administrative Hearings?

A. The OAH has a statutory assignment to hear all agency cases in the state of Maryland except worker's compensation, [those of] the Public Service Commission, certain cases in the Executive Branch, like the Comptroller's Office, and also those agencies exempted by the governor. All other agencies' cases we hear.

Q. How many agencies would that be?

A. It's approximately 20 agencies, but within the 20 agencies, there are probably about 200 different types of cases.

Q. Can you explain how the Office of Administrative Hearings adjudicates disputes businesses may have with Maryland agencies?

A. Every agency that has a business responsibility will have cases generated for our courts, so to speak, or for our hearing forums. For example, the Department of Licensing and Regulation, which is all license-type cases, that is the cosmetologists, plumbers, electricians, home improvement, all of those cases are heard by our examiners or judges as they're called . . . In addition to the DLR we hear Department of Natural Resource cases where you're dealing with the natural resources of the state, streams and the soil and the rivers and the waters and so forth. The Department of the Environment. We hear all of those cases. All of those are direct business cases. We hear [cases from] the Human Relations Commission. That is a case where an employee may have a complaint against his or her employer. Those are direct business cases.

Q. You are then the agency of last resort within the state government?

A. That's a good way to put it. That is true. Generally, and to elaborate on that answer, the citizen has had dealings with the agency. The agency has come up with the result which the citizen finds unsatisfactory. The citizen then requests a hearing and that hearing is furnished by the Office of Administrative Hearings, and when the hearing has been held, if the citizen is not then satisfied, the citizen can always go to court.

Q. Until 1990, government agencies hired hearing officers through the agency. Why were these functions consolidated with the Office of Administrative Hearings?

A. Primarily to separate the hearing function from the agency. Now they could have set up for each agency an independent hearing officer, but then you would have had about 15 or 20 or 30 different independent hearing functions. That would not have achieved any economies. It would not have achieved the professionalism that they were looking for. When we assumed this responsibility, there were approximately 26 hearing officers in the motor vehicle administration. Those were the officers who could hear those cases. We now have over 60 judges, administrative law judges, that can hear MVA cases. Where did they come from? We trained the department of health judges, so that they could hear MVA cases, but we also trained the MVA judges so that they could hear DHMH cases. So all of these

judges are crossed-trained.

Q. Do other states have such a system?

A. There are approximately a dozen panel states out of the 50. Now out of those dozen panel states, and by panel state I mean a state that has separated the hearing function from an agency, out of those 12, most of them, eight or nine of them, only have two or three agencies that are within the responsibility of their OAH.

Q. Why is it important that you're in the executive rather than judicial branch of government?

A. For several reasons. The first reason being that we're still at the agency level. To use your expression, this is the court of last resort in the agency, and the citizen is still dealing with the executive part of the government. An appeal lies from us to the judges, to the judicial branch of the government. So it's very important that the executive furnish the citizen with a fair hearing before that citizen goes to the judge, to the courts. And obviously we do this cheaper. We can hold a hearing much less expensively than the regular judiciary. We're more informal, most of our citizens come here without a lawyer, pro se as they say in the law, and that means that our goal is to give due process without all of the expense.

Q. How much did it cost to create the Office of Administrative Hearing?

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