Great News for Families seeking Regional Center services!

This week, the Court of Appeal reversed the Ventura Superior Court's decision in Tri-Counties Ass'n v. Ventura County Public Guardian which reversed the ALJ's finding that A.V. met the statutory criteria for developmental disability: he had a qualifying condition of autism, i.e., ASD; his ASD was substantially disabling; and the condition originated before age 18 and is therefore met the qualifying conditions for services under the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 4500 et seq)

A.V. was first evaluated for autism (one of five qualifying conditions for services under the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act) by Tri-Counties Regional Center (TRC) at age 7. The evaluators noted symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome but did not consider them severe enough to qualify for services.

A.V.’s next contact with the Regional Center was at age 19 after he experienced a series of psychiatric emergencies resulting in involuntary observation holds and inpatient stays. TRC noted symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a condition which includes those individuals previously diagnosed with Asperger’s. However, its evaluators attributed A.V.’s mental health problems to , schizophrenia (a non qualifying condition), that manifested after he reached the Act’s eligibility cut-off of age 18. They again denied services.

A.V. then appealed to the Department of Developmental Services (DDS). The ALJ found that A.V. proved his diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V). He further found that A.V.’s disorder originated in childhood and became substantially disabling at age 19. He found A.V.’s acute mental illness did not disqualify him from receiving developmental services from the Regional Center. The ALJ rejected the Regional Center’s argument that a qualifying condition must not only originate but must also become “substantially disabling” before age 18. TRC sought review by petitioning for a writ of administrative mandate. (Code Civ. Proc., § 1094.5.)

Despite The superior court agreeing with the ALJ and rejecting TRC’s argument that a claimant’s condition must become substantially disabling before age 18 to be eligible for services, It reversed the ALJ’s decision stating that his analysis “accorded no significant weight or deference to the [Regional Center] professionals who evaluated [A.V.’s] entire clinical history.” The superior court found the testimony of TRC professionals “to strongly predominate” on the issue of A.V.’s diagnosis and criticized the ALJ for “substitut[ing] his own judgment for that of the [Regional Center] professionals” by applying DSM-V’s autism criteria. It granted the petition and entered judgment in favor of the Regional Center. The Public Guardian appealed the judgment on A.V.’s behalf.

The Court of Appeal found” that the deference owed to a Regional Center psychologist is “not distinct from, or superior to, that owed to an ALJ tasked with making DDS’s final eligibility determination.” The fair hearing process serves as a check on Regional Centers’ considerable discretion to both develop and implement eligibility criteria under the Act. The ALJ did not abuse his discretion by weighing the evidence on an even playing field.” The court also found that superior court erred when it “criticized the ALJ for “engraft[ing]” DSM-V’s autism criteria onto the Act instead of deferring to the criteria established by Regional Center professionals. The decision to do so was within the scope of the ALJ’s authority.

The record shows the ALJ structured his analysis around DSM-V because the parties agreed it was the appropriate standard for assessing A.V.’s eligibility. The Regional Center took the position A.V. did not qualify for services “because his purported qualifying diagnoses, even if established under DSM- V, did not become “substantially disabling” until he reached adulthood.”

In conclusion the Court of Appeal held that the ALJ did not owe difference to TRC professionals and even if the ALJ erred by incorporating DSM-V into his decision, the Regional Center invited the error. [“Under the invited error doctrine, a party cannot challenge a court’s finding made at its insistence”]. (See Santa Clara Waste Water Co. v. Allied World National Assurance Co. (2017) 18 Cal.App.5th 881, 888, citing Jentick v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (1941) 18 Cal.2d 117, 121 )

Accordingly, the court directed the superior court to review the petition under the appropriate standard on remand.

This is great news for individuals who may have a delay in the manifestation of severe symptoms!