Fair Hearings: How to Defend Your Rights (FAQ)
Authored By: Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA)
In this article, you will learn:
- How to protect your right to a fair hearing for decisions about your benefits
- And, your rights during a fair hearing
You have a constitutional right to a Fair Hearing if your public benefits are denied, reduced, or ended. If the Office of Public Assistance (OPA) has made a decision about your public benefits that you think is unfair, against the rules, or factually wrong, you have the right to appeal that decision by asking for a Fair Hearing.
What is a Fair Hearing?
A Fair Hearing is an informal hearing where you can appeal a decision the Office of Public Assistance (OPA) makes about your public benefits. You can appeal decisions that you think are unfair, against the rules, or factually wrong.
You can request a Fair Hearing to appeal decisions made about any of these benefit programs:
- SNAP (food stamps)
- TANF (cash assistance for families)
- LIEAP (Low Income Energy Assistance)
- Healthy Montana Kids/CHIP
- Best Beginnings Child Care
- And, others.
When can I ask for a Fair Hearing?
You have the right to ask for a Fair Hearing any time you get written notice from the OPA of an adverse action. “Adverse action” is a legal term that can mean a lot of things. Usually it means any negative decision that affects your benefits or your application for benefits. Some examples of an adverse action are:
- Denying, reducing, or terminating your benefits
- Demanding that you repay benefits you already received
- Not allowing you to apply for benefits
- Not processing your application in a “timely manner” (usually 30 days for SNAP, 45 days for most types of Medicaid)
- Telling you that you have to take certain actions in order to keep your benefits
If you think the adverse action is wrong or if you don’t understand why it is happening, you should ask for a Fair Hearing so you can have an opportunity to fix the problem.
You have 90 days from the date of the written notice telling you about the adverse action to ask for a Fair Hearing. You may need to ask for a Fair Hearing sooner if you want to keep your benefits while your appeal is pending. Follow the instructions on the letter you got with the adverse action.
How do I ask for a Fair Hearing?
The best way to ask for a Fair Hearing is to fill out a Fair Hearing request form. If you got a letter from the OPA telling you about the adverse action, the form is at the end of that letter. If you don’t have the letter anymore, that’s okay. You can just write a letter to ask for a Fair Hearing. Make sure you include your name, address, phone number, and a description of the decision you are challenging in your request for a Fair Hearing. The description can be short, like “I disagree with decrease in my SNAP benefits.”
You should send your Fair Hearing request to the Office of Fair Hearings by mail, fax, or email at:
Office of Fair Hearings
P.O. Box 202953
2401 Colonial Drive, Third Floor
Helena, MT 59620
You can also submit the Fair Hearing request to your local OPA. Your local OPA must help you request a Fair Hearing if you ask for help. Find a local OPA near you.
If you are asking for a Fair Hearing about SNAP benefits, you don’t have to write your request. You can ask for a Fair Hearing in person or over the phone. You can call the Montana Public Assistance Helpline at 1-888-706-1535 to make your SNAP Fair Hearing request. But, it may be faster to call the Office of Fair Hearings directly at (406) 444-2470.
What happens once I ask for a Fair Hearing?
Once you ask for a Fair Hearing, the Office of Fair Hearings will send you a letter. That letter will tell you that someone from the OPA will call you to schedule another call to discuss your case.
The telephone call to discuss your case is called an Administrative Review. It is an informal meeting for you to talk to someone one-on-one about your benefits. You will have the opportunity tell OPA why you disagree with the adverse action and to ask questions. You are not required to participate in the Administrative Review, but it can be a really helpful way to get information about what happened with your benefits.
Sometimes people are able to resolve their appeal at the Administrative Review. If you resolve your case at the Administrative Review, you can choose to withdraw your Fair Hearing request and end the process. If you do not resolve your case at the Administrative Review, you can choose to proceed to a Fair Hearing.
What happens at the Fair Hearing?
The Office of Fair Hearings will send you a notice telling you the date and time of your Fair Hearing. The notice will include a list of guidelines that explain what your rights are at the Fair Hearing.
At the Fair Hearing, you and the OPA will each present your argument to an impartial judge called an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). You or an advocate can present evidence, bring in witnesses, and ask the OPA representative questions to support your argument for why the decision is wrong.
The OPA representative can also present evidence, bring in witnesses, and ask you questions to support their argument of why the decision was correct. When you ask the OPA representative questions that is called cross examination. The OPA representative may also cross examine you.
Most Fair Hearings happen over the phone. So, if you have any documents that you want to use as evidence, you need to make sure you send copies to the Office of Fair Hearings before your hearing.
The ALJ will listen to both sides before making a decision. Most ALJs don’t make a decision at the Fair Hearing. Instead, the ALJ will usually end the hearing and then write a decision at a later date. The ALJ will send you their decision in the mail.
The written decision will tell you how you can appeal if you don’t agree with the ALJ’s decision.
Can I have a lawyer help me with my Fair Hearing?
You have the right to have a lawyer help you with your Fair Hearing, but you are responsible for finding a lawyer who will take your case. You may be able to get free legal help with a Fair Hearing or appeal from Montana Legal Services Association.
What are my rights during a Fair Hearing?
- While most hearings are done over the phone, you can ask to have your hearing in person.
- You have a right to be represented by an attorney, a paralegal, or a personal advocate like a friend or family member.
- You can have witnesses at your hearing. If you do, you should let the Office of Fair Hearings know ahead of time.
- You have a right to an interpreter if needed. Ask for an interpreter when you request your hearing.
- You can ask to continue receiving your normal benefits until after the hearing. Mark or ask for “aid continuing” in your Fair Hearing request. However, if you lose at the hearing, you will have to repay those benefits.
- If you want a Fair Hearing, be sure to request one within the allowed time frame,
- You have the right to see your case files and to copy anything in it. That information may help support your case.
- Be sure to make copies of all your important papers and have them with you at your hearing. Do not give important papers to the OPA without having copies for yourself.
- It can be useful to write down the names of any workers who helped you. Keep a record of whom you spoke to, what you spoke about, if you gave them anything, and the time and date you talked to them.
If OPA sent you a letter with an adverse decision, they usually include a form to ask for a Fair Hearing. If you don’t have that form, you can write a letter to the Office of Fair Hearings. Make sure you include your name, address, phone number, and a description of the decision you are challenging in your request for a Fair Hearing. The description can be short, like “I disagree with decrease in my SNAP benefits.”
Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) provides free civil legal help to eligible clients. Learn more about how to apply for free legal help.