By Peter Casciano, Esq.
The Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) is the Maryland adjudication system that handles the appeals of disability retirement claims for state employees. For a disability claim to reach OAH, the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System of the State Retirement Agency will have already issued two decisions denying the claim.
About The OAH & Disability Law
OAH is a relatively new court system, having been established in 1990. According to the OAH website (http://oah.maryland.gov), the goal in setting up the OAH was to have the decision makers reviewing state agency decisions work at a separate agency. This was done to help promote independence and fairness in the decision-making process.
The State Retirement Agency decisions are appealed to OAH, along with a slew of other agency decisions, like the Department of Health, Department of Motor Vehicles, and the Maryland State Police. Because of this, the OAH Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) must be experienced in many different areas of the law and must be able to properly adjudicate many different kinds of disputes. To provide some perspective on how many state agency decisions are appealed to OAH, there are currently about 55 ALJs working at OAH.
OAH has recently set up an online portal where one can search and read decisions issued by OAH judges. Unfortunately, OAH decisions on disability cases are not currently available through the online portal. This is probably because even when the names are redacted, the decisions often contain detailed, private medical information. It really is too bad because we would very much like to see past decisions issued by ALJs on topics relevant to a particular client.
When you have a hearing at OAH, the State will be represented by an attorney from the Maryland Attorney General’s office. OAH hearings are conducted in a matter similar to state trial courts. However, discovery is more limited, and both sides will be largely working from the one claim file, assembled and developed while the case was at the Maryland Retirement and Pension System. The claimant’s doctor can (and should!) testify at that hearing as to why they believe their patient is unable to work and the State will probably also call an expert witness physician to testify. The claimant will be permitted to testify if they choose and can, of course, hire an attorney.
After the hearing, a decision will be issued. OAH decisions hold no precedential value. In regular state court, the holdings of cases regarding similar facts must be respected by other judges and courts. OAH decisions do not hold that same precedential weight, meaning that each time an ALJ issues a decision on a certain set of facts, that case technically gets a fresh review. No deference is given to any earlier decisions. This fact makes practicing before the OAH, especially on disability claims, very tricky. We cannot necessarily rely on previous OAH decisions, and none of those decisions are posted in the online portal anyway.
What happens if you are not successful at OAH? Luckily, those cases can be appealed to regular state courts, but relevant issues are very narrow by that point. It is very difficult to appeal and win after the OAH has issued an unfavorable decision on a disability case. That is why best practice is to win your disability case as early in this process as possible.
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