Plaintiff, receiving welfare assistance, was involved in three automobile accidents concerning which she brought suit. Her anticipated recoveries are subject to reimbursement claims of the Atlantic County Welfare Board. Those claims are the basis of this action. One suit was settled and is outside the scope of this opinion; anticipated settlements of the other two invite this decision.
Sometime after both accidents had occurred the welfare board required plaintiff to execute a reimbursement agreement which obligated her to repay certain welfare benefits from any monies recovered in her suits. Her action seeks a declaratory judgment as to whether the agreement and that statute upon which it is based require the repayment of benefits received prior to the date of the agreement and whether the monies recovered are subject to the payment of counsel fees. It appears that the anticipated recoveries may be less than the total amount claimed by defendant. Cross-motions for summary judgment have been filed. There are no factual disputes and the issues are ripe for determination as a matter of law. Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co. , 25 N.J. 17 (1957).
The statute involved is N.J.S.A. 44:10-4, which, as amended in 1977, provides:
Repayment of assistance; claims against minors' estates; compromise and settlement of claims
(a) Whenever any parent or relative with whom a child is living applies for or is receiving assistance for such child pursuant to this act, and it appears that there is pending entitlement to a payment to the child or to either or both his parents of funds arising from a claim or interest legally or equitably owned by such child or by either or both his parents, the county welfare agency may, as a condition of eligibility or continuation of eligibility for such assistance, require such parent, or parents, or relative, to execute a written promise to repay, from the funds anticipated, the amount of assistance to be granted from the date of
entitlement to such payment. Upon any refusal to make repayment, including refusal by any person acting for or on behalf of such parent or parents, or relative, in accordance with such promise, the county welfare agency may take all necessary and proper action under the laws of this State to enforce such promise, and the granting or continuing of assistance, as the case may be, shall be deemed due consideration therefor.
The underlined portions of the statute represent words added or changed by the 1977 amendment.
Plaintiff interprets the statutory language as requiring the reimbursement of welfare monies only with respect to those paid after the reimbursement agreement is executed. She relies upon In re Doughty , 160 N.J. Super. 126 (App.Div.1978), which construed the statute prior to its 1977 amendment, a construction adopted by the Supreme Court when it decided In re Jackson , 79 N.J. 517 (1979). At that time the statute authorized a reimbursement agreement containing a "promise to repay, from the funds anticipated, the amount of assistance to be granted." The Doughty court found (79 N.J. Super. at 130) that the statute made no provision for repayment "from an already realized claim, of past received assistance as a condition for continuation of assistance." Since 1977 the statute has authorized an agreement to repay "from the funds anticipated, the amount of assistance to be granted from the date of entitlement to such payment." (Emphasis supplied.) Plaintiff points to the retention of the words "to be," arguing that they display a legislative intent limiting repayment to those monies "to be granted," in short, to monies paid after the agreement is executed. The argument is not persuasive. Admittedly, the language is confusing; there is a contradiction in tenses. "Assistance to be granted" connotes future payments, while "from that date of entitlement to such payment" may refer to a past or a future date. Here, for example, "entitlement" occurred on the dates of the accidents, prior to execution of the reimbursement agreement and therefore past dates.
The confusion must be resolved through consideration of any available statutory history and the application of appropriate rules of construction through which the true intention of the Legislature may be determined. Safeway Trails, Inc. v. Furman ,
41 N.J. 467 (1964). The 1977 amendment to the statute added the references to "entitlement." Under plaintiff's theory this word and the new clause, "from the date of entitlement to such payment," would be entirely superfluous; the result to be obtained under the new legislation would be exactly the same as that obtained under the old. The Legislature cannot have intended to adopt an amendment which amounts to a useless gesture. Handleman v. Marwen Stores Corp. , 53 N.J. 404, 413 (1969). Welfare instructions adopted to implement the statute call for the repayment of welfare monies from the date of the accident, not from the date of the agreement. Public Assistance Manual , "Resources & Repayments," N.J. Dep't of Human Services, Div. of Public Welfare, Transmittal Letter 7B 17, § 395(a) (May 1979). This practical interpretation of the statute by the agency which must enforce its provisions is a legitimate source of legislative intent. State v. Resorts International Hotel , 173 N.J. Super. 290 (App.Div.1980). The purpose of the statute also seems clear: to require a person, ...