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New Jersey Association for Retarded Citizens Inc. v. New Jersey Department of Human Services

Decided: May 13, 1982.

NEW JERSEY ASSOCIATION FOR RETARDED CITIZENS, INC., DAWN DEMASI, A MINOR, BY HER GUARDIAN AD LITEM, FRANK DEMASI AND JAMES LOOMIS, A MINOR, BY HIS GUARDIAN AD LITEM, ELEANORE LOOMIS, PLAINTIFFS, AND BOYCE CLAVERING, A MINOR, BY HIS GUARDIAN AD LITEM, THOMAS CLAVERING AND RICHARD SWAYNE, AN INCOMPETENT BY HIS GUARDIAN, WILLIAM T. J. SWAYNE, AND THE CLASS OF PERSONS SIMILARLY SITUATED WHICH THEY REPRESENT, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES; ANN KLEIN, COMMISSIONER OF HUMAN SERVICES; MAURICE KOTT, DIRECTOR, DIVISION OF MENTAL RETARDATION, DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES; NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION; NEW JERSEY STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION; FRED G. BURKE, COMMISSIONER OF EDUCATION; JAMES RICHARDSON, DIRECTOR, BRANCH OF SPECIAL EDUCATION AND PUPIL PERSONNEL SERVICES, DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION; ALPHONSE C. SOOTKOOS, SUPERINTENDENT, HUNTERDON STATE SCHOOL, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For grant of relief -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Pashman, Schreiber, Handler, Pollock and O'Hern. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pashman, J.

Pashman

This case concerns the rights and liberties of mentally retarded citizens in public institutions in New Jersey. The parties disagree on the extent of the protection and freedom granted those individuals by state statutes. Today we interpret those statutes to grant mentally retarded children in State facilities the legal right to a thorough and efficient education suited to their individual needs and abilities. We further conclude that all mentally retarded adults in those facilities have the legal right to adequate training, habilitation, education, care and protection in accord with their individual needs. Finally, we hold that all mentally retarded citizens have the right to these services in the setting which is least restrictive of their personal liberty.

I

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Hunterdon State School (Hunterdon) is a residential institution for the mentally retarded. It is operated by the Division of Mental Retardation (Division) of the New Jersey Department of Human Services. At the time of trial in 1979, the Division operated eight such facilities housing almost 8,000 persons. At that time Hunterdon had a population of 988 residents, of whom 412 were school age children and the rest were adults over the age of twenty-one. According to the Division, more than 90% of the Hunterdon residents were severely retarded (IQ score of 20 to 34) or profoundly retarded (IQ score below 20).*fn1 Their mental ages ranged from one to three years.

Plaintiffs filed suit in the Chancery Division of the Superior Court of Hunterdon County on March 16, 1977. They asserted that numerous federal and state statutory and constitutional

rights of Hunterdon residents had been violated by defendant state agencies. The residents claimed the right to education and training tailored to their individual needs in the least restrictive setting feasible. At that stage of the litigation, plaintiffs sought both declaratory and injunctive relief to vindicate those rights. On March 10, 1978, the court certified the case as a class action on behalf of all present and future residents of Hunterdon State School.

The court delayed trial several times because defendant agencies were in the process of instituting improvements at Hunterdon to comply with federal standards under the Intermediate Care Facility/Mentally Retarded Program (ICF/MR), a federal medical assistance program which provides matching funds to qualifying states.*fn2 Federal ICF/MR standards cover physical facilities, staffing, education and habilitation.*fn3 During this period, defendants were working to meet the physical and space requirements of the federal program by physical renovation and reduction of the population at Hunterdon. More than three hundred new staff positions were to be added to meet staffing standards. Interdisciplinary teams were set up to develop an annual habilitation plan for each resident, to evaluate each resident's needs, to set a series of goals, and to recommend alternate placement where appropriate.

Despite the great improvements made at Hunterdon, plaintiffs decided to proceed with the litigation. Judge Morton Greenberg presided at a non-jury trial in October and November 1979. In an oral opinion on November 16, 1979, he held that

defendants had not violated any of plaintiffs' statutory or constitutional rights. The judge noted that many changes had occurred at Hunterdon since the litigation began. While substantially accepting plaintiffs' description of their legal rights, Judge Greenberg found that at the time of trial defendants were complying with their legal obligations toward the Hunterdon residents. Accordingly, he dismissed the complaint on November 30, 1979.

The Appellate Division affirmed on March 2, 1981, substantially for the reasons stated in the trial court opinion. We granted plaintiffs' petition for certification. 87 N.J. 411 (1981).

II

AVAILABILITY OF DECLARATORY RELIEF

When this case began in 1977, plaintiffs sought both a declaration of their rights and injunctive relief to enforce them. Between the time the complaint was filed in March 1977 and the time of trial in November 1979 many changes occurred at Hunterdon. The trial was deferred several times as a result. Since the trial in 1979, more changes have been instituted in the staffing, services and number of residents at Hunterdon. The constantly changing factual situation presents us with a "moving record."

At trial, Judge Greenberg properly decided the case on the basis of the facts which existed at that time. Since plaintiffs sought only injunctive relief and not damages of any sort, they had no interest in establishing evidence of the situation two years earlier. All parties directed their attention to the issue of whether defendants were currently complying with their legal obligations toward the Hunterdon residents.

Similarly, at oral argument before this Court, all parties acknowledged that they were concerned only with the current situation in 1982. Because the facts have changed since the trial in 1979, plaintiffs at oral argument before us stated that they

have no current interest in a determination by this Court whether the trial judge adequately set out his factual findings in his opinion or whether those findings were based on sufficient evidence in the record. There is thus no need for us to review the Appellate Division's affirmance of the trial court judgment in this respect.

Plaintiffs do not seek injunctive relief at this time. Rather, they want this Court to decide several disputes between the parties as to the legal obligations of the defendants toward the Hunterdon residents. In effect, plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment of their rights. We therefore find it unnecessary to consider the Appellate Division affirmance of Judge Greenberg's denial of injunctive relief. We choose to exercise our original jurisdiction to address the uncertainty expressed by the parties with respect to the legal obligations of the defendants toward the Hunterdon residents. R. 2:10-5.

We will not render advisory opinions or function in the abstract, Crescent Park Tenants Ass'n v. Realty Equities Corp. of New York, 58 N.J. 98, 107 (1971); Friedland v. State, 149 N.J. Super. 483, 495 (Law Div.1977). Nor will we decide a case based on facts which are undeveloped or uncertain, Burlington Tp. v. Middle Dep't Inspection Agency, Inc., 175 N.J. Super. 624, 627 (Law Div.1980).

However, we will render declaratory relief when there is an actual dispute between parties who have a sufficient stake in the outcome, New Jersey Home Builders Ass'n v. Division on Civil Rights, 81 N.J. Super. 243, 251-52 (Ch.Div.1963), aff'd sub nom. David v. Vesta, 45 N.J. 301 (1965); Friedland v. State, 149 N.J. Super. at 495; Young v. Byrne, 144 N.J. Super. 10, 16 (Law Div.1976). We have discretion to issue a declaratory judgment when to do so would be just and fair. Burlington Tp. v. Middle Dep't Inspection Agency, 175 N.J. Super. at 628.

The Declaratory Judgment Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:16-50 to -62, is remedial legislation entitled to liberal construction and

administration, N.J.S.A. 2A:16-51; Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders v. Union County Park Comm'n, 41 N.J. 333 at 336; Burlington Tp. v. Middle Dep't Inspection Agency, Inc., 175 N.J. Super. at 628. Its purpose is to end uncertainty about the legal rights and duties of the parties to litigation in controversies which have not yet reached the stage at which the parties seek a coercive remedy. Union County Bd. of Chosen Freeholders v. Union County Park Comm'n, 41 N.J. at 336; Hammond v. Doan, 127 N.J. Super. 67, 72 (Law Div.1974). We have held that a declaratory judgment may be rendered under N.J.S.A. 2A:16-53 when there is an actual controversy between the parties which involves differing views on the meaning of applicable statutory provisions, Union County Bd. of Chosen Freeholders v. Union County Park Comm'n, 41 N.J. at 336; Burlington Tp. v. Middle Dep't Inspection Agency, 175 N.J. Super. at 628; Hammond v. Doan, 127 N.J. Super. at 72.

Although the facts have shifted since the inception of this litigation, the parties to this case have genuine differences as to their respective rights and duties under various statutes and regulations. They question the proper interpretation of certain regulations and the meaning of several statutory provisions. Moreover, plaintiffs argue that injunctive relief ...


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