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Abulkhair v. Passaic County Board of Social Services

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


April 23, 2010

ASSEM A. ABULKHAIR, APPELLANT,
v.
PASSAIC COUNTY BOARD OF SOCIAL SERVICES, RESPONDENT.

On appeal from a Final Decision of the Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued April 14, 2010

Before Judges Graves and Sabatino.

Appellant Assem Abulkhair appeals from a final administrative decision by the Division of Family Development (DFD) of the Department of Human Services dated April 9, 2009.

Appellant contends that the decision by the Director of the DFD "constitutes an abuse of discretion" because the matter was properly decided by the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) "based upon the facts and evidence presented by both parties."*fn1 We affirm.

Appellant receives benefits from the federally-funded Food Stamp Program (the Program). The Program "is designed to promote the general welfare and to safeguard the health and well being of the population by raising the levels of nutrition among low-income households." N.J.A.C. 10:87-1.1. In New Jersey, county welfare agencies are responsible for certifying eligible households, N.J.A.C. 10:87-1.2(a), but "the State is ultimately responsible for ensuring that program operations conform with Federal laws and USDA regulations." N.J.A.C. 10:87-1.2(b).

In December 2008, the Passaic County Board of Social Services (the Board) notified appellant that his food stamp benefits would be reduced by $17 per month, from $104 to $87 effective January 1, 2009, because his federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits had increased by $37 per month, from $668 to $705. The notice also informed appellant of the method by which the reduction of his food stamps benefits had been calculated. Appellant contested the reduction of his benefits on the ground that his rent was going to increase. The Board requested verification of the rent increase. However, appellant did not provide the requested documentation until the parties appeared for a hearing before the ALJ on March 23, 2009.

The ALJ summarized the testimony as follows:

[Appellant] argued that the document referenced in the Lease Agreement is not pertinent to his case and is confidential. He offered no explanation to the questions asked about what made the document confidential. [Appellant] also disclosed that he never previously turned over his documents.

[The Board's] representative explained the necessity to secure all relevant information when undergoing a recertification review. [The Board] noted provisions of the New Jersey Administrative Code that required [appellant] to disclose all assets, liabilities, earned and unearned income and other resources. The reduction in food stamp benefits was based on household income information and the maximum allowable income for a family unit size of one adult. [The Board] contends that without supporting documents from [appellant] showing the amount of SSI and pre-specified allowances, the food stamp allotment had to be reduced.

During the March 23, 2009 OAL hearing, [appellant] provided the undersigned with a copy of the application "Model Lease for Subsidized Programs." After hearing the content of the application, [the Board] agreed to recalculate [appellant's] food stamp allotment and enter into a "Settlement Agreement." [Appellant] refused to cooperate with [the Board] to prepare the terms for settlement; therefore a written decision became necessary.

Thus, it is clear the ALJ found that appellant did not provide the documentation requested by the Board until March 23, 2009. Moreover, the "Lease Amendment" that appellant provided to the ALJ states the "new rent is effective with the rent due for the month of 3/01/2009." Nevertheless, the ALJ reversed the Board's determination, which was effective on January 1, 2009, based on the information appellant provided at the hearing on March 23, 2009. The ALJ did not specify the date upon which the recalculation of the food stamp allotment, based on the additional information supplied by appellant, would become effective, thereby leaving that determination for the DFD's consideration.

In a final decision on April 9, 2009, DFD affirmed the Board's decision to reduce appellant's food stamp benefits from $104 to $87 per month, but DFD also recognized the Board agreed to recalculate appellant's food stamp benefits based on the new information that appellant had submitted to the ALJ. Therefore, DFD concluded that "all necessary adjustments" as a result of the Board's recalculation of benefits would be "retroactive to the date [appellant] presented his lease."

The DFD decision, which modified the ALJ's decision, contained the following explanation:

According to the record, the [appellant] reported that both his Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and his rent increased at his December 2008 recertification. The agency worker requested that the [appellant] submit a copy of his lease to verify the rent increase. The [appellant] refused to fill out the application and did not provide the agency with a copy of his lease until the date of the hearing.

Regulations at N.J.A.C. 10:87-9.5(a)2i4 stipulate the changes which must be reported and verified and one of these changes concerns the amount of shelter costs.

The [appellant] must present information concerning a reportable change in the circumstances within 10 days of the agency's request in order to be considered at recertification. It is apparent from the record that the [appellant] did not act on this information in a timely manner. Accordingly, the agency cannot reverse the reduction retroactive to the date of recertification.

Our scope of review of an agency decision is limited. In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656 (1999). "[A]n appellate court ordinarily should not disturb an administrative agency's determinations or findings unless there is a clear showing that (1) the agency did not follow the law; (2) the decision was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable; or (3) the decision was not supported by substantial evidence." In re Virtua-West Jersey Hosp., 194 N.J. 413, 422 (2008); Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997).

In the present matter, we have concluded from our review of the record, the briefs, and oral argument that the final agency decision is supported by substantial credible evidence as well as the administrative regulations governing the Food Stamp Program. Consequently, the decision is neither unfair nor unreasonable.

Affirmed.


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