On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. Civil Action No. 94-cv-04167)
Before: SCIRICA AND ROTH, Circuit Judges and O'NEILL *fn1, District Judge
Opinion Filed: March 26, 1997
This action was brought before the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("the IDEA" or "the Act"), 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1401 et seq. It raises an important question regarding the enforceability of settlement agreements made between parents and school boards with the intent of enforcing the IDEA. On appeal, the East Brunswick Board of Education ("the Board") challenges the district court's order granting summary judgment against it. The district court held the Board liable for the cost of providing personal aides for D.R., a disabled person, pursuant to the requirements of the IDEA. The Board claims that the district court erred when it set aside a binding settlement agreement voluntarily entered by the parties. The district court acknowledged that enforcement of the settlement agreement would have required it to reach an opposite conclusion.
We review the district court's decision granting summary judgment de novo, "applying the same standard as the district court." Pennsylvania Coal Ass'n v. Babbitt, 63 F.3d 231, 236 (3d Cir. 1995); see W.B. v. Matula, 67 F.3d 484, 493 (3d Cir. 1995) (applying plenary review standard to summary judgment order in context of IDEA dispute). In making this de novo review, we recognize that we must give "due weight" to the underlying state administrative proceedings. Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982). The Third Circuit has interpreted the Supreme Court's instruction in Rowley to require that a court "consider -- although not necessarily to accept -- the administrative fact findings." Carlisle Area School v. Scott P., 62 F.3d 520, 529 (3d Cir. 1995), cert. denied, --- U.S. ---, 116 S.Ct. 1419 (1996). In addition, we must "view the underlying facts and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Babbitt, 63 F.3d at 236.
The district court had subject matter jurisdiction over the appeal from a final decision by an administrative law judge ("ALJ") pursuant to 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1415(e)(1) & (2). We have jurisdiction to review the district court's final order granting summary judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section(s) 1291.
We conclude that the settlement agreement was improperly voided by the district court. On the facts of this particular case, the settlement agreement was voluntarily and willingly entered by the parties. It is therefore a binding contract between the parties and should have been enforced as written. Pursuant to the terms of the agreement, the parents of the child are responsible for all additional services not contemplated by the parties at the time of settlement. We will therefore reverse the opinion of the district court and grant summary judgment in favor of the Board. However, we emphasize that our holding is limited to the facts of this case and should not be read to extend beyond this case and this agreement.
D.R. is a multiply handicapped individual classified by the New Jersey Board of Education as in need of special education. He was diagnosed at age two with Athetoid Ataxic Cerebral Palsy and moderate retardation. D.R. is now twenty-one years old, but his adaptive behavior is estimated to be at the preschool level. The parties agree that D.R. has difficulty performing simple daily tasks by himself. He has difficulty walking, dressing, and toileting without assistance. In the classroom, he often regresses into a hypnotic rocking behavior and must be constantly monitored by an assistant in order to engage him in classroom activity.
At age 4, D.R. began attending day school at the Cerebral Palsy Center ("CPC") in New Jersey, where he remained until January of 1992. While at CPC, D.R. resided with his parents in East Brunswick, New Jersey. During the first semester of the 1991-92 school year, D.R.'s parents became convinced that he was not progressing at CPC and should be enrolled in a residential program. In December 1991, D.R.'s parents filed a petition with the New Jersey Department of Education requesting a due process hearing under the IDEA. The petition alleged that the CPC program was not appropriate for D.R. and that he would benefit from a transfer to the Benedictine School, an out-of-state residential school in Ridgely, Maryland.
The Board, however, disagreed that residential placement was necessary for D.R. His parents then in early January 1992 unilaterally placed him at the Benedictine School. The Benedictine School informed D.R.'s parents at that time that their son's acceptance in the program was on a "trial basis" that would last for five weeks. They were told that the proposed program might be modified depending on D.R.'s adaptation to his new circumstances. The Board now complains that it was never informed of the "trial" nature of D.R.'s acceptance at Benedictine nor that the program in which he was placed was subject to modification.
Before D.R.'s trial period was complete, his parents and the Board met at a mediation conference and entered a settlement ...