Many laws and regulations provide that notices are to be sent to someone by mail. Unfortunately, if the Postal Service is not notified of changes promptly, mail may not be forwarded and important notices may be missed. A recent case from Washington, State v, Snyder, No. 32758-2-III (Wash. App., June 2, 2016), <http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/327582.pub.pdf>, illustrates the peril of missing a notice.
The Department of Social and Health Services investigated an allegation of child neglect against Ms. Snyder and found it to have occurred. On March 21, 2011, DSHS sent a certified letter to her home, noting that she had 60 days to request the investigation be reviewed, the first step in the eventual hearing process. On April 6, Ms. Snyder completed the request. At the time, she was moving to her parents’ home elsewhere in Spokane, but she did not notify DSHS of the pending move, nor did she file a change of address notice with the post office. Instead, she indicated that her old address was the proper address to send further notices. She expected that her lease continued until the end of April and that she could continue to receive mail until then. Unfortunately, the landlord filled the space, and the new resident returned Ms. Snyder’s mail to the senders, and told Ms. Snyder the first time she inquired.
During the interim, on April 12, DSHS sent Ms. Snyder the results of its review of the investigation, finding that she had neglected the children in question. Because this letter was sent by certified mail, it was returned unaccepted. As a result, Ms. Snyder did not receive the report which included a notice of the 30 day deadline to request further review.
In 2013, Ms. Snyder discovered that the findings had been upheld when she applied to enter a nursing internship and was denied. She requested a hearing, at which she admitted that she had not checked back with DSHS when she received no response to her original request for review. The hearings officer declined to reopen the case because Ms. Snyder had missed the deadline. She requested review by the Board of Appeals, a higher administrative body, which agreed with the hearings officer. After that, she appealed to the Court of Appeals.
The laws governing investigation of child abuse and neglect in Washington have a multi-step procedure. The first step is the initial investigation. After that, DSHS is required to make a reasonable effort to locate the people involved and send them the result, with notice of the right to request management review within 30 days. (Apparently, the practice may be to give 60 days.) If a management review sustains the initial investigation, a report is sent to the person involved by certified mail to their last known address, with a notice of a 30 day deadline to appeal. At this level, the law does not require further efforts to locate the person involved. That request must be sent within 30 days of receiving the DSHS notice.
The Court of Appeals disagreed with Ms. Snyder. It noted that in cases involving suspension and revocation of driver’s licenses, a similarly worded law was interpreted to mean that when a person was in a situation that they would expect a notice, they would be treated as having been under a duty to inquire if the notice was not received. Ms. Snyder had not made any inquiry for two years, despite knowing that she was not receiving mail at her old address. She also knew that her mail was being returned to sender. This was enough to impose a duty to inquire with DSHS within a reasonable time. She didn’t do that.
If you are moving and expect important mail, it is a good idea to notify the persons you expect the mail from and to promptly submit a notice of change of address. Otherwise, you may be treated as having received the mail, even if it is returned unclaimed.