June 8, 2007
M.N. AND A.R.N., PETITIONERS-APPELLANTS,
STATE OF NEW JERSEY DEPT. OF HUMAN SERVICES, DIVISION OF FAMILY DEVELOPMENT AND ESSEX COUNTY WELFARE AGENCY, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENTS.
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NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 16, 2007
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 within ten calendar days of the date of the letter. Handwritten on the Notice was a note saying that "the recipient must report to me by Friday by [sic] April 30, 2004"; this was signed by Ms. Shaw.
When [appellants] failed to respond, two other notices, were sent out on April 30, 2004. On May 11, 2004, an additional notice, (see P-9) Notification Form/Work Training Requirements for Third or Later Offense was sent stating that benefits would be suspended as the end of May 2004.
M.N. also testified, and denied having received notices from the CWA between October 2003 and April 19, 2004, but later admitted to having received the October 8, 2003 Notification of Adverse Action, which was sent to the same address as the other notices. M.N. also admitted that prior to September 2003, he received many letters from respondent and that he simply ignored them because respondent "was constantly sanctioning him". M.N. further acknowledged that he "might have received" the CWA's April 30, 2004 notice.
At the hearing, M.N. basically contended that he had a medical exemption entitling him to ignore notices from the CWA, to which Shaw countered that first, the CWA did not have an updated medical report for appellants whose last medical clearance was from 2002; and, second, that it had been M.N.'s obligation to contact the CWA and provide the agency with medical information sufficient to establish an exemption. Although M.N. claimed that he had been unable to do so because he did not know whom to contact at the CWA, it was revealed that Shaw's name and telephone number had been provided on the April 30, 2004 notice.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the ALJ, crediting respondent's testimony, found that M.N. had received the April 5, 2004 letter apprising him of the April 20, 2004 interview, that he had failed to appear, and that it was his "obligation to respond to letters sent to him." Specifically, the ALJ concluded:
The information regarding the "updated medical forms" is really not relevant to the issue.*fn3 [Appellant] was not in compliance, because he failed to contact the worker when he got the notice that he was to appear at her office and failed thereafter to contact her, when he got the further notices of sanction from the worker. [Appellant] had an obligation to respond to the worker's letter and come in for the appointment on April 20, 2004 or call and explain why he could not come in for the appointment or explain why he was exempt and provide the necessary information. [Appellant] did neither. He merely ignored the letters, because he believed that he did not have to comply. His own testimony was that he stopped responding to letters from the agency. He only responded when he was sanctioned; then he filed a Fair Hearing Appeal. As the regulation makes clear, cooperation is a requirement in order to receive assistance.
Having found that appellants' failure, after receiving notice, to respond to respondent's request that they meet with their case worker, and failure to respond to additional notices that sanction would be imposed, constituted a failure to comply with the requirements of WFNJ and the food stamp program, the ALJ ordered M.N.'s cash and food stamp benefits be reduced as a first level sanction, for his first offense, instead of the more severe third-level sanction recommended by respondent. This decision was adopted by respondent.
This appeal follows*fn4 in which appellants raise the following issues:
I. THE FACTUAL FINDINGS AND LEGAL CONCLUSIONS REACHED BY THE ALJ AND AFFIRMED BY [RESPONDENT] ARE PLAINLY ERRONEOUS AND FURTHER VIOLATES [sic] THE LEGISLATIVE INTENT REGARDING IMPROPER SANCTIONS FOR "GOOD CAUSE" INABILITY TO COMPLY WITH THE MANDATED WORK REQUIREMENTS OF WFNJ.
II. THE ALJ EMPLOYED THE WRONG FACTUAL AND LEGAL STANDARDS AND AS SUCH COMMITTED PLAIN AND REVERSIBLE ERROR IN RULING THAT PETITIONERS HAD BEEN PROVIDED WITH OR OTHERWISE RECEIVED A LETTER THAT WAS NOT PRODUCED DURING THE HEARING OR OTHERWISE CONTAINED THEREIN [sic] THE CASE RECORD MAINTAINED BY [RESPONDENT].
III. SINCE THE MEDICAL DOCUMENTATION SUBMITTED ON BEHALF OF PETITIONERS HAD NOT EXPIRED EVEN IF THE DEDTE REPRESENTATIVE HAD FORWARDED AN APRIL 5, 2004, LETTER TO PETITIONER THE AGENCY ACTION OF SANCTIONING PETITIONER MUST BE REVERSED IN LIGHT OF THE GERMANE FACT THAT BOTH PETITIONERS HAD PROVIDED MEDICAL DOCUMENTATION COMPLETED BY THE ATTENDING PHYSICIANS PURSUANT TO THE PERIOD PETITIONERS WERE SANCTIONED FOR.
IV. DURING THE AFORESTATED HEARING OF JUNE 14, 2004, PETITIONER [A.R.N.] WAS NOT PERMITTED TO TESTIFY OR TO OTHERWISE ADDRESS THE SANCTIONS IMPOSED UPON HER AND AS SUCH THE INITIAL ORDER OF THE ALJ AND SUBSEQUENT FINAL ORDER OF DFD SHOULD NOT APPLY TO HER AS SHE HAS BEEN DENIED "DUE PROCESS" REGARDING THE FAILURE OF THE ALJ TO PERMIT HER TO TESTIFY AND ADDRESS THE ISSUE OF THE IMPROPER SANCTIONS.
We have considered each of these issues in light of the record, the applicable law, and the arguments of pro se and counsel, and we are satisfied that none of them is of sufficient merit to warrant extended discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D) & (E). Accordingly, we affirm substantially for the reasons stated in he ALJ's initial decision of June 20, 2004. We add only the following comments.
It is well-settled that an administrative agency's final decision is upheld if it is supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record. In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 658-59 (1999). In reviewing such a decision on appeal, this Court shall not "fail to give appropriate deference to the ALJ's findings of fact [or substitute] its own assessment of the weight to be accorded to the testimony of the witnesses." Id. at 659; see also Clowes v. Terminix Intern'tl, Inc., 109 N.J. 575, 587 (1988). Thus, we do not engage in an independent assessment of the evidence as if we were the court of first instance, but rather, defer to those findings "which are substantially influenced by [the ALJ's] opportunity "to hear and see the witnesses and to have the 'feel' of the case." State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999).
Appellants assert that the ALJ's factual findings are erroneous in that 1) the ALJ's reliance on the case worker's testimony that she drafted and mailed the April 5, 2004 notice of interview was misplaced, and 2) M.N.'s medical clearance did not expire during the relevant period therefore sanction was not warranted. As to the question of whether M.N.'s medical clearance did expire, which expiration would prompt the county welfare agency to schedule a compliance interview, the ALJ determined that the agency was not in receipt of appellant's current medical information, acknowledging that while appellants did mail updated medical forms on May 25, 2004, they mailed them to the wrong entity, and as a result the county welfare agency was not kept apprised of their medical status. Therefore, respondent's scheduling of a compliance interview was not premature or otherwise improper; rather, it was appellants' own failure to submit documents timely and to the proper authority that triggered respondent's subsequent actions.
As to the question of whether M.N. received respondent's notices, simply put, the ALJ discredited M.N.'s testimony that he did not receive the initial letter of April 5, 2004 scheduling the April 20 compliance interview, while crediting the case worker's testimony that she herself drafted and mailed this letter. These findings, emanating from the ALJ's "feel" of the case, are deserving of our deference, especially in light of M.N.'s contradictory testimony that he did not receive the notices, or alternately, that he may have received one of the notices, or as a third alternative, that he received them but simply ignored them. Although M.N. now asserts that the ALJ mischaracterized his testimony, appellants failed to provide a transcript, have been ordered to proceed without one, and thus may not argue its contents. And, while the case worker could not produce a copy of the April 5, 2004 letter, copies of notices mailed subsequent to the April 5 notice apprising appellants of the pending sanctions, and all notices including the contested April 5 notice, were sent to the same address, where appellants acknowledged having received correspondence previously. We are satisfied, therefore, that the record supports a finding that M.N. received and ignored not only the April 5, 2004 notice, but subsequent notices apprising him of sanctions should he fail to contact his case worker within the prescribed period. M.N. failed to contact his case worker, and regardless of whether he was actually medically deferred from the work activity requirement or not, he had an obligation to respond to respondent's notices. Having failed to "actively cooperate with the program", he is properly subject to sanction pursuant to N.J.A.C. 10:90-4.13(a) (WFNJ) and N.J.A.C. 10:87-10.15 (food stamps).
Appellants' remaining claims are clearly without merit. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E). M.N. maintains that because he was medically deferred from the work activity requirement, he did not have to respond to respondent's notices. Yet, there is nothing in the controlling statutes or regulations exempting M.N. from his obligation to respond to respondent's demands for information regarding his status as a benefit recipient. Indeed, the statute and regulations expressly require his "active cooperation" with respondent. N.J.S.A. 44:10-63; N.J.A.C. 10:90-4.1(a)(2); N.J.A.C. 10:90-4.13(a). M.N. also asserts that because his documentation shows he was medically deferred during the relevant period, sanction is improper. However, as the ALJ noted, M.N.'s medical status is not relevant. M.N. is subject to sanction not for a lack of medical deferral or for failure to timely submit medical documentation, for which sanction is not appropriate pursuant to N.J.A.C. 10:90-4.10(b)2.ii, but rather, for failure to respond to respondent's notices pursuant to his obligation to do so under N.J.A.C. 10:90-4.13(a) (WFNJ) and N.J.A.C. 10:87-10.15 (food stamps).
As the record demonstrates that the county welfare agency was not in receipt of appellants' updated medical forms, and because there was credible testimony that the April 5, 2004 notice of the interview was mailed to M.N. and that M.N. likely willfully ignored not only that notice but respondent's subsequent notices of sanction, the Level One sanction for failure to cooperate was warranted.*fn5