Talbott, J.c.c., temporarily assigned.
[145 NJSuper Page 56] These are two actions in lieu of prerogative writs arising out of a series of transactions. The actions have been consolidated pursuant to R. 4:38-1. Initially plaintiff seeks to establish in a class action for herself and others similarly situated that the Camden County Welfare Board (hereinafter welfare board) is obligated to find her "presumptively eligible" for welfare payments on the date of her application for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) funds and to begin payments immediately and before an investigation is made. She requests the court to enjoin the welfare board from refusing to comply with the applicable regulations of the Department of Institutions and Agencies (hereinafter INA) as to eligibility and to issue a declaratory judgment stating that it is defendant's duty to provide immediate assistance to all persons whose need is apparent from the written application given the welfare board under oath. Plaintiff brings a similar action against defendants representing Camden's General Assistance program. Plaintiff claims it is their practice and policy to deny General Assistance benefits to needy persons solely on the basis that such persons have children in their custody. Plaintiff seeks to enjoin this alleged practice and policy and have the court declare this policy in violation of the applicable statutes and regulations.
Plaintiff Beverly Gilbert is a Camden County resident, mother of one child and 8 1/2 months pregnant with another. She is without assets and, other than $35 a month from Social Security, is without income. On May 13, 1976 she applied for AFDC benefits from defendant welfare board providing evidence of her eligibility for benefits by written statement signed under oath. On June 9, 1976 she applied for General Assistance benefits at the office of defendant J. Allen Nimmo. As of the date of this hearing plaintiff had not received benefits from either office.
For purposes of clarity the action against the county welfare board will be dealt with first.
Plaintiff contends that on the date of her application she should have been presumed eligible for welfare benefits and that she should have been issued a check immediately. She contends that the check should have been sufficient to enable her to meet her basic living needs pending verification of her application by the welfare board. The board's failure to do so, contends plaintiff, amounted to a breach of the "presumptive eligibility" standards set forth in the welfare regulations promulgated by INA. Plaintiff defines the class as all present and future applicants for AFDC benefits of eligibility by written statement under oath.
The welfare board takes the position that this was not a case involving the type of emergency situation for which they should have issued a presumptive eligibility check. Although it is not denied that plaintiff had no assets and virtually no income on the date of her application, the board justifies its failure to issue a check on the basis that Miss Gilbert did not specifically state that she was in immediate need of assistance. Therefore, her application was treated as an application for assistance subject to the established verification process, including independent proof of residence and dependents. The welfare board also argues that plaintiff is not properly before this court because she failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.
Codefendants Ann Klein, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Institutions and Agencies and G. Thomas Riti, Director of the New Jersey Division of Public Welfare, take the opposite position, believing that this is a classic case where presumptive eligibility should have been granted. Counsel for these codefendants argues that the regulations don't require the applicant to make a specific request for immediate assistance; rather, such a determination rightfully belongs to the welfare board through its employees.
The court is satisfied that this action meets all the requirements for the maintenance of a class action as set forth in R. 4:32-1(a) and, in addition, finds that the welfare board has acted or refused to act on grounds generally applicable to the class as defined by plaintiff. The class action rule should be liberally construed, and such an action should be permitted unless there is a clear showing that it is inappropriate or improper. Lusky v. Capasso Brothers , 118 N.J. Super. 369 (App. Div. 1972). Here there exists a strong possibility of multiple litigation on the proper application of the "presumptive eligibility" regulations since welfare board routinely fails to issue checks to applicants who do not state they are in immediate need. To avoid that possibility the court certifies this action as a class action, defining the class as all present and future applicants of AFDC benefits whose immediate need is apparent and who have provided evidence of eligibility by written statement under oath.
The AFDC program is one of several categorical assistance programs which are encouraged and partly financed by the Federal Government. See Motyka v. McCorkle , 58 N.J. 165 (1971). New Jersey elected to participate in the program in 1959, and the statutory scheme is set forth in N.J.S.A. 44:10-1 et seq. N.J.S.A. 44:10-2 declares that needy dependent children living in New Jersey and the parent or relative with whom they live shall be entitled to financial assistance and other services from the county welfare board of the county in which they reside.
N.J.S.A. 44:10-3 directs the Commissioner of Institutions and Agencies to issue regulations to accomplish the purposes of the act. One of the stated purposes is to assure that all individuals wishing to make application for assistance for dependent children shall have the opportunity to do so, and that assistance shall be furnished with reasonable promptness to or for all eligible individuals. N.J.S.A. 44:10-3(b).
Regulations implementing the statutory purposes are set forth in the Public Assistance Manual (hereafter PAM); such regulations are binding on all county welfare boards. N.J.S.A. 44:10-3; PAM § 1000. The ...