September 4, 2008
BUREAU OF ROOMING AND BOARDING HOUSE STANDARDS, PETITIONER-RESPONDENT,
PETER W. SCHNEIDER, RESPONDENT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Department of Community Affairs, Docket No. RBHS-108-06/1426-005.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted August 27, 2008
Before Judges Miniman and Lihotz.
Appellant Peter Schneider appeals from the final decision of the Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs (DCA). The Commissioner affirmed the initial decision of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) upholding a $5,000 penalty imposed by the respondent Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards (Bureau) for operating an unlicensed rooming house. On appeal, Schneider argues, as he did before the agency, no license was required. He maintains his property was used as a single-family residence occupied by a family-unit, rather than a rooming house. We affirm the Commissioner's decision.
Schneider purchased an operating residential health care facility (facility) located at 61 Mountainview Avenue, Mount Arlington. Schneider created a corporation called Lake View Rest Home at Mt. Arlington, Inc. and continued the facility's operations. Although the facility was located in a residential zone, the Borough of Mt. Arlington (Borough) allowed the facility as a pre-existing, non-conforming use. Until 2005, the Borough inspected the facility annually. In 2005, the Borough relinquished inspection authority to the State.
When the State Fire Marshall required installation of a fire sprinkler system, Schneider determined the cost was prohibitive and closed the facility on June 1, 2005. The non-family residents in the facility were required to relocate.
On June 7, 2005, Schneider wrote to the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) to terminate the facility's operations. He attached a list of forwarding addresses for the former facility residents. Remaining in the property, in addition to Schneider's family, which included his wife, two daughters and his aunt, there were three former facility residents and a live-in maid.
The Bureau sent Angelo Mureo, a chief investigator with twenty-five years of experience with the DCA, to conduct "a jurisdictional status investigation." Mureo stated he was to gather "all available facts" to help determine whether the property's usage placed it under the Bureau's jurisdiction.
Upon Mureo's inspection of Schneider's property, he observed several bedrooms and two common bathrooms on the second floor along with bedrooms, bathrooms, a shared kitchen, living room, dining room, and an enclosed rear porch on the first floor. None of the bedrooms had kitchen, laundry, or bathroom facilities. The doors of the bedrooms occupied by the non-family residents, the maid, and Schneider's aunt featured a dead-bolt plunger lock with a key entry. Mureo stated "most" residential bedrooms have a privacy latch, not a dead-bolt lock. The three non-family residents told Mureo they paid "rent" monthly*fn1 and the maid was given a room and paid $100 per week.
Mureo concluded the property was an unlicensed "Class B" boarding house, N.J.S.A. 55:13B-7(a), resulting in the imposed penalty. The Bureau issued Schneider a Notice of Violation and Penalty Order. Schneider requested a hearing.
Following a hearing, the ALJ credited Mureo's testimony and found Schneider's "explanation" for the dead-bolt locks not credible. The ALJ concluded the property was an unlicensed rooming house, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 55:13B-3(h), rather than a boarding house. See Country Lane Builders, Inc. v. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs, 96 N.J.A.R.2d (CAF) 94 (1996). The ALJ upheld the $5,000 fine*fn2 for the unlicensed operation of a rooming house. N.J.S.A. 55:13B-7. The Commissioner adopted the ALJ's recommendation as her final decision.
This appeal followed.
Schneider suggests the property was not a rooming house and the ALJ's decision adopted by the Commissioner was against the weight of the evidence. He also asserts the ALJ's decision is inconsistent and incompatible with the municipalities' zoned use of the property as a single-family residential dwelling.
In challenging an agency's determination, an appellant carries a substantial burden of persuasion, and the agency's determination carries a presumption of reasonableness. Gloucester County Welfare Bd. v. State Civil Serv. Comm'n, 93 N.J. 384, 390 (1983). Our role in reviewing an administrative agency's decision is a limited one. In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656 (1999) (quoting Clowes v. Terminix Int'l, Inc., 109 N.J. 575, 587 (1988)); Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997). We are obligated to give deference to the credibility determinations of the factfinder, Doering v. Bd. of Review, 203 N.J. Super. 241, 245 (App. Div. 1985); see Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965), and we may not "'engage in an independent assessment of the evidence as if [we] were the court of first instance.'" Taylor, supra, 158 N.J. at 656 (quoting State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999)).
We defer to "[t]he agency's [statutory] interpretation . . . provided it is not plainly unreasonable." Merin v. Maglaki, 126 N.J. 430, 437 (1992). "[I]f substantial credible evidence supports an agency's conclusion, a court may not substitute its own judgment for the agency's even though the court might have reached a different result." Greenwood v. State Police Training Ctr., 127 N.J. 500, 513 (1992). We reverse only if we conclude "the agency's action was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable." Brady, supra, 152 N.J. at 210.
The Rooming and Boarding House Act of 1979 (Act), N.J.S.A. 55:13B-1 to -21, is "remedial legislation . . . necessary to provide for the health, safety and welfare of all those who reside in rooming and boarding houses in this State[.]" N.J.S.A. 55:13B-2. The Commissioner has promulgated regulations to ensure "the protection and care of the residents of rooming houses, boarding houses and residential health care facilities[.]" Ibid. The Commissioner also has the power to issue, suspend or revoke licenses for operation of such facilities. N.J.S.A. 55:13B-4(c).
A boarding house is defined by the statute as "any building . . . which contains two or more units of dwelling space arranged or intended for single room occupancy . . . wherein personal or financial services are provided to the residents." N.J.S.A. 55:13B-3(a). A rooming house is "a boarding house wherein no personal or financial services are provided to the residents." N.J.S.A. 55:13B-3(h). "'Single room occupancy' means an arrangement of dwelling space which does not provide a private, secure dwelling space arranged for independent living, which contains both the sanitary and cooking facilities required in dwelling spaces[.]" N.J.S.A. 55:13B-3(i). Finally, the statute defines "[u]nit of dwelling space" as "any room, rooms, suite, or portion thereof, whether furnished or unfurnished, which is occupied or intended, arranged or designed to be occupied for sleeping or dwelling purposes by one or more persons." N.J.S.A. 55:13B-3(j).
The Act is specifically designed to protect the elderly, disabled and poor who need protection from "building hazards and . . . unscrupulous and predatory neighbors." N.J.S.A. 55:13B-2. Its enactment followed "a number of boarding home . . . fires which resulted in fatalities, and [which attracted] public attention . . . to the conditions that existed in these facilities." Market St. Mission v. Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards, 110 N.J. 335, 341 (1988) (quoting G. Gordon and D. Lazarus, New Jersey's Rooming and Boarding House Act: Its Effects and Effectiveness, 12 Seton Hall L. Rev. 484, 492 n.63 (1982)). This explains the State's requirement for installation of a fire safety sprinkler system. In this case, although the number of residents in the Schneider home decreased, the public safety concern remains unabated.
After consideration of the arguments advanced in the parties' briefs and the applicable law, we reject Schneider's contention that his property must be considered a single-family home with family-like occupants. His assertion is bottomed on the premise that residents in a rooming house "have little or no commonality," they merely have a room. Suggesting that the congeniality of the occupants determines the status of the facility would undercut the legislative intent and is unsupportable. The property afforded the non-family residents discrete living space and shared access to bathrooms and kitchen facilities in exchange for a monthly fee. Such an arrangement falls squarely within the definition of a rooming house. The conviviality and gregariousness of the roomers and the owner cannot alter that determination.
From our review of the record, we are satisfied that the ALJ's factual findings adopted by the Commissioner are amply supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record and we have no occasion to disturb them. Close, supra, 44 N.J. at 599. Further, the enforcement by the Commissioner comports with the permissibly stated legislative objectives. See Gloucester County Welfare Bd., supra, 93 N.J. at 390 ("The grant of authority to an administrative agency is to be liberally construed to enable the agency to accomplish the Legislature's goals.").
Finally, Schneider contests the imposition of the maximum $5,000 penalty. N.J.S.A. 55:13B-7a(3). The ALJ, in her written recommendation, reviewed this issue and concluded, "the operation of an unlicensed facility negatively impacts on the public interest. I am therefore persuaded that the penalty imposed by the Bureau is a reasonable one and that [Schneider] should be required to register as a rooming house, and pay the related fee." Given the need to protect the well-being of rooming house residents and the fact that Schneider's operation of an unlicensed facility contravenes the remedial purposes of the Act and, compromises the well-being of the residents, we cannot conclude the Commissioner's imposition of the authorized penalty is "arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable[.]" Brady, supra, 152 N.J. at 210.