On appeal from a Final Decision of the Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development, Docket No. C266155.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued December 12, 2011 -
Before Judges A. A. Rodriguez and Sabatino.
This appeal arises out of the termination of welfare benefits that had been paid to appellant T.B. for eighty-four months under two related State programs. The Essex County Department of Welfare ("ECDW"), which administers those State programs, terminated T.B.'s benefits. It did so because she had reached the maximum time limit and was ineligible for an exemption or an extension. T.B. contested the decision, arguing that she was still entitled to receive benefits under applicable statutes and regulations.
After a hearing, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") concluded that T.B.'s benefits had been properly terminated because she was not "chronically unemployable" and had failed to otherwise demonstrate her eligibility. The ALJ's decision was adopted by the Division of Family Development ("DFD") of the New Jersey Department of Human Services. T.B. now appeals.
For the reasons that follow, and according the DFD the deference it is owed on regulatory matters within its expertise, we affirm the final administrative decision terminating T.B.'s benefits.
The applicable federal statute, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ("PRWORA") was signed into law in 1996. 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 601 to -619. One of the enumerated purposes of the PRWORA is to help States "end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage[.]" 42 U.S.C.A. § 601(a)(2) (emphasis added).
The PRWORA established block grants under the Temporary Aid to Needy Families ("TANF") program. 42 U.S.C.A. § 602. These block grants are awarded to individual States upon the submission of a State welfare plan that comports with the federal goals and requirements. 42 U.S.C.A. § 602(a). Families are generally only permitted to receive TANF benefits for a maximum of five years. 42 U.S.C.A. § 608(a)(7). However, the PRWORA does permit States to exempt families from the five-year limit because of proven hardship, so long as the number of exemptions does not "exceed [twenty] percent of the average monthly number of families to which assistance is provided under the State [TANF] program[.]" 42 U.S.C.A. § 608(a)(7)(C)(ii).
In 1997, the Legislature adopted the Work First New Jersey ("WFNJ") program, this State's statutory mechanism for receiving and distributing welfare benefits under the federal TANF program. N.J.S.A. 44:10-55 to -78. In creating WFNJ, the Legislature found that "[w]orking individuals and families needing temporary assistance should have the transitional support necessary to obtain and keep a job in order to be able to avoid cycling back onto public assistance." N.J.S.A. 44:10-56(c) (emphasis added). Benefits under WFNJ are intended to be "temporary" and "foster self-sufficiency." N.J.S.A. 44:10-59(b). Moreover, all adult recipients are required to "continuously and actively seek employment in an effort to remove the assistance unit of which the recipient is a member from the [WFNJ] program." N.J.S.A. 44:10-62(a).*fn1
WFNJ, like TANF, has a general time limit of sixty months for the receipt of benefits. N.J.S.A. 44:10-72(a). However, WFNJ authorizes limited exemptions from that maximum period to certain classes of recipients. In particular, recipients are exempted from the sixty-month time limit if they are:
(1) over [sixty] years of age;
(2) the parent or other relative of a disabled child or other disabled dependent who must provide full-time care for the disabled child or other disabled dependent;
(3) permanently disabled . . .; or
(4) chronically unemployable as defined by regulation of the [C]commissioner [of the Department of Human Services]. [N.J.S.A. 44:10-72(b) (emphasis added).]
T.B., the recipient whose continued eligibility under the WFNJ/TANF program is the subject of this appeal, was born in 1979. She dropped out of high school in 1997 or 1998 when she became pregnant with her first and only child.
T.B. started receiving monthly WFNJ/TANF benefits in February 1998. She received those benefits for the maximum sixty months allowed by N.J.S.A. 44:10-72(a).*fn2 T.B. then received an additional twenty-four months of benefits through a pilot program established by the DFD, Supportive Assistance to Individuals and Families ("SAIF"). See N.J.A.C. 10:90-2.20.*fn3
In March 2010, three months before T.B.'s benefits under SAIF were set to expire, a so-called "round table" conference was held to determine whether T.B. would qualify for an exemption from the applicable time limits, which would allow her to continue to receive benefits. Joyce Lacara, a family service supervisor for the SAIF program, attended the conference, along with T.B., a State representative, and another program representative. Lacara and the other officials concluded that T.B.'s case should be closed and her benefits discontinued because she was employable, having exhibited "[n]o barriers" to obtaining work.
On May 13, 2010, the ECDW gave T.B. notice that her WFNJ/TANF benefits would be terminated effective June 1, 2010. The notice stated that T.B.'s benefits were being terminated because she had received the maximum months of assistance, and she was not eligible for an extension of or an exemption from the time limit.
T.B. filed a timely request for a hearing with the DFD. The request was forwarded to the Office of Administrative Law ("OAL"). Because T.B. filed her request within fifteen days of receiving the termination notice, ...