Gloucester County Welfare Bd. v. State Civil Service Com'n

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Writing for the CourtSCHREIBER; HANDLER
Citation461 A.2d 575,93 N.J. 384
Decision Date21 June 1983

Page 384

93 N.J. 384
461 A.2d 575
Supreme Court of New Jersey.
Argued March 7, 1983.
Decided June 21, 1983.

[461 A.2d 576]

Page 387

Mark J. Fleming, Deputy Atty. Gen., for appellant (Irwin I. Kimmelman, Atty. Gen., attorney; James J. Ciancia, Asst. Atty. Gen., of counsel; Janet Share Zatz, Deputy Atty. Gen., on the brief).

[461 A.2d 577] Neil I. Sternstein, Woodbury, for respondent (Sternstein & Sternstein, Woodbury, attorneys).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by


We are called upon to decide whether the Civil Service Commission acted arbitrarily in refusing to permit V. Gail Denton to take the open competitive examination for the position of Deputy Director of Welfare in Gloucester County. She did not satisfy the prescribed educational requirements, but sought to substitute other educational qualifications. The Appellate Division agreed with her position, holding that the Commission's actions were unreasonable. Because the Appellate Division improperly reviewed the action of the Civil Service Commission, we reverse.


In January 1981, the defendant, Civil Service Commission, announced an open competitive examination for the position of Deputy Director of Welfare. 1 The announcement by the Department of Civil Service listed the following educational and work-experience requirements:

Possession of a Master's Degree in social work or social welfare or public administration or business administration from an accredited college or university plus four years of responsible full-time paid experience in an administrative or management position, where there is a responsibility for planning, directing and coordinating the work of a substantial staff working in several units or performing several separate functions.

Page 388

Denton, who had been serving as Deputy Director on an interim basis, applied to take the examination. She did not have a master's degree in social work, social welfare, public administration or business administration from an accredited college or university. She did have a law degree from the Temple University School of Law.

The Department of Civil Service rejected Denton's application because she failed to satisfy the "minimum requirements in education." Denton appealed this ruling to the Department on the ground that "the Law degree is equivalent or superior to the masters degrees listed as preparation for this position." In support of this contention Denton listed several of her law school courses that were related to the subject areas of the acceptable master's degrees. Finding the original determination of ineligibility to be correct, the Assistant Director of Examinations of the Civil Service Commission stated that "[w]hile there may be some areas of overlap" between courses taken by Denton in law school and those required in the relevant master's degree programs, "the programs are fundamentally different in approach, preparation and eventual application."

Denton thereafter appealed to the Director of Examinations of the Civil Service Commission, who maintained that he did not have the authority to accept substitutes for degree requirements unless such substitutes were "specifically allowed in the examination announcement." Finding no provision for the substitution of a law degree in the announcement for the Deputy Director position, the Director of Examinations rejected Denton's claim.

Denton's final administrative appeal was heard by the Civil Service Commission. In its decision the Commission stated that the announced educational requirements presented a "broad spectrum of academic achievement" necessary for the position, that the "requirements were developed in consultation with representatives of the State Division of Public Welfare and various Welfare Boards," and that the announcement made no

Page 389

provision for degree substitution. Furthermore, it noted that the record lacked sufficient documentation that Denton's law degree was equivalent to [461 A.2d 578] one of the master's degrees required for the position. Accordingly, the Commission denied her appeal.

The Gloucester County Welfare Board 2 appealed to the Appellate Division, which held that the Commission had acted unreasonably and concluded that "[a]n examination of the job specifications in this case plainly reveals that a law degree is sufficient to satisfy their intent and purpose." The Appellate Division noted that the diversity of subject areas covered by the acceptable degrees evidences a requirement not of specific knowledge but of formal education in an area relevant to the position. It ruled that the Commission erroneously determined that there was insufficient evidence to warrant a finding that Denton's law courses fulfilled the educational requirements.

We granted the Commission's petition for certification. 91 N.J. 570, 453 A.2d 881 (1982).


The function of administrative agencies and their place in the governmental scheme are well established. Agencies like the Department of Civil Service are properly categorized as part of the executive branch of government in that they "exercise executive power in administering legislative authority selectively delegated to them by statute." City of Hackensack v. Winner, 82 N.J. 1, 28, 410 A.2d 1146 (1980). The administrative process, however, involves aspects of all three branches of government. The process has been described as a "concentration of powers" comprised

Page 390

of "an admixture of law-making, law-enforcement and law-interpretation." J. Jacobs, "Administrative Agencies, Their Status and Powers," in II State of New Jersey Constitutional Convention of 1947 1431, 1436 (S. Goldmann & H. Crystal ed. 1951). Similarly, Dean Landis characterized administrative power as the "full ambit of authority necessary for [the administrative agency] ... to plan, to promote, and to police, [and] it presents an assemblage of rights normally exercisable by government as a whole." The Administrative Process 15 (1938). In the performance of its delegated responsibility an agency formulates policy and investigates and adjudicates controversies. In discharging its specialized tasks the agency must gather and analyze relevant data and material. As a result, the administrative agency acquires expertise in technical matters and a comprehensive knowledge of its particular field. L. Jaffe, Judicial Control of Administrative Action 25-26 (1965). It is not surprising therefore that the "vast majority of public administrative theorists have argued persuasively that although general political controls should guide administrative decision making, daily and routine administrative work is best handled by objective and professional administrators." K. Warren, Administrative Law in the American Political System 200 (1982).

Courts on the other hand "are constitutionally-founded, independent and impartial adjudicative tribunals constituted to hold and exercise the judicial power which emanates directly from the Constitution." City of Hackensack, 82 N.J. at 29, 410 A.2d 1146. Recognizing the executive function of administrative agencies, courts are aware that the judicial capacity to review administrative actions is limited.

In furtherance of this policy courts have enunciated several principles. The grant of authority to an administrative agency is to be liberally construed to enable the agency to accomplish the Legislature's goals. United Bldg. & Constr. Trades Council v. Mayor of Camden, 88 N.J. 317, 325, 443 A.2d 148 (1982). A strong presumption of reasonableness accompanies an administrative[461 A.2d 579] agency's exercise of statutorily-delegated responsibility. City of Newark

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v. Natural Resources Council, 82 N.J. 530, 539, 414 A.2d 1304, cert. denied, 449 U.S. 983, 101 S.Ct. 400, 66 L.Ed.2d 245 (1980). "[C]ourts are not free to substitute their judgment as to the wisdom of a particular administrative action for that of the agency so long as that action is statutorily authorized and not otherwise defective because arbitrary or unreasonable ...." New Jersey Guild of Hearing Aid Dispensers v. Long, 75 N.J. 544, 562-63, 384 A.2d 795 (1978). "[T]he generally accepted gauge of administrative factual finality is whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence." Freud v. Davis, 64 N.J.Super. 242, 246, 165 A.2d 850 (App.Div.1960). That issue has sometimes been stated: "Could a reasonable man, acting reasonably, have reached the decision sought to be reviewed, from the evidence found in the entire record, including the inferences to be drawn therefrom?" Id. Justice Pollock summarized the judicial review role as follows:

Courts have a limited role in reviewing a decision of an administrative agency. Ordinarily, an appellate court will reverse the decision of an administrative agency only if it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or it is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole. [Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80, 410 A.2d 686 (1980) ]


No one quarrels with the need for the stated educational qualifications, namely, a master's degree in social work, or social welfare, public administration or business administration from an accredited educational institution. The particular judicial question is whether the Civil Service Commission's refusal to broaden the educational qualifications for the position of Deputy Director of Welfare to permit a substitute for the listed educational requirements constituted arbitrary and capricious action. In considering that question the limited scope of judicial review must be borne in mind. Ordinarily a determination of the Civil Service Commission will not be upset unless "it was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, or that it lacked fair support in the evidence, or that it violated legislative policies expressed or implicit in the...

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