On appeal from the Department of Human Services, OAL Docket No. HPW 03915-04, Agency Docket No. C202430.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Lefelt and Parrillo.
Appellants M.N. and A.R.N., husband and wife, appeal from the final decision of the Director of the Division of Family Development, Department of Human Services, suspending M.N.'s Work First New Jersey (WFNJ) and Food Stamp benefits because of M.N.'s failure without good cause to attend an interview scheduled for him by the Essex County Welfare Agency (CWA) for the purpose of determining his compliance with program work requirements, and for M.N.'s failure to respond to further notices advising him to contact the CWA to avoid being sanctioned. We affirm.
By way of background, appellants have for several years received benefits under the Work First New Jersey (WFNJ) welfare program, N.J.S.A. 44:10-34 to -43; N.J.S.A. 44:10-44 to -54; N.J.S.A. 44:10-71 to -78, as well as under the federally-funded food stamp program, N.J.A.C. 10:87-1.1 to -1.18; N.J.A.C. 10:87-3.2 to -5.10; N.J.A.C. 10:87-11.2 to -11.9. In appellants' case, these benefit programs are administered at the local level by the Essex County Welfare Agency (county welfare agency or CWA) under the auspices of the Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development (collectively with the CWA, the respondent), pursuant to N.J.A.C. 10:90-1.1(g) (WFNJ) and N.J.A.C. 10:87-1.2 (food stamp program).
As a requirement of WFNJ, adult benefit recipients must participate in work activity to remain eligible, absent a "good cause" exemption established by the Commissioner. N.J.S.A. 44:10-45b; N.J.A.C. 10:90-4.1. A sanction in the form of reduction of benefits is imposed for failure to comply with work activity requirements. N.J.A.C. 10:90-4.1; N.J.A.C. 10:90-4.13 (providing different tiers of sanction for first, second and third and subsequent offenses). Thus, N.J.A.C. 44:10-59(b) states that "[b]enefits shall be temporary and serve the primary goal of fostering self-sufficiency" and provides that "[f]ailure to cooperate with any of the program eligibility requirements without good cause, as determined by the Commissioner, shall result in ineligibility for benefits for some or all assistance unit members." See also N.J.S.A. 44:10-63. Implementing regulation N.J.A.C. 10:90-4.1(a)(2) provides more specifically that WFNJ participants shall be required to comply with all aspects of the cooperation and participation provisions of the WFNJ work requirement as stipulated in this section, unless good cause exists, which shall include, but not be limited to: keeping all scheduled appointments timely; giving reasonable notice and explanation of inability to keep an appointment . . . and participating in a WFNJ work activity(ies) as assigned.
Moreover, N.J.A.C. 10:90-4.13(a) also provides:
The failure of a recipient to actively cooperate with the program or participate in work activities, without good cause, shall result in a loss of cash assistance benefits.
The food stamp program has similar work activity requirements and sanctions for failure to cooperate or participate in work activities. N.J.A.C. 10:87-10.15.
Appellants had each previously sought and received a deferral from the work activity requirement for medical reasons pursuant to N.J.S.A. 44:10-62e(2) and N.J.A.C. 10:90-4.10(a)3. However, appellants appeared on the county welfare agency's "inactive list" in April 2004, having failed to submit updated medical information to the appropriate entity. In response, their caseworker, CWA Employment Specialist Simone Shaw, mailed appellants a notice on April 5, 2004, scheduling a compliance interview on April 20. Appellants failed to attend. The CWA then notified appellants of its intention to suspend benefits for failure to appear at the CWA in response to a number of scheduling notices.*fn1 Appellants requested an administrative "fair hearing" and respondent transferred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) for a plenary hearing as a contested case.
On June 14, 2004, a hearing was held before the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to determine whether sanctions were properly imposed, and if so, what level of sanction was appropriate.*fn2 At the hearing, Shaw testified, as summarized by the ALJ in her June 29, 2004 initial decision:
[appellants] appeared on an inactive list sometime in April . [Ms. Shaw] then sent a letter out on April 5 for [appellants] to appear at her office on April 20, 2004. (Ms. Shaw could not present a copy of the April 5 letter. However, she testified that she personally put the letter in the mailbox in the office.) The letter directed [appellants] to come in to the office on April 20, 2004 regarding compliance with the WFNJ program. When [appellants] failed to appear on April 20, 2004, Ms. Shaw sent out two letters marked P-7, which were Notifications of Intention to Impose a Work First New Jersey Sanction/Food Stamps Penalty. These letters stated that, in order to avoid the sanction or reduction of the cash assistance benefits, the recipient had to contact the agency worker ...