MARK N. ARTIS, Defendant–Appellant, v. NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Plaintiff–Respondent.
DOCKET NO. A–4305–11T2
-- October 25, 2013
Mark N. Artis, appellant pro se.John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Lisa A. Puglisi, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Christine H. Kim, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).
Mark N. Artis is civilly committed at the Special Treatment Unit (STU), pursuant to the New Jersey Sexually Violent Predators Act (SVPA), N.J.S.A. 30:4–27.24 to –38. Under the SVPA, an involuntary civil commitment can follow an offender's service of a sentence, or other criminal disposition, when he or she “suffers from a mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes the person likely to engage in acts of sexual violence if not confined in a secure facility for control, care[,] and treatment.” N.J.S.A. 30:4–27.26.
The STU consists of two buildings, which include a main facility and an annex. In September 2011, Artis appealed from the refusal by the Department of Corrections (D.O.C.) to permit residents from the two buildings to attend church services and religious study classes together. Because the D.O.C. has since addressed these concerns, and Artis now seeks to advance further concerns about a joint choir which were not made clear in his September 14, 2010, administrative remedy form, we affirm.
Following Artis' appeal, in November 2011, we remanded to the STU Administrator, who was directed to respond to Artis' administrative remedy form. Following its review, the D.O.C. issued a new policy in January 2012, which allowed residents of both units to attend religious services and religious study classes together, in the same building. This policy further provided that the STU have separate holiday functions for the main building and annex, and permitted the STU to have two choirs—an Annex Choir for residents housed in the annex, and a Main Choir for residents housed in the main facility.
Apparently not satisfied that his original concerns were completely addressed, Artis now argues that the residents should also be allowed to attend choir practice together. He contends that the requirement that there be two separate choirs violates his right to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. While not elaborated in the agency's decision, the D.O.C. responds that Artis has access to choir practice, and that the decision to implement a separate choir for each building is rationally related to the secure orderly running of the STU.
Our role in reviewing an agency decision is limited. In re Stallworth, 208 N.J. 182, 194 (2011) (citing Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579 (1980)). Our function is to determine whether the administrative action was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, or 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) (citations omitted). “ ‘Substantial evidence’ means ‘such evidence a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’ ” Figueroa v. 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)). “The burden of demonstrating that the agency's action was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable rests upon the [party] challenging the administrative action.” In re Arenas, 385 N.J.Super. 440, 443–44 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 188 N.J. 219 (2006).
In the present case, after being directed to respond to Artis' complaint that the residents of the two units were not allowed to worship or attend religious studies together, the D.O.C. considered these joint religious activities, and permitted them. Although the choir was mentioned in Artis' September 14, 2010, administrative remedy form, it is unclear on its face that a joint choir, or choir practice, was being sought, or the details thereof. Thus, we are unable to address, on this record, Artis' contention that joint choir practice should also be allowed.
Because we cannot conclude that the D.O.C. acted arbitrarily, we affirm its decision. However, our affirmance is without prejudice to Artis' right to file a new administrative remedy form, should he so choose, detailing what is being sought, and why joint choir practice is necessary. If filed, the D.O.C. can then respond so as to more fully articulate its security concerns and how, if at all, they may be addressed, in light of the fact that joint religious services are now permitted.