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Bouie v. New Jersey Department of Community Affairs

407 N.J. Super. 518, 972 A.2d 401 (App. Div. 2009)

LANDLORD-TENANT; SECTION 8 — Even if a Section 8 residential tenant has already lost possession of his or her apartment, that tenant still has the right to contest the eviction because its effect might disqualify him or her from future Section 8 benefits.

A tenant received rent payment assistance under the Section 8 program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA). The tenant received a notice from DCA advising that her Section 8 assistance would be terminated because she had not made specified repairs to her apartment. The tenant requested a hearing. Two days before the hearing, the tenant received an amended notice listing additional alleged violations. Based on certain documents and hearsay statements regarding the condition of the tenant’s apartment, a DCA hearing officer found that the tenant had failed to comply with Section 8 requirements and terminated the Section 8 benefits. The Chief of the Bureau of Housing Services at DCA rejected an appeal filed on the tenant’s behalf. In doing so, the Chief rejected the argument that the officer’s decision violated the tenant’s due process rights, as well as federal and state regulations regarding Section 8 public housing assistance because the termination notices did not provide a clear and factual statement as to reason for termination of the Section 8 assistance.

The tenant appealed and the Appellate Division reversed, noting that in Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970), the United States Supreme Court held that a state’s termination of welfare benefits without first giving an opportunity for an evidentiary hearing violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In that case, the Supreme Court found that for a pre-termination hearing to satisfy Due Process requirements, the person whose benefits were being terminated must be given timely and adequate notice detailing the reasons for a proposed termination and must also be given an opportunity to defend himself of herself by confronting adverse witnesses and presenting his or her arguments and evidence orally. The Appellate Division stressed that HUD regulations recognize that Section 8 assistance is a public assistance benefit that cannot be terminated without a pre-termination hearing meeting the Goldberg standards. These particular DCA hearings violated the tenant’s Due Process rights because DCA did not give the tenant adequate notice detailing the proposed reasons for termination of her benefits. The DCA’s initial notice to the tenant merely stated that the tenant had violated Section 8 provisions by failing to correct a breach of Section 8 regulations regarding the maintenance of her apartment but did not list the specific items that needed to be, but were not, corrected. Further, the DCA’s amended notice, which was served on the tenant two days before the hearing, was not “timely.” This second notice provided new reasons for termination, but contrary to the Goldberg standards, the tenant was not given the required seven days’ notice of these new reasons for the termination of her Section 8 benefits. Therefore, the Court concluded that the DCA had not given adequate and timely notice, and had deprived her of the opportunity to defend the charges. The Court also found that because the DCA’s decision to terminate the tenant’s Section 8 benefits involved the loss of a property interest, it constituted a “contested case” which required the tenant’s new hearing to be conducted before an Administrative Law Judge and not a DCA hearing officer.

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