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Williams v. Department of Human Services

Decided: August 1, 1989.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 228 N.J. Super. 529 (1988).

For reversal -- Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. The opinion of the Court was delivered by O'Hern, J. Stein, J., concurring. Stein, J., concurring with separate opinion.


[116 NJ Page 104] This case, like Franklin v. New Jersey Department of Human Services, 111 N.J. 1 (1988), concerns the validity of a regulation of the defendant agency that sets a five-month expiration period for a certain form of emergency assistance

for public assistance recipients threatened with homelessness. The Appellate Division aptly described the action as involving "the efforts of destitute, sick and disabled homeless citizens to compel the State, through the Department of Human Services (DHS), to grant them, in their plight, continued assistance in obtaining adequate shelter." 228 N.J. Super. 529, 530 (1988).

Our Court has previously addressed State-funded assistance to the homeless in Franklin v. New Jersey Department of Human Services, supra, 111 N.J. 1 which dealt with an Emergency Assistance (EA) program set up under the program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The form of benefits before us is an EA program set up under the State's General Public Assistance Law (GA), N.J.S.A. 44:8-107 to 44:8-157. The programmatic difference is that the AFDC program serves only families with children in need, while the GA program, at least in part, serves "the familiar single urban dwellers who seek shelter in bus or train stations when the street is inhospitable." Franklin, supra, 111 N.J. at 4.*fn1 Legal Services of New Jersey characterizes its clients thus:

GA recipients are not families. They do not have the sympathetic appeal of children, and do not receive the same attention from the other branches of government and the media. Indeed they are almost the forgotten homeless. Yet they are elderly, sick, disabled, needy, down and out. They need declaratory relief from this court to declare their rights, and to bring the necessity of a resolution of their plight to the forefront. If this branch of government does not react, petitioner's plight will go ignored; their rights will be lost.

The Appellate Division described their plight at the time of its decision. The majority of the claimants received the $210 maximum monthly grant under GA. With urban rents at usually double their monthly allowance, their lack of shelter is understandable. The EA program provides temporary benefits

in addition to the monthly GA grant to meet emergent shelter needs. At least some of the claimants, at the time of the Appellate Division disposition, were "living 'on the streets' solely because of the loss of these EA benefits." 228 N.J. Super. at 531.

For example, WB suffers from seizures and became homeless after he lost his job. As a result of the termination of his EA benefits he now sleeps with other homeless people on a concrete floor at the Path Station in Jersey City.

WD became homeless when his wife left him and he could no longer live in that apartment. Eventually he was laid off from his job and lived in a vacant garage. He suffers from severe epilepsy which causes him to black out and was able to reside at a motel only while he was receiving EA.

Jane Doe (a fictitious name) became homeless after she was evicted from her East Orange apartment due to overcrowding. She used to share this shelter with her aunt and 20 other people. She then lived in various shelters and motels through the utilization of EA funds. She now suffers from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, (AIDS).

The AIDS makes me paralyzed. Sometimes for entire days, I can't walk, and sometimes the pain is so bad that I can't eat. I also suffer from heart troubles, gall stones, ulcers, high blood pressure, chest pains and breast discomfort. There are lumpy areas in my breast.

In spite of her illness, however, she has continued to look for suitable affordable housing but to no avail.

CR has been left homeless as a result of her financial destitution and is now "walking the streets at night and visiting with friends during the day."

[ Id. at 532.]

The Appellate Division concluded: "In short, the record in this case describes a catalog of human suffering, illness, disease, degradation, humiliation and despair which shakes the foundations of a common belief in a compassionate, moral, just and decent society." Ibid. (quoting Rodgers v. Gibson, 218 N.J. Super. 452, 457 (App.Div.1987)).

The EA program had provided their only surcease from such misery. Under the GA/EA program, DHS was paying motels and hotels directly to shelter these individuals. All agree that the welfare hotel is not the answer. DHS Commissioner Altman has been resolute in his determination to end such wasteful payments to welfare hotels and to encourage other suitable housing accommodations. That takes time, and until that time, the question, as in Franklin, is not whether 150 days is a

reasonable expiration date for the EA benefits, but rather whether the Legislature intends that there shall be no other program in place to address the GA recipients' need when the EA benefits run out. In analyzing that question, we must do more than look at this one EA regulation in isolation; we must view the regulation, as we believe the Appellate Division did, in the context of the overall statutory scheme of New Jersey public assistance to provide relief for the homeless.


Before addressing the particulars of the case, we shall address the threshold argument asserted by DHS that the judiciary should play no role in addressing the needs of the homeless under this regulatory arrangement. The agency claims that

the Appellate Division, in a significant extension of its authority, has impermissibly intruded into the constitutionally and legislatively delegated affairs of the Executive branch. Pulling free of the traditional restraints enjoining the courts of this State from disturbing the reasoned choices made by executive agencies in the performance of their duties, the court below imposed its own choices by invalidating a rational and vital regulatory scheme of the Commissioner of Human Services and virtually directing him to restructure a State welfare program.

We respect that courts have but a limited role to play in reviewing the actions of other branches of government. In reviewing agency action, the fundamental consideration is that a court may not substitute its judgment for the expertise of an agency "so long as that action is statutorily authorized and not otherwise defective because arbitrary or unreasonable." Dougherty v. Department of Human Servs., 91 N.J. 1, 12 (1982).

In Pascucci v. Vagott, 71 N.J. 40 (1976), then-Chief Justice Hughes faced the almost identical argument in the context of the validity of a regulation that distinguished between "employable" and "unemployable" needy. The State argued that on the basis of the powers delegated by statute to the Commissioner, the State "would justify the challenged regulation, emphasizing

its need in respect of the finite nature of welfare resources available * * *." Id. at 49. Although the Court recognized that there is indeed a broad grant of authority implicit in such a statutory framework, it nonetheless concluded that a conflict between the legislative standards of the act and the agency's regulation would justify judicial intervention. See id. at 50.

Moreover, that Court pointed out that prior to the Constitution of 1947, "persons aggrieved by action or inaction of state or local administrative agencies could seek review by applying for one of the prerogative writs." Id. at 51. Those writs granted to every citizen the right to test in a court whether a government agency has or has not acted in accordance with law. See id. at 52. These writs were superseded in our Constitution of 1947, which provided that "in lieu thereof, review was to be had in the Superior Court '* * * on terms and in the manner provided by the rules of the Supreme Court * * *.'" Ibid. (quoting N.J. Const. of 1947, art. VI, ยง 5, para. 4).

Courts then can act only in those rare circumstances when it is clear that the agency action is inconsistent with its legislative mandate. In light of "the executive function of administrative agencies, * * * the judicial capacity to review administrative actions is limited." Gloucester County Welfare Bd. v. State of N.J. Civil Serv. Comm'n, 93 N.J. 384, 390 (1983). Though sometimes phrased in terms of a search for "arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable" action, Campbell v. Department of Civil Serv., 39 N.J. 556, 562 (1963), the judicial role is restricted to three inquiries: (1) whether the agency's action violated the enabling act's express or implied legislative policies, (2) whether there was insubstantial evidence in the record to support the findings on which the agency based its actions, and (3) whether in applying the legislative policies to the facts, the agency clearly erred by reaching a conclusion that could not reasonably have been made after weighing the relative factors.

We address in this case only the first of those inquiries, i.e., whether the action violates the enabling act's express or implied legislative policies. We realize that we cannot administer a vast social-service agency, nor, indeed, tell it how to do its job. Our only mission is to examine the legislative delegation of statutory responsibility and measure whether the agency has acted in accordance with that mandate.


Before attempting to answer that question, some general background with respect to the program is in order.

Relief of the poor has been considered an obligation of government since the organization of our State. Such relief has been regarded as a direct charge on the body politic for its own preservation and protection, standing very much in the same position as the preservation of law and order. * * * Before statehood was achieved, the Legislature of the colony adopted measures for relief of the poor. [ Roe v. Kervick, 42 N.J. 191, 212-13 (1964).]

Those ancient laws reflected the "mores of the times." See id. at 213. Today's laws reflect today's mores. We may draw again on the Court's opinion in Pascucci v. Vagott, supra, which describes the nature of the GA program in 1976. That program is the lineal descendant of our pre-colonial laws, and is the program of "last resort" for many needy citizens.

General assistance, which is sometimes referred to as "municipal welfare," is a state-supervised, municipally administered public assistance program available to needy persons not otherwise provided for under state laws, that is to say persons not qualifying for "categorical" welfare aid such as old age assistance, aid to the blind, disability assistance, aid to families with dependent children or aid to families of the working poor.

General assistance is considered a "residual" or last resort program under which aid is given to needy single persons and married couples between 18 and 65 years of age who have no minor children. Under the statute cited, the State regulates the program for approximately 400 municipalities which accept state financial assistance.

Before 1971 general assistance grants were based on the extent of need as calculated for individual cases. A budget was prepared to correlate an applicant's actual costs, for shelter, clothing, personal and household needs and scheduled sums for food, to his income and resources. In 1971, however, all state welfare programs including categorical assistance and general assistance eliminated such ...

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