November 19, 2007
OCEAN COUNTY BOARD OF SOCIAL SERVICES, PETITIONER-RESPONDENT,
On appeal from the Director of the Division of Family Development, Department of Human Services, V909553.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 29, 2007
Before Judges Parrillo and Alvarez.
Appellant T.B. appeals from an August 1, 2006 final decision of the Director of the Division of Family Development (DFD) within the Department of Human Services (DHS) denying her application for an extension of Emergency Assistance (EA) benefits beyond the twelve-months allowed pursuant to N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.4. We affirm.
T.B., a single head of household who is permanently disabled and receives social security income (SSI), was also a recipient of benefits in the Work First New Jersey (WFNJ) program. The program is administered at the local level by county welfare agencies (CWA) in accordance with regulations and directives of the DFD, which is a part of DHS.
Among the benefits available to WFNJ recipients is EA.
N.J.S.A. 44:10-51; N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.1 to -6.10. The purpose of emergency assistance is to assist those beset by an emergency. See N.J.S.A. 44:10-51(a) ("[EA] shall be provided only to recipients of [WFNJ] and persons receiving [SSI] . . . in emergent situations, as determined by the commissioner . . . ."); N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.1(a) ("[EA is] a supportive service to meet the emergent needs of WFNJ recipients so that recipients shall not be prevented from complying with the work requirement due to disruptions caused by homelessness and related emergencies.").
"The [CWA] is authorized to provide [EA] . . . to meet emergency situations when there is no other source of support available[, for various items including] . . . emergency shelter and emergency temporary housing . . . ." N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.3(a).
EA grants for shelter assistance, including temporary rental assistance (TRA), are limited to individuals or families who are "in a state of homelessness or imminent homelessness due to circumstances beyond their control[,] or [where homelessness has occurred because of] the absence of a realistic capacity to plan in advance for substitute housing . . . ." N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.1(c). Even so, N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.6(a) makes [r]eceipt of [EA] . . . contingent upon the recipient's taking reasonable steps toward resolving the emergent situation. Reasonable steps shall include the recipient's . . . complying with and carrying out a plan for service; fulfilling the number of housing searches mutually agreed upon; and following agency recommendations related to resolving the emergent situation. Failure to substantially comply with the service plan will result in termination of EA.
Moreover, "[a]ny [EA] granted shall be limited to 12 cumulative months during the lifetime of the case . . . ."
N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.4(a); see also N.J.S.A. 44:10-51(a)(1) (providing EA for only "up to 12 cumulative months" unless there is "extreme hardship"). Any additional EA beyond the twelve months will only be granted when a "WFNJ or SSI recipient has taken all reasonable steps to resolve the emergent situation but the emergency nonetheless continues or a new emergency occurs, which causes extreme hardship to the family." N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.4(b).
Since 2005, T.B. had been receiving EA in the form of shelter assistance, administered and provided by the Ocean County Board of Social Services (OCBSS). On April 25, 2006, OCBSS notified T.B. that her EA would be terminated effective April 30, 2006 because she failed to comply with her social service plan, N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.6(a), and because she failed to show "extreme hardship" entitling her to EA beyond the allowable twelve-month maximum, N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.4, which would have been exhausted by April 30, 2006. On May 1, 2006, T.B. filed applications for an extension of EA and for long-term support, which were both denied by the OCBSS. When T.B. requested a fair hearing, DHS transmitted the matter to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) as a contested case.
At the conclusion of the one-day hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that "the [OCBSS] has proven that T.B. has exhausted the cumulative twelve month lifetime limitation" of EA and "that T.B.'s conduct amounted to a 'failure to substantially comply with the service plan.'" More specifically, the ALJ was "constrained to find that T.B. has indeed exhibited a pattern of missed appointments as well as a consistent failure to provide proof of housing searches and medical documentation[,]" despite the "consistent effort on the part of . . . [OCBSS] to help [her]." Nevertheless, the ALJ restored T.B.'s EA for an additional thirty days because of "a serious question . . . whether T.B.'s noncompliance [was] more a function of [her] physical and/or mental incapacity as opposed to her intentional or negligent recalcitrance[,]" and because "fairness requires that T.B. be given a final opportunity to provide documentation of long-term medical or psychological problems sufficient to permit an [EA] extension or admission into the Long Term Support Program."
The DFD adopted the ALJ's decision and further held that any extension of EA beyond thirty days must be supported by "good cause." However, the DFD set conditions for the thirty-day EA extension, requiring T.B. to provide a mental or health assessment to be used to determine her mental and/or health capacity; to cooperate with specific treatment and/or counseling goals, if appropriate; and to provide a medical records release to the OCBSS. Upon receipt of this information, the OCBSS would then reevaluate T.B.'s eligibility for continued benefits.
After meeting with T.B. on June 5, 2006, the OCBSS updated the social service plan, incorporating the DFD's requirements.*fn1
However, T.B. refused to execute the service plan or to comply with agency requirements, maintaining her lack of memory retention made compliance difficult, if not impossible. Consequently, the OCBSS terminated T.B.'s EA effective June 29, 2006.
T.B. again requested a fair hearing, which was held before the OAL on July 25, 2006. At that time, OCBSS representative Margaret Cafara testified that T.B. had a history of noncompliance with her social service plan and failed to provide the medical evaluation from a neurologist, as required by the agency in order to assess her true condition. In fact, OCBSS' request for medical documentation "[had] been on [T.B.'s] social service plan for months" since "September of 2005," and to date the agency had no current medical evaluation of T.B.'s physical or mental condition. There was no documentation of a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and the most recent memory assessment was from 2002, from an out-of-state physician.
T.B. continued to maintain that because of her severe limitations, she could not comply with the DFD's requirements within the thirty days afforded by the agency, but nonetheless acted in good faith, and for good cause needs additional time to secure the requisite medical evaluations. As illustrative of the problems she faced, T.B. pointed to the fact that she could not obtain a medical appointment from a neurologist until sometime in September 2006, and that another neurologist recommended by the agency would not render a report until certain insurance problems were resolved.
At the conclusion of evidence, the ALJ found that no "good cause" exists to allow additional time to comply with agency requirements and that to date T.B. was in substantial noncompliance with her social service plan. Therefore, because it was "more than sixty days past the date of the court order of May 17, 2006 and basically none of the requirements of said order have been met by [T.B.,]" the ALJ affirmed OCBSS' decision terminating EA to T.B. The ALJ's Initial Decision was itself affirmed by the Director of the DFD in a final decision of August 1, 2006. The Director later denied T.B.'s motion for reconsideration, specifically finding that "[t]he record as developed by the [ALJ] and the documents reviewed do not support [T.B.'s] contention that medical and physical difficulties hampered her ability to comply with the conditions of her [EA] service plan and Remand Decision Order of May 7, 2006."
This appeal follows in which T.B. raises the following issues for our consideration:
I. The Director Of The Department Of Human Services, Division Of Family Development Incorrectly Determined That T.B. Did Not Establish Good Cause To Extend Her Benefits Beyond The Thirty Day Period.
A. The Creation of an Extensive Social Service Plan Contributed to T.B.'s Failure to Comply With the Plan Within Thirty Days Which Establishes Good Cause to Extend Beyond the Time Period.
B. The Director of The Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development Should Consider All Efforts to Comply Which Establishes Good Cause to Grant T.B. Additional Time.
C. The Director of the Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development Should Not Have Determined That the Record Developed by the Administrative Law Judge Does Not Support T.B.'s Contention That She Needed Additional Time to Comply as a Result of Her Disability.
We have considered each of these issues in light of the record, the applicable law, and the arguments of counsel, and we are satisfied that none of them is of sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D), (e)(1)(E). We add, however, the following comments.
Appellate courts have a "limited role in reviewing a decision of an administrative agency." State-Operated Sch. Dist. of Newark v. Gaines, 309 N.J. Super. 327, 331 (App. Div.) (citing Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980)), certif. denied, 156 N.J. 381 (1998); Campbell v. Dep't of Civil Serv., 39 N.J. 556, 562 (1963). We do "not 'engage in an independent assessment of the evidence . . . .'" In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656 (1999) (quoting State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 461 (1999)). Instead, we accord a "strong presumption of reasonableness" to the decision of an administrative agency. City of Newark v. Natural Res. Council, 82 N.J. 530, 539, cert. denied, 449 U.S. 983, 101 S.Ct. 400, 66 L.Ed. 2d 245 (1980); Smith v. Ricci, 89 N.J. 514, 525, appeal dismissed sub nom. Smith v. Brandt, 459 U.S. 962, 103 S.Ct. 286, 74 L.Ed. 2d 272 (1982). Thus, the determinations of the administrative agencies must be given great deference. Merin v. Maglaki, 126 N.J. 430, 436-47 (1992). Indeed, an agency's decision should only be reversed when "it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or it is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole." Henry, supra, 81 N.J. at 579-80 (citing Campbell, supra, 39 N.J. at 562); Marro v. Dep't of Civil Serv. 57 N.J. Super. 335, 346 (App. Div. 1959) (citation omitted). As stated in In re Taylor, supra, 158 N.J. at 656 (quoting Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210-11 (1997)), judicial review of an agency's decision is restricted to four inquiries:
(1) whether the agency's decision offends the State or Federal Constitution;
(2) whether the agency's action violates express or implied legislative policies;
(3) whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the findings on which the agency based its action; and
(4) whether in applying the legislative policies to the facts, the agency clearly erred in reaching a conclusion that could not reasonably have been made on a showing of the relevant factors.
Governed by these principles, we are persuaded that the agency's final decision is supported by substantial credible evidence and founded in law. Suffice it to say, despite many opportunities since 2005, and one final opportunity afforded by the Director in his May 26, 2006 decision, T.B. had again failed to provide OCBSS with the requisite medical documentation demonstrating long-term medical or psychological problems affecting her ability to comply with her service plan. Nor has T.B. established "good cause" for her failure. Her argument that the service plan developed by the OCBSS in June 2006 was too extensive and unilaterally devised to be satisfied overlooks the simple fact that the plan merely incorporated and defined the requirements of the ALJ's Initial Decision of May 17, 2006, and the Director's ratification on May 26, 2006. Moreover, the claim that the service plan was created without her necessary input does not excuse T.B.'s obligation to take "reasonable steps toward resolving the emergent situation," to comply with her service plan, and to follow agency recommendations to resolve the emergent situation. N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.6(a). Here, as noted, the agency's finding that T.B. failed in each of these respects finds ample support in the evidence and applicable law. Indeed, not only did T.B. refuse to sign the service plan, but by the time of her second OAL hearing in July 2006, she had more than sixty days in which to secure and provide the required medical documentation to OCBSS, and failed to do so. Without the necessary documentation to allow OCBSS to evaluate T.B.'s eligibility for continued EA, the decision to terminate such assistance was reasonable. In sum, T.B. failed to establish "good cause" excusing her noncompliance with the service plan, much less "extreme hardship" entitling her to an extension of EA benefits.