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Sojourner A. v. New Jersey Dep't of Human Services

April 5, 2002

SOJOURNER A., ON HER OWN BEHALF AND AS GUARDIAN AD LITEM FOR HER INFANT Y.A.; AND ANGELA B., ON HER OWN BEHALF AND AS GUARDIAN AD LITEM FOR HER INFANT W.B., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS, AND ROSA C., ON HER OWN BEHALF AND AS GUARDIAN AD LITEM FOR HER INFANT Y.C.; AND CRYSTAL D., ON HER OWN BEHALF AND AS GUARDIAN AD LITEM FOR HER INFANT X.D., ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
THE NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES AND WILLIAM WALDMAN, COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, L-10171-97.

Before Judges King, Wecker and Winkelstein.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Winkelstein, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued March 6, 2002

Plaintiffs Sojourner A. and Angela B. appeal the trial court's summary judgment order in favor of the New Jersey Department of Human Services and its Commissioner, William Waldman (State), declaring constitutional the provision of the New Jersey welfare statute commonly referred to as the "family cap," N.J.S.A. 44:10-61, which bars additional cash benefits to a family unit on account of the birth of a child while the family unit is receiving welfare benefits. We find the legislative enactment does not substantially intrude upon a woman's right to bear children, and the statute is reasonably related to legitimate governmental objectives )) breaking the cycle of poverty, promoting responsibility and self-reliance, and decreasing welfare dependency and strengthening families. We affirm.

I.

Sojourner A. and Angela B. *fn1 are fictitious names of women who, on September 5, 1997, brought a class action against the State, claiming the family cap violates poor women's rights to privacy and denies them and their children equal protection under the New Jersey Constitution. Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief and an award of cash benefits "to all children improperly denied benefits by application of N.J.S.A. 44:10-61 and N.J.A.C. 10:90-2.18." The application for preliminary injunctive relief was denied on October 28, 1997. On July 17, 2000, the Law Division certified the following class of plaintiffs: [A]ll women who have conceived or will conceive a child while they or someone in their family received welfare benefits (or within a year of such receipt) under the former AFDC program or under the Work First program any time after October 1, 1992, and all children born to such women after August 1, 1993 who have been or will be subject to N.J.S.A. 44:10-61 and N.J.A.C. 10:90-2.18 or their predecessor statute and regulations, N.J.S.A. 44:10-3.5 and N.J.A.C. 10:81-3.8 and 10.81-1.11.

On appeal, plaintiffs contend that the family cap was enacted to influence poor women not to become pregnant, having the unconstitutional effect of coercing poor women's reproductive choices, thereby violating their right to privacy. Plaintiffs further argue that the right of children and their families to equal protection has been infringed upon because certain classes of poor children are denied benefits simply because they are born while their family is receiving welfare, while other equally poor children, who are already receiving welfare benefits, are not subject to the cap provision. In response to plaintiffs' arguments, the State submits that the family cap serves the legitimate governmental interests of promoting responsibility and self-reliance, and reducing welfare dependency, and neither penalizes the exercise of a woman's fundamental right to procreate nor discriminates on the basis of suspect classifications.

The parties cross-moved for summary judgment. On August 30, 2000, Judge Iuliani rendered an oral decision in which he stated:

[T]he State has demonstrated a legitimate and a substantial relationship between the statutory classification and the ends asserted. The interest here of the legislature, who represents all of us, in promoting self-sufficient citizens, diminishing the dependency upon welfare and creating [parity] between welfare recipients and working people . . . greatly outweighs [the] slight imposition or mere burden on . . . plaintiff's right to privacy. By order of December 18, 2000 he granted the State's cross- motion for summary judgment and dismissed the complaint with prejudice.

II.

A joint federal and state welfare program, known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was established under Title IV-A of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 601-603. See N.J.S.A. 44:10-1 to -8. Effective July 1, 1992, the New Jersey Legislature enacted the Family Development Plan (FDP), N.J.S.A. 44:10-19 to -33, N.J.S.A. 44:10-3.3 to -3.8, which included a provision known as the family cap. N.J.S.A. 44:10- 3.5. This provision denied incremental benefits to children born into family units receiving welfare: The Commissioner of Human Services shall revise the schedule of benefits to be paid to a recipient family under the program of aid to families with dependent children (AFDC) . . . by eliminating the increment in benefits under the program for which that family would otherwise be eligible as a result of the birth of a child during the period in which the family is eligible for AFDC benefits . . . .

[N.J.S.A. 44:10-3.5 (repealed 1997).] Because this provision violated the federal AFDC requirement that benefits increase with the birth of each child, New Jersey applied for a waiver of this federal requirement. The waiver request delineated three primary goals of the new provision: (1) breaking the cycle of poverty; (2) enhancing the role of individual responsibility; and (3) strengthening and reuniting families. See C.K. v. New Jersey Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 92 F.3d 171, 184 (3d Cir. 1996) (C.K. II), affirming, sub nom, C.K. v. Shalala, 883 F. Supp. 991 (D.N.J. 1995) (C.K. I) (upholding Secretary of Health and Human Services' decision to waive State's compliance with controlling federal law). The federal government approved the waiver on July 20, 1992. C.K. I, 883 F. Supp. at 1000.

In 1996, Congress enacted the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant program to replace AFDC. 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 601-608. In response to the new federal law, on March 24, 1997, the New Jersey Legislature passed the Work First New Jersey (WFNJ) Act, N.J.S.A. 44:10-55 to -70, as part of a comprehensive effort to reform the prior welfare system, *fn2 replacing the FDP as the basic assistance program for poor families in the State. The WFNJ Act aims to break the cycle of welfare and to encourage employment, individual responsibility and family stability. N.J.S.A. 44:10-56. To advance these goals many services are provided to recipients, including: employment; on-the-job training; job search and readiness assistance; community and alternative work experience; vocational educational training; remedial education; and general equivalency diploma (GED) preparatory classes. N.J.S.A. 44:10- 57. To assist recipients in pursuing their educational and vocational goals, the program provides support services, such as day care services, transportation to job or school and the extension of Medicaid benefits for up to two years. N.J.S.A. 44:10-38.

Among the provisions of the WFNJ Act, the Legislature enacted a family cap provision that was nearly identical to the cap under AFDC:

The level of cash assistance benefits payable to an assistance unit with dependent children shall not increase as a result of the birth of a child during the period in which the assistance unit is eligible for benefits[.]

[N.J.S.A. 44:10-61a.] Assistance unit is defined as:

[A] single person without dependent children; a couple without dependent children; dependent children only; or a person or couple with one or more dependent children who are legally or blood-related, or who is their ...


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