On appeal from the Department of Corrections.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 4, 2009
Before Judges Parrillo and Ashrafi.
Appellant Leroy Wiggins, an inmate currently incarcerated at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, appeals from the September 30, 2008 final administrative decision of the Department of Corrections (DOC) denying his request to create an Inmate Liaison Committee (ILC) pursuant to N.J.A.C. 10A:12-3.1. For the following reasons, we affirm.
On January 18, 2008, and again on April 15, 2008, a fellow inmate at East Jersey State Prison submitted a proposal to create an ILC to Thomas Power, the prison Administrator. Hearing no response, on August 29, 2008, appellant filed an Inmate Remedy System form inquiring about the status of the ILC proposal. That form was forwarded to the Administrator's office. On September 5, 2008, appellant was interviewed by Executive Assistant Administrator Steven Johnson, who informed him that the proposal was denied because the prison already utilized a Wing Representative Committee (WRC), composed of elected representatives from each prison wing, to provide the services and functions requested to be performed by an ILC. Thereafter, appellant filed an administrative appeal, which was denied on September 16, 2008, by the Prison Administrator, who concluded that "the Wing Representative Committee as it currently exists represents and serves all inmates adequately." Upon further administrative appeal to the Commissioner on September 30, 2008, the DOC's Director, Division of Operations, affirmed the decision of the Administrator, concluding that appellant's request was satisfactorily addressed by the Administrator, no further action was necessary, and "the current practice if [sic] utilizing an inmate representative from each wing is appropriate and will remain in effect."
On appeal, appellant contends:
I. THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS DENIAL OF INMATES' PROPOSAL FOR A LIAISON COMMITTEE TO REPRESENT THE PRISON POPULATION, VIOLATED THE NEW JERSEY ADMINISTRATIVE CODE, PURSUANT TO N.J.S.A. 30:1B-6 AND N.J.A.C. 10A:12-ET SEQ.
II. THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS INTERPRETATION OF NEW JERSEY ADMINISTRATIVE CODE REGARDING INMATES LIAISON COMMITTEE IS CONTRARY TO THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW, PURSUANT TO N.J.S.A. 52:14B-1 AND N.J.A.C. 10A:1-1.5(a).
As a threshold matter, we note that appellate courts have a limited role in reviewing the decisions of administrative agencies. We will not reverse an agency decision unless "'it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or it is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole.'" In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 657 (1999) (quoting Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980)); Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997). The relevant standard of review is "'whether the findings made could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record' considering 'the proofs as a whole'...." In re Taylor, supra, 158 N.J. at 656 (quoting Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964))).
The scope of our review of administrative regulations is also limited. Lewis ex rel. Lewis v. Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund Comm'n of State of N.J., 336 N.J. Super. 361, 369 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 168 N.J. 290 (2001). "Administrative regulations are accorded a presumption of validity." Ibid. (quoting N.J. State League of Municipalities v. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs, 158 N.J. 211, 222 (1999)). "The party challenging their validity bears the burden of proving that the regulations are arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, or beyond the scope of the [agency's] delegated power." Ibid. (citations omitted). The "courts have a 'strong inclination to defer to agency action provided it is consistent with the legislative grant of power.'" In re Hartz/Damascus Bakery, Inc., 404 N.J. Super. 49, 68 (App. Div. 2008) (quoting Lewis, supra, 336 N.J. Super. at 369-70), certif. denied, 198 N.J. 315 (2009). Moreover, an administrative agency's interpretation of its enabling statute and implementing regulations is entitled to substantial deference. Probst v. Bd. of Educ., 127 N.J. 518, 529 (1992). This is so "particularly where the determination is not inconsistent with the statute and promotes its purpose and intent." Ibid. (citing Bassett v. Bd. of Educ., 223 N.J. Super. 136, 142-43 (App. Div. 1988)).
The Legislature has vested the DOC Commissioner broad discretionary power to "[d]etermine all matters of policy and regulate the administration of [penal] institutions...." N.J.S.A. 30:1B-6(g).
The Commissioner is specifically empowered to:
Formulate, adopt, issue and promulgate, in the name of the department such rules and regulations for the efficient conduct of the work and general administration of the department, the institutions or non-institutional agencies within its jurisdiction, its officers and employees as may be authorized by law[.] [N.J.S.A. 30:1B-6(e).]
Pursuant to this authority, the DOC promulgated regulations, in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act, N.J.S.A. 52:14B-1 to -15, see N.J.A.C. 10A:1-1.5(a), governing the creation, organization, and functioning of inmate groups within State correctional facilities. N.J.A.C. 10A:12-1.1. The Administrator or designee has the sole authority to "approve, disapprove or limit the formation and/or activities of an inmate group consistent with... internal management procedures regarding discipline, order, safety, sanitation and security." N.J.A.C. ...