Ritland v. Arizona State Board of Medical Examiners – 8/17/2006

August 28, 2006

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That an Agency is Not Bound by an ALJ’s Credibility Findings and May Reject Them.

The Board of Medical Examiners adopted an ALJ’s findings of fact regarding complaints made about Ritland, despite reservations expressed by some Board members as to the credibility of complaining witnesses. The Board did so after being advised by counsel that the ALJ was the finder of fact and the best course was to adopt the ALJ’s findings of fact. Ritland moved for review or rehearing, arguing that the Board has authority to make findings of fact regarding the credibility of a witness. The Board denied the motion and the superior court affirmed the Board’s decision. This appeal followed.

Judge Kessler, writing for a unanimous panel, held that as the final decision maker in a contested agency proceeding, an agency has the authority to make independent findings of fact, including credibility findings. Although an agency is not bound by an ALJ’s credibility findings, the agency must afford them greater weight than other findings of fact more objectively discernable from the record. An agency’s decision to depart from the ALJ’s credibility findings must cite to substantial evidence supporting such departure. In this case, because the Board’s decision might have been based on an erroneous understanding of the law, the Court of Appeals vacated the Board’s decision and remanded to the Board.

Judge Kessler authored the opinion; Judges Timmer and Winthrop concurred.