Friday is the last day on the job for the woman who heads up a little known state agency that has a major impact in Massachusetts. She is Shelly Taylor. The agency is the state Division of Administrative Law Appeals, which decides on cases that impact both professionals facing government sanctions and government workers challenging benefit decisions.
You've probably never heard of the Division of Administrative Law Appeals, or DALA as it's called, but thousands of Massachusetts residents have turned to that agency for decisions that affect their lives and their livelihood.
DALA hears appeals from professionals like doctors, day care center operators, emergency medical technicians and nurses aides whose licenses have been revoked or suspended, sometimes for abuse or neglect.
It hears cases regarding environmental permits and wage and hour violations. Local and state government employees also appeal to DALA when they disagree with their pension calculations.
"You're talking about an agency that is, in essence, one of the most important legal agencies in the Commonwealth," said Nick Poser, an attorney who's been arguing cases before DALA for more than 20 years. "It's a critical agency."
Up until mid-2007, Poser had only praise for the Division of Administrative Law Appeals, an agency that will cost taxpayers $1.1 million this fiscal year. "DALA was a remarkably consistent and professional, efficient agency," he said.
Over the years, when Poser filed an appeal on behalf of a client, he'd have his first hearing before DALA in under a year. After all the legal proceedings, "you could expect a decision two to three months later," Poser said.
Now he's waiting almost two years in some cases.
It began to change after Gov. Deval Patrick named Shelly Taylor as the head of DALA in the summer of 2007. Before DALA, Taylor was Massport's senior legal counsel. Before that, deputy general counsel in the state treasurer's office. But Taylor had never managed a state agency before.
Over the past three months, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University has closely examined Taylor's record at DALA and found the number of hearings at the agency is down by more than 50 percent since 2007.
Agency records show the number of decisions issued by DALA began to plummet after Shelly Taylor arrived. In 2007, 348 decisions were issued. In 2008, Taylor's first full year on the job, fewer than half that number of decisions went out the door.
“It's a disaster," said Chris Connolly, who was head of DALA for 28 years. He was demoted in 2007 when he was replaced by Taylor, and then forced out. "You had a well-functioning agency that was effective and efficient, providing the service that was expected of it and it's not doing it now," he said, adding, "The system is essentially breaking down."
Connolly said he brought his concerns about Shelly Taylor's management of DALA to the governor's office of administration and finance, which oversees DALA, in May of last year. He spoke to the agency's top attorney, and told him, "I thought they had a serious problem with her managerial skills and abilities and that they should really consider looking into it and doing something about it."
In response, Connolly said, he was told, "they had enough information, thank you, and that they would be able to take remedial action."
Secretary of Administration and Finance Leslie Kirwan, Taylor's immediate boss who recommended Taylor for the job, confirmed that conversation. Kirwan said she became concerned about Taylor's performance more than a year ago.
"The pace of hearings being scheduled, decisions being issued is certainly a concern," she told us.
Sources inside DALA and attorneys who appear before the agency's judges told us nothing changed a year ago. Instead, the situation got worse.
"It's a critical agency and the fact that they were allowed for this amount of time — almost two years — to become crippled, to become dysfunctional, I think it's an indictment of the Patrick administration," said attorney Nick Poser.
"This is a very complex situation that involves, among other things, someone who came in as a change agent into a heavily entrenched bureaucracy," Secretary Kirwan said, "and met resistance inside in her management of the agency."
Kirwan said Taylor held on to decisions to ensure they were meeting high legal standards, but when we asked Kirwan if she could cite a single case in which DALA judges' decisions had been challenged, she said no.
In a separate issue, three complaints were filed against Shelly Taylor at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination by former and current DALA magistrates, one of whom is sight impaired.
"He was just asking for a reasonable accommodation to meet his work needs," said Greg Sorozan, president of the union representing DALA workers. Sorozan said Taylor denied the legally blind judge a special viewer for his computer.
Sorozan and others painted a pattern of what they describe as unusual behavior by Shelly Taylor. They said she blocked off the window to her office so colleagues couldn't see in. She ordered all mail addressed to DALA employees be diverted to her and held it for days or weeks. And they said she ordered the office emergency fire exit locked.
The Boston Fire Department had to be called in and inspectors ordered the door unlocked.
"I was very concerned about what was happening to people," Sorozan said. "Concerned about the output of the agency — or lack thereof — and the manner in which people were being treated and overly controlled. I couldn't believe that it was allowed to go on for so long."
Last week, Shelly Taylor informed DALA staff she would be stepping down. Taylor declined numerous requests for an interview. Reached outside her downtown Boston office Monday, she declined to comment — "It is my practice not to comment," she said.
In an interview Thursday, Leslie Kirwan praised Taylor’s legal talents, but acknowledged she was the wrong choice to head DALA.
“I think that we reached the mutual conclusion that it was time for a change,” Kirwan said.
So are DALA's problems over? Attorney Poser says no.
“It lances the boil, but the patient is still very sick," he said. "There are at least a hundred and probably more decisions that have been decided, but not released. There's two and a half years or so of cases that have been appealed, that have not been tried."
There will be at least one more chapter to this story. The state auditor's office is conducting a full investigation of the Division of Administrative Law Appeals. Results are expected this fall.
As for Shelly Taylor, Secretary Kirwan told us the Patrick administration is considering Taylor for another position in state government, despite Taylor's managerial performance at DALA.
Joe Bergantino is the senior investigative reporter at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University. The center is a collaborative that includes WBUR, The Boston Globe, and New England Cable News.