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Harris v. New Jersey Department of Corrections

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

November 19, 2013

GOLDA HARRIS, Appellant,


Submitted July 16, 2013.

On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Golda Harris, appellant pro se.

John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Lewis A. Scheindlin, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Erin M. Greene, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

Before Judges Ostrer and Hayden.


Golda Harris, an inmate incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, appeals from the July 5, 2011 final decision of the Department of Corrections (DOC) denying her use of her doctor-prescribed cane in her cell. Having considered the record, in light of the applicable law, we reverse and remand this matter for further proceedings.

We discern the following facts from the record. On September 16, 2009, the DOC agreed that Harris could use her cane "within the confines as well as outside of [her] cell, as a result of [her] medical evaluation." On March 11, 2011, Desha Jackson, the ADA Coordinator for the DOC Division of Operations, wrote in a letter to Harris that on November 15, 2010, a University Correctional Heath Care medical doctor had evaluated Harris and concluded that Harris no longer required the use of a cane. In a second letter, dated June 14, 2011, Jackson stated that Harris was evaluated by a medical professional again on April 1, 2011. According to Jackson, that doctor concluded that Harris only needed the use of a cane outside of her cell and for long-distance transport.

On May 7, 2011, Harris submitted an Inmate Remedy System Form (IRSF) to the prison administration, requesting the name of the person who concluded she no longer required in-cell cane use. She asserted that she needed her cane at all times and had received no medical evaluation indicating otherwise. Harris checked off the option "Interview Request" on the IRSF. On May 16, 2011, the DOC replied to Harris as a "Routine Inmate Request, " without granting or denying her request for an interview. The DOC response stated, "custody staff and supervisors provide no such order was given."

On May 25, 2011, Harris instituted an internal administrative appeal of the denial of the in-cell use of the cane and the failure to provide information on the decision. She restated that no medical doctor or nurse authorized the removal her cane and requested an explanation as to why her authorized in-cell cane use was revoked. On July 5, 2011, in its final decision, the DOC replied that Harris was "permitted the cane to and from [her] cell per [medical], " and that she "[could] not retain the cane inside [her] cell, Dr.'s orders." This appeal followed.

On appeal, Harris argues that she is permanently disabled, and the use of her cane is medically necessary. Harris also maintains that the failure to allow her the full use of her cane violates her rights under several federal statutes and the United States Constitution and requests damages of $500 per day. She also raises a long list of other complaints about her treatment by the prison authorities. As these matters were not raised as part of the administrative appeal and thus are not properly before us, we will not address them on appeal. See Nieder v. Royal Indem. Ins. Co., 62 N.J. 229, 234 (1973).

Through the inmate-remedy system "inmates may formally communicate with correctional facility staff to request information from, and present issues, concerns, complaints or problems to the correctional facility staff." N.J.A.C. 10A:1-4.1(a)(1). The inmate initiates the process by filing out an IRSF as either a "Routine Inmate Request" or an "Interview Request." N.J.A.C. 10A:1-4.5. The system "includes an 'Administrative Appeal' through which inmates are encouraged to formally appeal to the Administrator or designee [from] the decision or finding rendered by correctional facility staff in regard to the 'Routine Inmate Request' or 'Interview Request.'" N.J.A.C. 10A:1-4.1. The decision or finding on the administrative appeal is the final decision or finding of the Department. N.J.A.C. 10A:1-4.6(d). Thus, an inmate may appeal to this court from such a final decision. R. 2:2-3(a)(2).

The scope of our review of an agency decision is limited. In re Stallworth, 208 N.J. 182, 194 (2011). "An appellate court ordinarily will reverse the decision of an administrative agency only when the agency's decision is 'arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or [] is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole.'" Ramirez v. Dep't of Corr., 382 N.J.Super. 18, 23 (App. Div. 2005) (quoting Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980)). "'Substantial evidence' means 'such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Figueroa v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 414 N.J.Super. 186, 192 (App. Div. 2010) (quoting In re Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 35 N.J. 358, 376 (1961)).

Furthermore, an appellate court may not substitute its judgment for the fact-finding of an administrative agency. Campbell v. N.J. Racing Comm'n, 169 N.J. 579, 587 (2001). "'If the Appellate Division is satisfied after its review that the evidence and the inferences to be drawn therefrom support the agency head's decision, then it must affirm even if the court feels that it would have reached a different result itself.'" Ibid. (quoting Clowes v. Terminix Int'l, Inc., 109 N.J. 575, 588 (1988)).

However, "while an administrative decision is entitled to deference, we will not perfunctorily review and rubber stamp the agency's decision." Balagun v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 361 N.J.Super. 199, 203 (App. Div. 2003). "Instead, we insist that the agency disclose its reasons for any decision, even those based upon expertise, so that a proper, searching, and careful review by this court may be undertaken." Ibid. "No matter how great a deference we must accord the administrative determination, we have no capacity to review the issues at all 'unless there is some kind of reasonable factual record developed by the administrative agency and the agency has stated its reasons' with particularity." Blyther v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 322 N.J.Super. 56, 63 (App. Div.) (quoting In re Issuance of a Permit, 120 N.J. 164, 173 (1990)), certif. denied, 162 N.J. 196 (1999).

As we find that the factual record is not adequate for us to review the agency's decision, we are constrained to remand the matter to the DOC for further proceedings. We are unable to determine if the DOC decision was supported by medical evaluations because the DOC did not provide the evaluations it relied on to Harris or include them in the record. Here, especially where Harris denies the medical evaluations occurred, the record is incomplete without the medical evaluations themselves. Moreover, Harris' IRSF specifically requested the medical evaluations that purport to have revoked her use of a cane within her cell and she should have access to these records. See J.D.A. v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 189 N.J. 413, 418-419 (2007) (requiring promulgation of regulations to allow inmates full access to their medical records).

On remand, the DOC must provide Harris with a copy of the medical evaluations on November 15, 2010, and April 1, 2011 within fourteen days. We recognize that the last evaluation referenced in the record was two and one-half years ago. If the DOC continues to prohibit Harris the use of her cane in her cell, Harris continues to maintain that the use of her cane in her cell is medically necessary, and no medical evaluations concerning Harris' need for the cane have occurred since the filing of this appeal, the DOC must have Harris reevaluated by a medical professional within thirty days of this decision and provide a copy of the evaluation to Harris within fourteen days. In the event that Harris contests the results of the most current evaluation, she may proceed through the inmate remedy appeal system. See N.J.A.C. 10A:1-4.1.

Reversed and remanded for action consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

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