November 7, 2007
HUNTERDON COUNTY BOARD OF SOCIAL SERVICES, RESPONDENT.
On appeal from a Final Agency Decision of the Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development, HPW-6901-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 29, 2007
Before Judges Lintner and Sabatino.
C.B., a disabled and indigent single mother, appeals a November 2, 2006 decision of respondent, the New Jersey Department of Human Services ("DHS"), denying her an extension of certain emergency assistance ("EA") benefits. The benefits at issue concern the costs of interim storage of C.B.'s personal possessions, incurred after she and her six-year-old son had been evicted from larger quarters. The benefits had been initially provided through the Hunterdon County Board of Social Services ("the County Board"), but were discontinued.
We reverse the DHS determination, and reinstate the October 20, 2006 decision of an administrative law judge ("ALJ") who found that C.B. continues to suffer from medical afflictions and other compelling circumstances that warrant the extension of her EA storage benefits.
Emergency Assistance benefits have been established in our state as a "supportive service to meet the emergent needs" of persons who receive the modest amount of public assistance paid through the Work First New Jersey ("WFNJ")/Temporary Aid to Needy Families ("TANF") program. N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.1(a); see also 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 601-619 (authorizing federal grants to states for temporary assistance to needy families); N.J.S.A. 44:10-55 to -78 (establishing, pursuant to federal legislation, the WFNJ program to be implemented by county welfare agencies). Among other things, the WFNJ program is aimed at promoting "[p]ersonal and family security and stability, including the protection of children and vulnerable adults." N.J.S.A. 44:10-56f.
EA benefits for shelter assistance are to be granted to WFNJ recipients "when there has been . . . an actual or imminent eviction from prior housing, and the assistance unit is in a state of homelessness or imminent homelessness due to circumstances beyond their control . . . and the county or municipal agency determines that the provision of [EA benefits] . . . is necessary for health and safety." N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.1(c). The assistance provided to EA recipients may include the "reasonable costs of temporary storage of personal possessions." N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.3(a).
C.B. is a single mother with a young son, who was age six at the time of her hearing before the ALJ. As the ALJ noted, and the DHS has not disputed, C.B. has numerous disabilities and medical afflictions. She suffers from multiple sclerosis, asthma, attention deficit disorder and depression. She also has had breast cancer. At the time of her hearing, C.B. had recently underwent a mastectomy and was scheduled for reconstructive breast surgery. She also has continuing problems from the effects of a broken ankle and a back injury. Additionally, C.B. suffers from a vitreous detachment of the retina of one of her eyes. As the ALJ specifically found, C.B. is "in chronic pain" and "cannot work."
After C.B. and her son were evicted from their residence in April 2005 due to financial difficulties, she applied to the County Board for EA benefits. She was found eligible for such assistance, and began receiving temporary rental assistance and a TANF grant on a monthly basis, as well as Medicaid. She moved with her son into a modular home to accommodate her disabilities.
As the ALJ found, the modular home is "small and barely accommodates [C.B.] and her son," and it has "no room . . . for storage of personal items and furnishings from her prior residence." These belongings include, among other things, furniture, a carpet and personal mementoes. As noted by the ALJ, "[w]ith her mother residing in a small apartment, her sister living in Connecticut, and her brother moving out of state, [C.B.] cannot turn to her family" to store these possessions. Consequently, C.B. had to move the possessions that would not fit in her modular unit into storage.
Upon finding C.B. eligible for EA benefits, the County Board included in those benefits the costs of storing her belongings, initially for a six-month period, which was extended for eight more months. However, at the end of that fourteen-month period, the DHS discontinued the storage benefits while, at the same time, extending C.B.'s rental assistance for the modular unit for an additional year. C.B. appealed that determination, which resulted in the hearing before the ALJ. In essence, C.B. contends that her persisting medical complications have prevented her from being able to obtain a larger residence, and that she needs to continue to store her furniture and other personal items in the meantime but cannot afford to do so.
After considering the proofs, the ALJ concluded that C.B. had made "a compelling case that her individual circumstances constitute justification for continued payment of the storage costs for her personal possessions." Nonetheless, the DHS rejected the ALJ's conclusion, noting in its final decision of November 2, 2006 that C.B. already had been provided with storage costs "above and beyond" the six-month period ordinarily allowable under the pertinent regulations. The final decision did not specifically discuss C.B.'s medical problems and other hardships. C.B. now appeals that final decision.
The applicable statute, N.J.S.A. 44:10-51, provides that EA benefits are payable for up to twelve cumulative months, but that such benefits also may be extended for two additional six-month periods in cases of "extreme hardship." See N.J.S.A. 44:10-51(a)(1) and (2). With respect to storage costs, DHS regulations enacted under the statute provide that such benefits ordinarily "shall not exceed six months." N.J.A.C. 10:90- 6.3(a)(4)(iv). However, the regulation also allows an extension of such storage benefits "[i]f additional time is required due to individual circumstances." Ibid. See also N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.4(b) (allowing EA benefits to be extended beyond twelve cumulative months where "extreme hardship" persists, and the recipient has "taken all reasonable steps" to resolve the situation).
As a general matter, we accord deference to administrative agencies in their implementation of statutes and regulations. George Harms Constr. Co. v. N.J. Tpk. Auth., 137 N.J. 8, 27 (1994); see also Aqua Beach Condo. Ass'n v. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs, 186 N.J. 5, 16 (2006). However, at times we must intercede where an agency's decision is arbitrary or capricious, or is not founded upon substantial credible evidence. George Harms Constr. Co., supra, 137 N.J. at 27. In particular, we accord less deference to an agency where, as here, it has rejected the factual determinations of an ALJ. See H.K. v. N.J. Dep't of Human Servs., 184 N.J. 367, 384 (2005); Clowes v. Terminix Int'l, Inc., 109 N.J. 575, 587-88 (1988).
Having reviewed the record as a whole, we conclude that the DHS's final decision terminating C.B.'s storage benefits unjustifiably rejected the ALJ's determination that she continued to present credible and compelling circumstances to have those benefits extended. Although we appreciate the agency's need to be prudent in the allocation of scarce resources under the EA program, the unusually harsh combination of medical problems that have plagued C.B., plus her lack of a ready alternative to store her belongings with family members, warrants the reinstatement of the ALJ's determination.
We stress that we by no means are holding that C.B. is entitled to storage benefits indefinitely, but simply that the circumstances found by the ALJ at the 2006 hearing at that time warranted the requested extension. Any future requests by C.B. to extend her benefits further would, of course, need to be reexamined based upon her updated medical condition and economic circumstances, as well as an assessment of what steps she has attempted to find a longer-term solution to her storage problem.
The final decision of the DHS is reversed, and the matter is remanded for the entry of an administrative order forthwith implementing the ALJ's findings and recommendations.
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