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Burton v. New Jersey Department of Institutions and Agencies

Decided: February 4, 1977.

GEORGE BURTON, APPELLANT,
v.
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF INSTITUTIONS AND AGENCIES, DIVISION OF PUBLIC WELFARE, AND THE PASSAIC COUNTY WELFARE BOARD, RESPONDENTS



Fritz, Ard and Pressler. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, J.A.D.

Pressler

Petitioner George Burton appeals from a decision of the Division of Public Welfare, Department of Institutions and Agencies (Division), determining that on the facts presented he and his family were not entitled to emergency welfare assistance.

The facts are not disputed. Petitioner, who resides with his wife and six children in Paterson, New Jersey, receives public assistance under the Aid to Families of the Working Poor Program (AFWP), N.J.S.A. 44:13-1 et seq. , as well as additional benefits under the Food Stamp Program, 7 U.S.C.A. § 2012(m); N.J.S.A. 30:4B-2. The Food Stamp Program is administered by the issuance, twice a month, of a card, referred to as an ATP card, authorizing the purchase of food stamps for less than their face amount. Petitioner's benefit was the authorization to purchase $149 worth of food coupons for $54.

On April 8, 1976, while petitioner and his wife were on their way to purchase their food stamps, they suddenly realized that her wallet, which contained the ATP card and all of their cash, a sum of $150, was missing. Petitioner reported this loss to the Passaic County Welfare Board (Board) four days later and applied for relief. The Board replaced the ATP card, maintaining the $54 purchase requirement but declined to provide any funds with which

stamps might be purchased. A week later, petitioner reported the loss to the local police, and by that time, being without financial resources at all, applied to the Board for emergency assistance in order to obtain food. His application having been denied, petitioner requested review of that action by way of a fair hearing by the Division of Public Welfare. N.J.A.C. 10:81-6.1 et seq. The hearing was held on April 23, 1976. The determination of the hearing officer, adopted by the Director of the Division on April 27, 1976, upheld the action of the Board on the ground that emergency relief in these circumstances was not authorized by regulation. On the following date this court granted the interim relief of ordering the Board to provide petitioner with the sum of $12 a day for food pending his receipt of his next grant payment, which occurred five days later.

The basis of the hearing officer's determination was not her disbelief of petitioner's testimony regarding his wife's loss of her wallet. She, in fact, found that to have been a fact. Nor did she find that the petitioner and his family had any possible resources by which food for this family of eight could be obtained other than by Board assistance. The basis of her decision was, rather, her interpretation of the relevant provisions of the Assistance Standards Handbook, N.J.A.C. 10:82-1.1 et seq. , which supplements the Public Assistance Manual, N.J.A.C. 10:81-1.1 et seq. It was her conclusion, first, that the lost money itself could not be replaced by the Board in view of a public assistance manual prohibition of such action, and petitioner does not challenge that determination. What is here challenged was her further determination that the catastrophic plight in which the petitioner and his family found themselves did not constitute a remediable emergency pursuant to the definition of "emergent situation" set forth in N.J.A.C. 10:82-5.12(c), and this for the reason that while petitioner and his wife and six children may have been in imminent danger of starvation, they were nevertheless not "homeless"

within the intendment of that regulation. We agree with petitioner and find the Division's construction of N.J.A.C. 10:82-5.12(c) unduly restrictive and, in its literalness, to have violated the clear import of the emergency assistance provision.

There is no question that families receiving AFWP assistance are also eligible for emergency assistance in applicable circumstances. It is further clear that the scope of emergency assistance available pursuant to state regulation must be at least as broad as the emergency assistance authorized by federal enabling legislation pursuant to which the State's AFWP program is administered and pursuant to which it is in part funded. See 42 U.S.C.A. § 603(a)(5) (providing for equal matching funds for the AFWP program); 42 U.S.C.A. § 606(e)(1) (defining the circumstances pursuant to which needy families with children are entitled to emergency assistance). And see, Gonzales v. Young , 418 F. Supp. 566 (D.N.J. 1976), and Boyd v. Dept. of Inst. and Agencies , 126 N.J. Super. 273 (App. Div. 1974), certif. den., 65 N.J. 281 (1974), finding generally that the emergency assistance provided for by N.J.A.C. 10:82-5.12 is not materially inconsistent with 42 U.S.C.A. § 606(e)(1). See also, affirming the necessity for participating states to conform with minimal federal emergency assistance standards, Williams v. Wohlgemuth , 400 F. Supp. 1309 (E.D. Pa. 1975), aff'd, 540 F.2d 163 (3 Cir. 1976).

While we do not suggest that the Assistance Standards Handbook is facially inconsistent with the federal emergency assistance requirements, we are, however, satisfied that the Division's interpretation thereof was. N.J.A.C. 10:82-5.12(c) provides that emergency assistance shall be provided to families receiving AFWP grant:

When there has been substantial loss of shelter, food, clothing or household furnishing by fire, flood or other similar natural disaster, or when because of an emergent situation over which they had no control or ...


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