September 3, 2008
MARK NEWTON AND ANDREA NEWTON, INDIVIDUALLY; MARK NEWTON, GUARDIAN AD LITEM ON BEHALF OF MINORS QADIR NEWTON AND QAWIY NEWTON; AND ANDREA NEWTON, GUARDIAN AD LITEM ON BEHALF OF MINOR QAMIRA NEWTON, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
COUNTY OF ESSEX; ESSEX COUNTY DIVISION OF WELFARE; BRUCE NIGRO; EDWARD ENGLISH; MARK FULLMAN; VALERIE PLANT; LOUISE WILLIAMS; CYNTHIA RASOOL; JEMINAT OJIBARA; SANDRA MYERS; DEBRA EDMONDSON; TOMMY FARMER; DEPARTMENT OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT TRAINING & EMPLOYMENT; SUPPORTIVE ASSISTANCE TO INDIVIDUALS & FAMILIES; STATE OF NEW JERSEY DEPT. OF HUMAN SERVICES DIVISION OF FAMILY DEVELOPMENT, JEANETTE PAGE-HAWKINS, DIRECTOR; AND THE BUREAU OF ADMINISTRATIVE REVIEW & APPEALS, KATHLEEN MCBRIDE, SUPERVISOR, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, General Equity Part, Essex County, Docket No. C-334-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted August 27, 2008
Before Judges Miniman and Lihotz.
Plaintiffs appeal from the administrative dismissal of their Chancery Division complaint that sought to enjoin defendants from the "willful dissemination [and] release of privileged and confidential information" and to compel the Essex County Division of Welfare (ECDW) to act. The record is muddled and incomplete. For example, plaintiffs chose not to provide a copy of their complaint and include no orders from the Chancery Division proceedings. We glean from the record provided that the ECDW denied plaintiffs' application for continuation of public assistance benefits and notified plaintiffs of its intention to attach an anticipated legal recovery for reimbursement of benefits previously provided.
On April 6, 2006, Judge Levy declined to enter an injunction based upon the amended complaint and order to show cause filed by plaintiffs. He concluded the court had no jurisdiction as the controversy was pending before this court,*fn1 see Rule 2:9-1, and stayed the litigation. As to any newly asserted causes of action, the judge determined plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies. Thereafter, on January 10, 2007, Judge Levy denied plaintiffs' motion to transfer the litigation to the Law Division, incorporating the findings and conclusions set forth in the April 6, 2006 determination. It is this order that is referenced in plaintiffs' February 28, 2007 notice of appeal. On June 29, 2007, following the filing of this appeal, plaintiffs' Chancery Division complaint was administratively dismissed, without prejudice. Our review of the record satisfies us that the trial court correctly determined that it lacked jurisdiction to render the relief requested. Accordingly, we affirm.
Plaintiffs' residence burned down in November 2003. They applied for Emergency Assistance (EA) with the ECDW. The ECDW placed the family in a shelter. It too, burned down a few weeks later. The Division of Family Development (DFD) ordered ECDW to provide plaintiffs with necessary funds to secure another apartment. The Essex County Department of Citizen Services inspected this apartment and found it in "uninhabitable and  deplorable condition." After obtaining another residence, plaintiffs sued the landlord for refusing to make necessary repairs to the premises.
We infer from the record that during this process certain benefits were denied and plaintiffs exercised their administrative and appellate rights. The status of these matters is not revealed. Plaintiffs' Chancery Division action, filed on October 20, 2005, presumably addresses the issues also under review by the agency or this court.
Judge Levy properly deferred to this court, which has exclusive supervision of proceedings on appeal "from the time the appeal is taken." R. 2:9-1(a). The trial court may only continue to enforce its previously entered judgments and orders. Ibid. Plaintiff cannot circumvent our exclusive jurisdiction by filing a new legal action.
Addressing the second reason for dismissal, plaintiffs argue the determinations of the ECDW are not considered state agency actions, which require administrative remedies and appellate review, but local actions permitted to be challenged in the Law Division. Selobyt v. Keough-Dwyer Corr. Facility of Sussex County, 375 N.J. Super. 91, 95 (App. Div. 2005). We reject this argument.
Plaintiffs' request sought Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) through the Work First New Jersey (WFNJ) program. N.J.S.A. 44:10-55 to -70; N.J.A.C. 10:90-1.1(a). The WFNJ program is established within the Department of Human Services. N.J.S.A. 44:10-58(a). The authority of the county agency is derived from the state agency, N.J.S.A. 44:10-73(a), and N.J.S.A. 44:10-78(a) provides that rules and regulations to effectuate the WFNJ program may be adopted by the Commissioner, pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act, N.J.S.A. 52:14B-1 to -24.
Emergency assistance applications are governed by N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.1 and shelter benefits are permitted by N.J.A.C. 10:90-6.7. As requested by the DFD, an emergency fair hearing before the Office of Administrative Law may be held regarding a request for benefits. N.J.A.C. 1:10-12.2(a). Thus, an applicant for benefits must pursue available administrative relief to challenge an adverse determination.
Judge Levy correctly required that plaintiffs exhaust available administrative remedies and not file an action in the Chancery or Law Division. See R.J. Gaydos Ins. Agency, Inc. v. Nat'l Consumer Ins. Co., 168 N.J. 255, 273 (2001) (litigants required to exhaust their administrative remedies before they come to court). We discern no basis to interfere with the trial court's disposition of this matter.