January 14, 2010
M.J.-M. ON BEHALF OF MINOR CHILDREN E.A.M., JR., AND E.M., PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE BOROUGH OF RIDGEFIELD, BERGEN COUNTY, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT, AND N.J. ON BEHALF OF MINOR CHILD S.T., PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE BOROUGH OF RIDGEFIELD, BERGEN COUNTY, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from a Final Decision of the Commissioner of Education, Docket Nos. 90-3/08 and 91-3/08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 14, 2009
Before Judges Reisner, Yannotti and Chambers.
M.J.-M., on behalf of minor children E.A.M., Jr. and E.M., and N.J., on behalf of minor child S.T., appeal from a final determination of the Commissioner of Education (Commissioner), finding that the children were not domiciled in the Borough of Ridgefield (Ridgefield) and not eligible to attend Ridgefield's public schools. We affirm.
By letters dated March 14, 2008, the Ridgefield Board of Education (Board) advised M.J.-M. and N.J. that their children were not domiciled in Ridgefield and would be "de-enrolled" from the district's schools. M.J.-M. and N.J. were further advised that they could appeal these determinations to the Commissioner and if they failed to establish that the children are entitled to attend Ridgefield's schools, they could both be assessed tuition for any period in which the children were ineligible to attend the district's schools. M.J.-M. and N.J. filed appeals with the Commissioner.
The appeals were referred to the Office of Administrative Law for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which took place on July 10, 2008. At the hearing, evidence was presented which indicated that M.J.-M. and N.J. are sisters. M.J.-M. is the mother of twin boys, E.A.M., Jr. and E.M., who were then seven years old. N.J. is the mother of S.T., who was twelve years old at the time. E.A.M., Jr. and E.M. attended kindergarten and had recently completed first grade in the district's schools. S.T. had been enrolled in the district's schools since 2002 and had just completed the seventh grade.
M.J.-M. and N.J. maintained that all three children resided in a home located on Prospect Avenue in Ridgefield, along with another sister and her husband. M.J.-M. asserted that she occupied a bedroom on the first floor of the Prospect Avenue residence with her two sons. N.J. said that she and her daughter occupied a bedroom on the second floor.
M.J.-M. asserted that her name is on the deed of the residence on Prospect Avenue, as well as on a house located on East Brinkerhoff Avenue in Palisades Park. According to M.J.-M., the Palisades Park residence is occupied by her mother. She stated that she wakes the children early in the morning at the residence on Prospect Avenue, takes them to her mother's house in Palisades Park for breakfast, and then she or N.J. transports the boys to school from there.
N.J. asserted that, between 2002 and 2007, she resided in a home on Ray Avenue in Ridgefield. She said that her sister and brother-in-law owned the Ray Avenue property but sold it in July 2007. N.J. stated that she purchased a house in Lodi in December 2006. She claimed that she always intended to use the Lodi house as rental property.
N.J. further testified that she separated from her husband and, at the time of the hearing, he was living in the basement apartment of the Lodi home. N.J. asserted that she wakes her daughter early in the morning and takes her to her husband's apartment in Lodi. She said that her husband brings the child back to the Prospect Avenue residence in Ridgefield in time for her to attend school, which is located across the street from the house.
The Board presented testimony from Ronald J. Deramo (Deramo), in support of its "de-enrollment" decisions. The Board employs Deramo as "an enrollment verification officer." Deramo conducted visual surveillance of the residences involved on various dates during January, February, March, May and June 2008.
Deramo testified that, during his surveillance, he observed M.J.-M.'s children being taken to the school in Ridgefield from the Palisades Park residence. He stated that, after school, the children would go to the house on Prospect Avenue in Ridgefield but they would return to the house in Palisades Park for the evening. Deramo further testified that, during his surveillance, he observed N.J.'s car parked at the Lodi house. He saw her leave, presumably to go to work, and also saw the child's father drive S.T. to school in Ridgefield.
The ALJ concluded that M.J.-M. and N.J. failed to meet their burden of proof of establishing that the children were domiciled in Ridgefield during the 2007-2008 school year. The ALJ accordingly affirmed the Board's decision to de-enroll the children. The ALJ also granted the Board's application for reimbursement of tuition for the 2007-2008 school year, requiring M.J.-M. to pay $15,392 and N.J. to pay $7,128. The Commissioner issued her decision on September 15, 2008, adopting the ALJ's decision as the final determination in this matter. This appeal followed.
Appellants argue that the Commissioner's decision is arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable, and not supported sufficient credible evidence. They contend that the testimony and documentary proof establish that they intended to reside with their children in the house on Prospect Avenue in Ridgefield.
The actions of administrative agencies are entitled to a "strong presumption of reasonableness[.]" Newark v. Natural Res. Council Dep't Env't Prot., 82 N.J. 530, 539 (1980). We will not substitute our judgment "for the expertise of an agency 'so long as [its] action is statutorily authorized and not otherwise . . . arbitrary or unreasonable.'" Williams v. Dep't of Human Servs., 116 N.J. 102, 107 (1989) (quoting Dougherty v. Dep't of Human Servs., 91 N.J. 1, 12 (1982)).
Consequently, our role in reviewing a final decision of an administrative agency is limited to three inquiries: 1) whether the agency's action is consistent with the governing statues and implied legislative policies; 2) whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the agency's findings of fact; and 3) whether in applying the legislative policies to the facts, the agency reached a conclusion "that could not reasonably have been made after weighing the relevant factors." Id. at 108.
Applying these principles of appellate review, we are convinced that the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed. We are satisfied that the Commissioner's decision is not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable and is supported by substantial credible evidence. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D). We are further convinced that appellants' arguments are without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in this opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E). We add the following comments.
Findings of fact by a trial judge "'are considered binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence[.]'" In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656 (1999) (quoting Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974)). This standard applies to the review of administrative decisions. Id. at 657. Accordingly, we must give "due regard to the opportunity of the one who heard the witnesses to judge of their credibility.'" Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965) (citing State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964)).
Here, the ALJ rejected M.J.-M.'s testimony that she wakes up her young children to take them to the Palisades Park residence for breakfast and then she or her sister drives them back to Ridgefield to attend school. The ALJ found that such testimony "strains common sense[.]" The ALJ also rejected N.J.'s assertion that she wakes her daughter up at 5:00 a.m. to drive her to Lodi, just so that she can be returned to the Prospect Avenue residence in Ridgefield in order to attend school, which is across the street. Finding Deramo's testimony to be credible, the ALJ determined that M.J.-M. was residing in the Palisades Park home and N.J. was residing in the Lodi home at the times when Deramo conducted his surveillance.
The ALJ also commented upon the documentary proofs submitted by N.J. The ALJ wrote N.J. had presented certain: documents in support of her proof of residency [on] Prospect [Avenue]. Those included a savings account statement in the name of her daughter using the . . .
Prospect [Avenue] address, but on which there was no activity except maintenance fee debits that exceeded the less-than-$10 value in the account. Further, there was no statement indicating when the account was originally opened or what documents were presented to the bank as proof of identity.
N.J.'s vehicle registration using the . . .
Prospect [Avenue] address was a duplicate which appears to have been issued only in March 2008 with her prior vehicle registration indicating the old [Ray] Avenue address. Her driver's license now has the . . . Prospect [Avenue] address but was issued only in June 2008. Also, she did not present any lease for any period of time for the house in Lodi that would substantiate her claim that it was rental property and not the home of her husband, daughter and herself.
In addition, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to the documents presented by M.J.-M. The ALJ wrote the documents included voter registration, car insurance, paystubs, vehicle registration and driver's license that were all addressed at [the] Prospect [Avenue residence]. The water utility bill for . . . Prospect [Avenue] is issued in both sister-owners' names. . . . Both M.J[.]-M. and N.J. asserted that their mother -- the grandmother [of] the three school children -- is the person who lives [on] . . . E. Brinkerhoff Avenue, Palisade[s] Park. As stated, the Palisade[s] Park house is jointly owned by petitioner M.J[.]-M., her other sister and her brother-in-law. The closing was the same date of August 31, 2007, as the property [on] Prospect [Avenue].
The ALJ also found it significant that no documents were presented to substantiate that the grandmother resides in the Palisade[s] Park house. No documents were presented relating to the payment of utilities, the mortgage or other expenses at the Palisade[s] Park house. Nor were any photographs presented of the allegedly occupied bedrooms of petitioners and the three children at the . . . Prospect [Avenue] house, which would have been easily-accessible evidence to present if it would have helped their appeals.
We are satisfied that there is sufficient credible evidence in the record supporting the ALJ's findings of fact, as adopted by the Commissioner. We accordingly affirm the Commissioner's final determination that M.J.-M. and N.J. failed to establish that their children were domiciled in Ridgefield during the 2007-2008 school year, and her order requiring M.J.-M. and N.J. to pay the district tuition for that period.
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