MMN is legally entitled to disability benefits

Court of Appeals of Michigan found the circuit court erred in construing the phrase “capacity for independent living” as being limited to an individual’s mental capacity to live independently.

It concluded that since the petitioner possessed substantial functional limitations in two areas of major life activities, she was developmentally disabled under Michigan law and therefore entitled to supports and services.

The ruling is presented below in its entirety.

ERICKA v. DEPARTMENT OF COMMUNITY HEALTH

GEORGETTE MERICKA, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF COMMUNITY HEALTH, Respondent-Appellee, and
ST. CLAIR COUNTY COMMUNITY MENTAL HEALTH, Intervening Respondent-Appellee, and
MICHIGAN PROTECTION & ADVOCACY SERVICE, INC., Amicus Curiae.

No. 280596

Court of Appeals of Michigan.

March 19, 2009 at 9:05 a.m.

Before: Jansen, P.J., and Borrello and Stephens, JJ.

BORRELLO, J.

Petitioner Georgette Mericka appeals the trial court order affirming the decision of the administrative law judge for the administrative tribunal for the Department of Human Services finding that she did not have a developmental disability under MCL 330.1100a(21) and denying her specialty supports and services. We originally denied petitioner leave to appeal. Thereafter, petitioner sought leave to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court; in lieu of granting leave to appeal, the Supreme Court remanded the matter to this Court “for consideration as on leave granted.” Mericka v Dep’t of Community Health, 482 Mich 996; 756 NW2d 66 (2008). For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we reverse.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Petitioner is a female who is almost 50 years old. She was diagnosed at age 21 with Multifocal Motor Neuropathy (MMN). MMN is a progressive condition for which there is currently no cure; it is characterized by muscle weakness, muscle wasting, muscle twitching and cramping. The most current information in the lower court record indicates that petitioner is married and shares a home with her mother and husband. She is completely dependent on others for assistance with self-care, transfers, repositioning and mobility. She also requires assistance with tasks such as blowing her nose or wiping away a tear. However, she can occasionally feed herself and drink from a straw when someone else sets it up for her.

It is undisputed that petitioner is mentally and intellectually sound. She is her own guardian and is capable of making her own decisions. She is mentally, but not physically, able to complete all activities of daily living. She earned a bachelor of arts degree and works part-time as the Director of Resource Development at the Blue Water Center for Independent Living. Because of her MMN, however, petitioner requires aides and assistive technology to enable her to do her job, and she lacks the stamina to work full-time.

Respondent Michigan Department of Community Health (DCH) operates the “Medicaid Managed Specialty Supports and Services 1915(b)/(c) Waiver Program to provide supports and services for individuals with developmental disabilities. Petitioner applied to receive benefits as a developmentally disabled person from respondent St. Clair County Community Mental Health (CMH), through its contract agency Thumb Mental Health Alliance. CMH in turn contracts with the DCH to provide mental health services. The Thumb Mental Health Alliance determined that petitioner was developmentally disabled under MCL 330.1100a(21), and she began receiving § 1915(b) specialty supports and services. She received such benefits for approximately 1½ years.

In April 2006, Dr. Tom Seilheimer, a psychologist with CMH, performed a second opinion review of petitioner’s file to determine her eligibility to receive § 1915(b) specialty supports and services. Dr. Seilheimer determined that petitioner had substantial functional limitations in the areas of self-care and mobility, § (21)(a)(iv)(A) and (D), but that she had no substantial functional limitations in the areas of receptive and expressive language, learning, self-direction, capacity for independent living and economic self-sufficiency, § (21)(a)(iv)(B), (C), (E), (F) and (G). Because he determined that petitioner only had substantial functional limitations in two of the seven areas of major life activity listed in § (21)(a)(iv), and the statute requires substantial functional limitations in three areas to qualify as a developmental disability, Dr. Seilheimer concluded that petitioner was not developmentally disabled and had been receiving § 1915(b) specialty supports and services in error.

Petitioner filed a timely request for review of CMH’s decision with the administrative tribunal for the DCH. Following a hearing, administrative law judge (ALJ) Stephen B. Goldstein reversed CMH’s determination that petitioner was not developmentally disabled and was not ineligible for § 1915(b) specialty supports and services. According to ALJ Goldstein, petitioner’s physical impairments resulted in a substantial functional limitation on her capacity for independent living. Because the parties agreed that she satisfied § (21)(a)(iv)(A) (self-care) and (D) (mobility), ALJ Goldstein ruled that petitioner was developmentally disabled and was eligible for continued § 1915(b) specialty supports and services. In light of his determination that petitioner had substantial functional limitations in three areas of major life activity listed in § (21)(a)(iv), ALJ Goldstein did not address whether petitioner was economically self-sufficient under § (21)(a)(iv)(G).

Thereafter, CMH requested and was granted reconsideration of ALJ Goldstein’s ruling by the administrative tribunal for the Department of Human Services. On reconsideration, ALJ Martin D. Snider reversed ALJ Goldstein’s decision that petitioner was developmentally disabled and was eligible for continued § 1915(b) specialty supports and services. According to ALJ Snider, there was sufficient evidence that petitioner possessed the capacity for independent living. Furthermore, ALJ Snider ruled that there was sufficient evidence that petitioner did not have a substantial functional limitation in the area of economic self-sufficiency. Thus, ALJ Snider ruled that ALJ Goldstein erred in determining that petitioner had a developmental disability and was eligible to receive specialty supports and services.

Petitioner appealed ALJ Snider’s decision to the St. Clair Circuit Court. The circuit court stated that “[d]evelopmental disabilities are disabilities of intellect or behavior” and ruled that ALJ Snider’s decision that petitioner possessed the capacity for independent living was both lawful and supported by competent, material and substantial evidence. The trial court further stated that ALJ Snider’s determination that petitioner did not have a substantial functional limitation in the area of economic self-sufficiency was also supported by competent, material and substantial evidence. Thus, the circuit court affirmed ALJ Snider’s decision that petitioner was ineligible to receive § 1915(b) specialty supports and services because she is not developmentally disabled.

II. Analysis

A. Standard of Review

The circuit court reviewed the decision of the administrative tribunal for the Department of Human Services. Judicial review of decisions, findings, rulings and orders of an administrative officer includes, “as a minimum, the determination whether such final decisions, findings, rulings and orders are authorized by law; and, in cases in which a hearing is required, whether the same are supported by competent, material and substantial evidence on the whole record.” Const 1963, art 6, § 28. Judicial review of an administrative agency’s decision regarding a matter of law is limited to determining whether the decision was authorized by law. Const 1963, art 6, § 28; Romulus v Dep’t of Environmental Quality, 260 Mich App 54, 64; 678 NW2d 444 (2003).

This Court’s review of a circuit court’s review of an administrative decision is “to determine whether the lower court applied correct legal principles and whether it misapprehended or misapplied the substantial evidence test to the agency’s factual findings, which is essentially a clearly erroneous standard of review.” VanZandt v State Employees’ Retirement Sys, 266 Mich App 579, 585; 701 NW2d 214 (2005). The circuit court’s legal conclusions are reviewed de novo and its findings of fact are reviewed for clear error. Davis v State Employees’ Retirement Bd, 272 Mich App 151, 152; 725 NW2d 56 (2006). “Great deference is accorded to the circuit court’s review of the [administrative] agency’s factual findings”; however, “substantially less deference, if any, is accorded to the circuit court’s determinations on matters of law.” Romulus, supra at 62.

This appeal involves an issue of statutory interpretation. If an administrative agency or trial court interprets a statute, such a determination is a question of law subject to de novo review. DaimlerChrysler Services North America LLC v Dep’t of Treasury, 271 Mich App 625, 631; 723 NW2d 569 (2006).

B. MCL 330.1100a(21)

Petitioner argues that ALJ Snider erred in determining that she was not entitled to § 1915(b) specialty supports and services and that the circuit court erred in affirming the decision of ALJ Snider. Whether petitioner is entitled to receive such support depends on whether she has a developmental disability under MCL 330.1100a(21), which provides, in relevant part:

“Developmental disability” means . . .:

(a) If applied to an individual older than 5 years of age, a severe, chronic condition that meets all of the following requirements:

(i) Is attributable to a mentalor physical impairment or a combination of mental and physical impairments.

(ii) Is manifested before the individual is 22 years old.

(iii) Is likely to continue indefinitely.

(iv) Results in substantial functional limitations in 3 or more of the following areas of major life activity:

(A) Self-care.
(B) Receptive and expressive language.
(C) Learning.
(D) Mobility.
(E) Self-direction.
(F) Capacity for independent living.
(G) Economic self-sufficiency.

(v) Reflects the individual’s need for a combination and sequence of special, interdisciplinary, or generic care, treatment, or other services that are of lifelong or extended duration and are individually planned and coordinated.

The parties agree that petitioner has substantial functional limitations in the areas of self-care and mobility, and that she does not have substantial functional limitations in the areas of receptive and expressive language, learning and self-direction. Because petitioner must have substantial functional limitations in three or more areas of major life activity to qualify as developmentally disabled under the statute, she must also have a substantial functional limitation in either the area of capacity for independent living or economic self-sufficiency. Both the circuit court and ALJ Snider determined that petitioner possessed the capacity for independent living because she was mentally capable of living independently. Thus, we must determine whether petitioner, who is mentally, but not physically, able to live independently, has a substantial functional limitation in the area of capacity for independent living. Resolving this issue requires this Court to construe the phrase “[c]apacity for independent living” in § (21)(a)(iv)(F).

The primary goal of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and give effect to the Legislature’s intent as expressed by the language of the statute. Neal v Wilkes, 470 Mich 661, 665; 685 NW2d 648 (2004). Courts must give effect to every word, phrase, or clause in a statute and avoid an interpretation that renders nugatory or surplusage any part of a statute. Koontz v Ameritech Services, Inc, 466 Mich 304, 312; 645 NW2d 34 (2002). Provisions must be read in the context of the entire statute so as to produce a harmonious result. People v Couzens, 480 Mich 240, 249; 747 NW2d 849 (2008).

In affirming ALJ Snider’s determination that petitioner possessed the “capacity for independent living” notwithstanding her physical inability to live independently, the trial court essentially imposed a limitation or restriction on the phrase “capacity for independent living” that is not included in the statute itself. The circuit court’s and ALJ Snider’s interpretation of the phrase “capacity for independent living” in § (21)(a)(iv)(F) precludes an individual who is mentally, but not physically, able to live independently from possessing a substantial functional limitation in the “capacity for independent living” area of major life activity. The error in such a construction is that the Legislature did not so limit the phrase “capacity for independent living.” The word “mental” or “intellectual” does not appear before the provision “capacity for independent living.” The Legislature could have imposed such a limitation, but it did not do so. In construing a statute, this Court will not read anything into clear statutory language that is not within the manifest intent of the Legislature as derived from the words of the statute itself. City of Warren v Detroit, 261 Mich App 165, 169; 680 NW2d 57 (2004). If the Legislature had intended to preclude an individual who is physically, but not mentally, incapable of living independently, from being considered as having a substantial functional limitation on his or her “capacity for independent living,” it would have explicitly so indicated by including the term “mental” or “intellectual” before the phrase “capacity for independent living.” We decline to read such a limitation into the statute when the Legislature did not include it in the statute itself.[ 3 ]

The fact that the Legislature referred to both “mental and physical impairment” in § (21)(a)(i) provides further support for the conclusion that an individual who lacks either the mental or physical capacity for independent living has a substantial functional limitation under § (21)(a)(iv)(F). The Legislature’s reference to “mental and physical impairment” in § (21)(a)(i) shows that the Legislature was cognizant of and considered the distinction between mental and physical impairments and/or capacities. The omission of language from one part of a statute that is included in another part should be construed as intentional. Thompson v Thompson, 261 Mich App 353, 362 n 2; 683 NW2d 250 (2004). The fact that the Legislature chose not to limit the word “capacity” in § (21)(a)(iv)(F) by inserting the word “mental” before it, when the Legislature clearly recognized the distinction between mental and physical impairments earlier in the statute, is further evidence that the Legislature did not intend to limit a person’s capacity to live independently to the person’s mental capacity for independent living.

Further support for the conclusion that “capacity for independent living” is not limited to an individual’s mental capacity to live independently is found in the dictionary definition of the term “capacity.” The Legislature did not define the phrase “capacity for independent living” or expressly state whether the phrase encompassed only an individual’s mental or physical capacity for independent living. We give undefined terms their ordinary meanings. Haynes v Neshewat, 477 Mich 29, 36; 729 NW2d 488 (2007). Furthermore, we may consult a dictionary to construe the meaning of an undefined term. Id. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary AND Thesaurus (2007) defines “capacity” as “an individual’s mental or physical ability[.]” In light of this dictionary definition of the term “capacity,” it is reasonable to construe the phrase “capacity for independent living” to include an individual’s mental or physical capacity for independent living.

In sum, we find that the circuit court erred in construing the phrase “capacity for independent living” as being limited to an individual’s mental capacity to live independently. Such a narrow construction of the phrase is not supported by the plain language of the statute or the dictionary definition of the word “capacity.” Because the parties agree that petitioner possesses substantial functional limitations in two other areas of major life activities listed in § (21)(a)(iv), petitioner is developmentally disabled under MCL 330.1100a(21) and is therefore entitled to § 1915(b) supports and services.

Reversed. Continue reading “MMN is legally entitled to disability benefits”