Wood, A.c., J.c.c., Temporarily Assigned.
[123 NJSuper Page 573] This is an action in lieu of prerogative writs instituted by plaintiffs as a class action "on behalf of themselves individually and all others similarly situated," in which plaintiffs seek to restrain the Burlington County Welfare Board (hereinafter the Board) from prosecuting certain actions against plaintiffs in the Burlington County District Court.
The facts are simple and are undisputed. Since September 1972 the Board has instituted about 100 actions in the Burlington County District Court against these plaintiffs and others, all of whom are or were recipients of welfare aid under the AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) program. In each case the Board alleges that there were payments to such recipients in various amounts in excess of amounts authorized by law, and that the recipients of such overpayments are thereby indebted to the Board in the amount of such overpayments. The complaints do not allege that such overpayments were the result of any wrongdoing on the part of the defendants named therein. Indeed, they allege nothing except the fact of overpayment, the amount thereof, and the consequent "indebtedness." However, an affidavit filed by the Board's solicitor in support of the Board's motion for summary judgment states that the Board "stands ready to prove that the overpayment resulted from a lack of knowledge on the part of the Board of the receipt of some type of income to the defendant, or the possession by the defendant of assets which, if known by the Board, would have reduced or eliminated a monthly grant of assistance to the defendant." He states that such lack of knowledge by the Board resulted from "either fraudulent, willful or negligent withholding of such information by the defendant or from mere ignorance of any requirement."
The solicitor further candidly asserts that the Board is about to file additional similar actions in the Superior Court, in cases where the alleged overpayments exceed the jurisdictional limits of the county district court.
By this class action plaintiffs here (defendants in the county district court actions), for themselves and others, seek to enjoin and restrain the Board from instituting and prosecuting these actions on the ground that they are instituted in violation of the Board's powers under both federal and state statutes; that they are in violation of plaintiffs' rights under applicable federal regulations, and that they violate plaintiffs' rights to the equal protection of the laws
under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Plaintiffs seek by way of further relief: (1) the restraining of the Board from collecting or attempting to collect under any judgments heretofore entered; (2) dismissal of all actions; and (3) the refund to plaintiffs of any monies heretofore collected by means of these actions.
There being, as stated, no dispute as to the facts underlying this proceeding, defendant Board now moves for summary judgment of dismissal of the action, and plaintiffs move for summary judgment granting the relief sought. The matter is before the court on these cross-motions.
Initially, plaintiffs also move that the court order that this action be maintainable as a class action pursuant to R. 4:32-1 et seq. The court is satisfied that the action meets all the requirements of R. 4:32-1(a). Moreover, it appears that the questions of law here raised predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and that a class action, at this juncture, is the fairest and most efficient method of adjudication of the controversy. R. 4:32-1(b)(3). Indeed, that the action is maintainable as a class action is conceded by defendant. The action will therefore be so maintained.
The AFDC program is established under the authority of the Social Security Act of 1935, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 601-1396. Its history and statutory scheme are lucidly and succinctly outlined in X v. McCorkle , 333 F. Supp. 1109, 1113-1115 (D.N.J. 1970). However, a brief recapitulation of the statutory scheme may be helpful here.
The AFDC program, 42 U.S.C.A. § 601 et seq. , singles out the "dependent child" for welfare assistance. A "dependent child" is a needy child who has been deprived of parental support or care by reason of the death, continued absence from the home, or physical or mental incapacity of a parent, and who is living with any one of several listed relatives and who is age-qualified. 42 U.S.C.A. § 606(a). The Federal Government provides funds to the states that
participate in the program. New Jersey, like all other states in the Union, does so participate.
Each state's plan for the administration of its program must have the approval of the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Each state has considerable latitude in allocating its AFDC resources, since each is free to determine its own standards of need and determine the level of benefits by the amount of funds it devotes to the program. King v. Smith , 392 U.S. 309, 318-319, 88 S. Ct. 2128, 2134, 20 L. Ed. 2d 1118 (1968). The authority for limitations on and variations in assistance payments derives from 42 U.S.C.A. § 601, which states the purpose of the program as --
Despite the broad language of the statute and the latitude it gives to the states to determine and set eligibility standards for recipients of financial assistance, each state must nevertheless conform to specific requirements of the Social Security Act and the regulations promulgated thereunder. State regulations attempting to set eligibility standards in ...