Charles v. N.J. Div. of Developmental Disabilities, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 462 (App. Div., Mar. 10, 2016).

By Craig S. Keiser

This week we review the appeal of Malik Charles from a decision by the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Division of Developmental Disabilities (“The Agency”) which found Mr. Charles had violated N.J.S.A. 30:6D-5.1 to 5.6, also known as Danielle’s Law. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded back to the Agency for an Office of Administrative Law hearing on the merits.

Mr. Charles was a van driver responsible for transporting disabled individuals. According to a certification by Mr. Charles, one of the passengers fell from his van and hit her head in March 2013. Mr. Charles further certified that the passenger rose immediately, apologized for trying to get out of the van, and was not seriously injured. Later that month, Mr. Charles left his position.

Ten months later, on January 31, 2014, the Agency sent Mr. Charles a notice explaining that he had violated Danielle’s Law. Danielle’s Law requires a person caring for the developmentally disabled to call 911 if someone in their charge suffers a life-threatening emergency and that a violation warrants a $5,000 penalty. Mr. Charles did not receive the mailing, and the notice sent certified was returned unclaimed. On March 25, 2014, Mr. Charles received a letter from the Agency explaining that its determination that he violated Danielle’s Law is final and his only recourse is to appeal to the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division.  Mr. Charles was confused, as he was never made aware that there was a charge against him.  Mr. Charles had no choice but to appeal to the Appellate Division.

First, the Court noted that if there has been a violation of Danielle’s Law, written notice must be provided via certified mail (return receipt requested) or personal service. Importantly, the Court noted that the Agency’s rules failed to address procedure when certified mail is returned unclaimed. The Agency’s rules did not specify that regular mail could be used as a substitute for unclaimed certified mail. While New Jersey case law has recognized a presumption that properly addressed, stamped, and posted mail was received, the presumption is rebuttable. Mr. Charles did rebut that presumption by certifying that he did not receive the original notice, did not always reside at the address the notice was sent to, and that the certified mail was, in fact, returned unclaimed.

Second, the Court explained that State agencies must comply with Constitutional standards of due process when dealing with members of the public who are subject to its regulations. Citizens “must be given a real chance to present their side of the case” before the state can take away their rights. Under the circumstances present in Mr. Charles’ case, no such chance was given.

Third, the Agency’s rules did not provide any means by which a person could request an extension of time to appeal to the agency, even where good cause could be shown for a late appeal. The Court explained that it is a violation of due process for the Agency to omit a mechanism by which a person may request an extension of time to appeal. Absent such a mechanism, someone in Mr. Charles’ position faces blatant inequity in the sense that not being present to receive a notice eliminates any chance of opposing an Agency determination outside of Court. The Court noted that the Agency improperly favored “efficiency at the expense of fairness.” Finally, the Court added that since it took the Agency ten months to issue its decision, it “can hardly be [argued] that time is of the essence.”

As a result of the Agency’s “deficient procedures,” the Court reversed the Agency’s final determination and remanded Mr. Charles’ case back to the Office of Administrative Law where he will be able to present his argument and be heard.

This is an important case because it illustrates how vital Due Process rights are when dealing with a State employer or an employer regulated by the State. When faced with action by a state employer, employees are best served by seeking legal counsel when made aware of any determinations made by the State.

Attorney for Employee/Appellant: Alan H. Schorr, Esquire.

Attorneys for the Respondent: Gene Rosenblum, Deputy Attorney General.

Appellate Judges: Reisner and Whipple.