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Tucker v. Rhode Island Department of Human Services

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

July 16, 2019

GIANNA TUCKER, Appellant,
v.
RHODE ISLAND DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, Appellee.

          For Plaintiff: Catherine Sansonetti, Esq.

          For Defendant: Lisa F. Bortolotti, Esq.

          DECISION

          LANPHEAR, J.

         Before this Court is Appellant, Gianna Tucker's, appeal of Appellee, Rhode Island Department of Human Services' final decision denying Gianna Tucker's waiver request for additional tuition support for her post-secondary education. The Rhode Island Department of Human Services denied Gianna Tucker's request for additional tuition assistance on the basis that the Office of Rehabilitation Services (ORS) policy complied with federal law and the ORS correctly calculated the amount of tuition assistance. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15. For the reasons set forth herein, this Court affirms the Rhode Island Department of Human Services' final decision.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         The Rhode Island Department of Human Services (DHS) is an agency within the executive branch of the state government, which is the federally designated state agency that is responsible for the Rehabilitation Services Administration grants. Within DHS, the ORS oversees the management of the Vocational Rehabilitation Program. Appellant, Gianna Tucker (Tucker), is a disabled individual, [1] who permanently resides in Narragansett, Rhode Island. (Appellee's Answer (Answer) Ex. 30 at 13.) After graduating from Narragansett High School in 2012, she was found eligible for the Vocational Rehabilitation Program. Id. at 3, 9. Tucker listed Occupational Therapy as her employment goal for her Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE). This goal required a master's degree. (Answer Ex. 29 at 10.)

         From 2012 until 2016, Tucker attended Saint Mary's University and attained a Bachelor's Degree in psychology and biology. (Answer Ex. 30 at 4.) During Tucker's enrollment at Saint Mary's University, she received a trustee scholarship in the amount of $72, 000 and a training grant from ORS in the amount of $46, 798. Id. Additionally, during this time, Tucker received $3482 for assistive technology. Id.

         In January of 2016, Tucker met with her ORS Counselor, Teresa O'Brien (Counselor), to discuss the continuation of her IPE in order to obtain a master's degree in Occupational Therapy. Id. During this meeting, Tucker indicated that she applied to eight post-secondary schools and was awaiting acceptance decisions. Id. There was no master's program for Occupational Therapy within Rhode Island that Tucker was eligible for; thus, Tucker was required to apply to out-of-state schools. Id. at 14. Her Counselor advised Tucker that the ORS policy for post-secondary training grants funds up to a baseline amount, which is set at the amount of the University of Rhode Island graduate tuition. Id. at 4. Additionally, the Counselor informed Tucker that in order for the IPE to develop, Tucker must receive an acceptance into a school, and ORS must receive the letter of acceptance, information regarding scholarship grants, plans for working during the school year and the summer, and a copy of the student aid report from Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Id. Tucker acknowledged the required steps and stated that she would provide ORS with the information. Id. Nonetheless, ORS agreed to develop her IPE with the goal of a master's degree in Occupational Therapy based upon Tucker's undergraduate GPA of 3.7 and her demonstrated ability to handle challenging science classes; furthermore, this goal was also supported by the labor market's expected salary and job growth rate. Id.

         In March of 2016, Tucker informed her Counselor that she selected Tufts University and was visiting Boston to search for apartments while she attended school. Id. at 4-5, Ex. 6 at 2. A meeting was held on March 28, 2016, during which Tucker informed her Counselor that she had independently enrolled at Tufts University. (Answer Ex. 30 at 4-5, Ex. 6 at 2.) As a result of Tucker's decision, her Counselor was foreclosed from discussing the comparable benefits at various institutions, such as scholarships, grants, work study or part-time work at the various institutions that would aid with the funding. (Answer Ex. 30 at 5, 7, 36.)

         In accordance with DHS, ORS Policy Manual Section 115.28, Post-Secondary Education and Vocational Training Services (ORS Policy Sec. 115.28), Tucker and Tufts University provided ORS with the required documentation for the purpose of completing the Training Grant Worksheet (ORS-29 form). (Answer Ex. 30 at 5, Ex. 6 at 2.) Based on the foregoing financial information received[2] and ORS Policy Sec. 115.28, ORS provided Tucker with a grant of $13, 362 for the 2016- 2017 school year and $1000 for books and supplies. Id. Additionally, ORS funded Tucker $1193 for a refurbished MacBook in November of 2016. Id.

         After Tucker received the ORS-29 form, she objected to the calculations and requested ORS to reevaluate and recalculate the grant. (Answer Ex. 30 at 5, Ex. 14.) ORS reevaluated the financial information from the ORS-28 form, the student aid report from FAFSA, the baseline amount, and the current ORS Policy Sec. 115.28. Id. After reviewing the pertinent materials, ORS contacted Tucker to notify her that the amount originally granted was correct. Id. The authorization for the fall 2016 semester was paid on August 22, 2016 in the amount of $6681, which amounted to half of the annual training grant. Id.

         On January 10, 2017, ORS received a letter from Tucker's legal counsel, Rhode Island Disability Law Center, requesting that ORS reevaluate Tucker's tuition as well as her room and board expenses. (Answer Ex. 30 at 5, Ex. 17.) ORS reviewed the amount that was granted on August 1, 2016 and found that it was consistent with ORS policy and baseline fee. However, ORS indicated in a letter dated January 19, 2017 that they would explore reimbursement options for Tucker's room rental once some documentation was received regarding the lease or rental agreement. (Answer Ex. 18.) After receiving the relevant information, ORS offered to fund Tucker for rental expenses of $636 per month until the completion of her master's degree in Occupational Therapy. (Answer Ex. 20.) On February 24, 2017, Tucker accepted ORS's offer for rental assistance and requested that ORS fund rent retroactively as well. (Answer Ex. 21.) Additionally, Tucker requested ORS to grant a waiver based on individualized extenuating circumstances within Section IV(B) of ORS Policy Sec. 115.28. (Answer Ex. 21.) ORS approved the administrative waiver that would reimburse Tucker for room and board from January 2017 until the completion of her campus classes. (Answer Ex. 30 at 6.) However, on March 3, 2017, ORS sent a denial letter indicating that ORS cannot grant Tucker's request for additional tuition because it exceeds the ORS baseline amount of unmet need. (Answer Ex. 22.)

         On March 31, 2017, ORS received Tucker's appeal letter regarding ORS's denial of waiver for tuition and expenses. (Answer Ex. 6 at 4.) On May 8, 2017, the Appeals Officer of DHS (Appeals Officer) conducted a hearing, where the Appeals Officer heard testimony from various witnesses involved with Tucker's tuition assistance. (Answer Ex. 30.)[3]

         On July 11, 2017, the Appeals Officer issued the decision formally denying Tucker's request to grant a waiver for additional tuition and expenses. (Answer Ex. 29.) The Appeals Officer found that ORS Policy Sec. 115.28 complied with the federal law and that ORS correctly calculated the amount of Tucker's tuition assistance because student loans qualified as other available resources that this state agency has authorized to substitute for Vocational Rehabilitation assistance. (Answer Ex. 29 at 11-15.) On August 24, 2017, Tucker filed an appeal of the Administrative Hearing Decision with this Court.

         II

         Standard of Review

         This Court's review of an appeal from an administrative action is governed by § 42-35-15, which provides:

"The court shall not substitute its judgment for that of the agency as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact. The court may affirm the decision of the agency or remand the case for further proceedings, or it may reverse or modify the decision if substantial rights of the appellant have been prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions, or decisions are:
"(1) In violation of constitutional or statutory provisions;
"(2) In excess of the statutory authority of the agency;
"(3) Made upon unlawful procedure;
"(4) Affected by other error of law;
"(5) Clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the ...

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