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J.S. v. Lenape Regional High School District Board of Education

June 20, 2000

J.S., A MINOR CHILD BY HIS PARENTS, D.S. AND H.S., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
LENAPE REGIONAL HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge.

HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs seek reimbursement of attorney's fees and costs incurred in connection with their efforts to ensure that J.S., a learning disabled student, was placed in a special education class at Lenape High School instead of a similar class at Cherokee High School, another school within the same School District. After filing an administrative action in state court, plaintiffs eventually succeeded in obtaining their preferred placement for J.S. Plaintiffs now contend that this Court should order defendant, the Lenape Regional High School Board of Education ("the District"), to reimburse plaintiffs for their litigation costs pursuant to the attorneys' fees provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B) & (C).

Presently before the Court is defendant's motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56, Fed. R. Civ. P. The main issue for decision is whether school district's transfer of a learning-disabled student from one school to another within the same district, where that transfer does not effect a substantive change in the child's Individual Education Plan (IEP), constitutes a "change in educational placement". For reasons discussed herein, the Court finds that plaintiffs have failed to create a genuine dispute as to whether the intra-district transfer at issue in this case involved a "change in educational placement" for which attorney's fees are recoverable under the IDEA. Accordingly, the Court will deny plaintiffs' application for attorneys' fees, and will grant defendant's motion for summary judgment against plaintiffs' claims in this case.

BACKGROUND

J.S. is a sixteen-year old male student who has mental retardation and characteristics of Prader-Willi *fn1 and Angelman *fn2 syndromes. (Affidavit of Harriet Silverman at ¶ 2.) The Lenape District has classified J.S. as eligible to receive special education and related services pursuant to the IDEA. (Id. at ¶ 3.)

After J.S. had completed middle school and was ready to transition into high school, the Lenape District determined that Cherokee High School was the appropriate class setting for J.S. In March 1998, plaintiffs filed an Intra-District Transfer request to have J.S., then a 15-year old, placed into a self-contained special education class at Lenape High School for the 1998-99 school year rather than a class at Cherokee High School, defendant's proposed placement. (Id. at ¶ 4.) Plaintiffs made this request based on their judgment that the class at Lenape high school was more fluid and less academic than the class at Cherokee, had more students at J.S.'s relatively low functioning level, and that the Lenape class presented a better overall fit for J.S. (Social Service Evaluation at 1, Pl. Ex. J.) By letter dated June 8, 1998, defendant denied plaintiffs' request, maintaining that Cherokee High School was the appropriate placement for J.S. (Id. at ¶ 5.)

Plaintiffs disputed defendant's decision to place J.S. at Cherokee, and requested a special education "due process" hearing pursuant to N.J.A.C. 6A:14-2.7 to resolve the dispute. (Id. at ¶ 7.) The sole relief sought at this hearing was placement of J.S. at Lenape High School rather than Cherokee High School. The New Jersey Department of Education sent the dispute to the Office of Administrative Law for a hearing, which hearing was assigned to the Honorable Steven Reback, ALJ. During the course of this dispute, plaintiffs retained Jaclyn Hoffman, Ph.D., a psychologist, who opined that Lenape High School, rather than Cherokee High School, was the proper placement for J.S. because of the greater number students at Lenape with low functioning levels, like J.S.'s. (Id. at ¶¶ 12-14.) Defendant's experts Barbara Rell, Ed.D., and Lois Strauss, Ed.D., came to the opposite conclusion, finding that Cherokee's class, which was of a smaller size and was geographically closer to plaintiffs' home, was the proper placement for J.S. Accordingly, Rell and Strauss found that there was no compelling reason to switch J.S. to Lenape. (Id. at ¶ 15; Pl. Ex. H.) Having considered the parties' conflicting reports, the ALJ directed the parties to submit to an independent expert's assessment. They did so, and the independent expert concluded on December 8, 1998 that Lenape High was the best placement for J.S. (Id. at ¶ 17; Pl. Ex. J.) On December 30, 1998, defendant agreed to place J.S. at Lenape High School, and plaintiffs withdrew their administrative complaint. (Id. at ¶ 17; Pl. Ex. I.) After defendant refused plaintiff's demand for reimbursement of attorney's fees incurred in litigating their administrative complaint, plaintiffs filed the present lawsuit. (Pl. Ex. M.)

DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

The standard for granting summary judgment is a stringent one. A court may grant summary judgment only when the materials of record "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). In deciding whether there is a disputed issue of material fact the court must view the evidence in favor of the non-moving party by extending any reasonable favorable inference to that party. See Aman v. Cort Furniture Rental Corp., 85 F.3d 1074, 1080-81 (3d Cir. 1996); Kowalski v. L & F Prods., 82 F.3d 1283, 1288 (3d Cir. 1996); Meyer v. Riegel Prods. Corp., 720 F.2d 303, 307 n.2 (3d Cir. 1983), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1091 (1984).

B. Whether Plaintiffs' Challenge of J.S.'s Placement at Cherokee High School Effected a "Change in Educational Placement"

Plaintiffs' assert that their successful efforts to have J.S. placed at Lenape High School entitle them to reimbursement of attorneys' fees under relevant provisions of the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Under the IDEA, children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate education. Once a child has been "classified" as IDEA-eligible, the special education program and related services to be provided to the classified student are to be described in an Individual Education Plan (IEP) developed with input from the child's parents. Honig v. Coe. 484 U.S. 305 (1988). The services must be provided in the closest, least restrictive environment, see N.J.A.C. 6:28-1.1(b)(1), and must be "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits". See Hendrick Hudson Central Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206-7 (1982).

Under the IDEA, states are required to establish certain procedural safeguards for children with disabilities, including allowing parents who dispute changes to their child's IEP to obtain an impartial due process hearing. E.M. v. Millville Bd. of Educ., 849 F. Supp. 312, 314 (D.N.J. 1994) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1415). At this hearing, the parents are to be given the "opportunity to present complaints with respect to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child". 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6). Federal law authorizes the recovery of reasonable attorneys' fees and costs when the parent of a child with a disability is the "prevailing party" in litigation concerning challenges to identification, evaluation or placement issues. 20 U.S.C. § ...


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