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S.C. EX REL. C.C. v. DEPTFORD TP. BD. OF EDUC.

August 7, 2002

S.C., A MINOR CHILD, BY HIS PARENTS, C.C. AND K.C., PLAINTIFFS,
V.
DEPTFORD TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION, DEFENDANT, DEPTFORD TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION, THIRD-PARTY AND COUNTERCLAIM PLAINTIFF, V. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY; DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, DIVISION OF DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANTS, S.C., A MINOR CHILD, BY HIS PARENTS, C.C. AND K.C., COUNTERCLAIM DEFENDANTS.



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

  OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

The Individuals with Disabilities Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1401-1487 (2000) ("IDEA"), is not a well-drafted law. Its goal of providing a free and meaningful education to every disabled child in America is undoubtedly a noble one. By all accounts it has done much to achieve that goal. Yet, as this case illustrates, after thirty years and much congressional tinkering, the text of the IDEA still leaves courts at a loss to answer many basic questions about how it is to be enforced, such as who may sue whom, for what, and in what court.

As a result, the merits of this case are obscured by a thicket of procedural questions. The thorniest of these is whether or not the IDEA provides a private right of action for the Defendant and Third-Party Plaintiff, a local school district in New Jersey, to sue two New Jersey state agencies for the costs the local school board incurred in providing a free and appropriate public education to the Plaintiff, a disabled child. Relatedly, I also must determine whether or not the local school district has standing to sue.

Only after clearing away that underbrush can I reach the significant question raised by the Third-Party Complaint, namely, whether or not New Jersey's system for funding special education for children with serious disabilities violates federal law. New Jersey, according to the Third-Party Defendants, imposes the full costs of educating a disabled child on the local school district where that child resides. The clear text of the IDEA, however, requires the States to ensure that state agencies who already provide certain special services necessary to a child's education, such as residential psychiatric care, will provide those services to needy disabled children at no cost to the children's parents or the local school districts.

II. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The Plaintiff, S.C., is an autistic child. According to the Complaint filed by S.C.'s parents, C.C. and K.C. ("the parents"), S.C.'s condition poses severe barriers to his ability to learn in an ordinary educational environment. See Compl. at ¶ 1. S.C. resides in Deptford Township, a New Jersey municipality. Because New Jersey has accepted funds from the federal government under IDEA, Deptford's Board of Education ("Deptford" or "the Board") is a "local educational agency" as defined in that Act. See 20 U.S.C. § 1401(15). That is, the Board is primarily responsible for assuring that S.C. will receive a free appropriate public education, or "FAPE." Id. § 1413.

In the period immediately preceding the dispute that produced this litigation, S.C. was attending a day program at the Bancroft School, a facility designed to educate students with special needs. Because S.C.'s maladaptive behaviors were increasing and he was regressing academically, S.C.'s parents requested that Deptford place S.C. in a residential program to teach S.C. to control his maladaptive behavior, to reverse S.C.'s academic regression, and to receive an appropriate education. Compl. at ¶¶ 7-9. Deptford denied this request. Id. at ¶ 10. In response, S.C. and his parents filed a petition for a due process hearing with the New Jersey Department of Education, pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i) and N.J. Admin. C. § 6A:14-2.7. Id. at ¶ 11.

A due process hearing was held in April and May of 2001 before the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law. Id. at §§ 11-12. On August 21, 2001, ALJ Joseph Fidler issued his final decision, in which he found that: (1) the school district had not met its burden of showing, by a preponderance of the credible evidence, that it had offered an appropriate Individual Education Plan ("IEP") to S.C.; (2) S.C. was not receiving a meaningful educational benefit at Bancroft as a day student; and (3) the credible evidence demonstrated that S.C. required a residential placement of the sort provided by the Lindens program at the Bancroft School. The ALJ ordered Deptford to prepare an appropriate IEP for S.C. in accordance with his findings. See C.C. AND K.C. ON BEHALF OF S.C. v. DEPTFORD TOWNSHIP BD. OF EDUC., OAL Dkt. No. Eds. 2069-01, 2001 WL 1023461, slip op. at 16 (Aug. 21, 2001). No party to the due process hearing questioned whether any state entity other than Deptford would pay for S.C.'s residential placement, and the ALJ did not address that issue.

After Deptford failed, in the parents' view, to implement the ALJ's Order, S.C. and his parents filed this Complaint on October 25, 2001, asking this Court to: (1) declare that Deptford's actions have denied and continue to deny S.C. a free appropriate public education; (2) order Deptford to implement Judge Fidler's decision; and (3) order Deptford to reimburse S.C. and his parents for attorney's fees and costs. Deptford filed a cross-motion for a stay of the ALJ's decision on November 28, 2001. On December 3, 2001, Deptford answered S.C.'s Complaint, and filed a counterclaim challenging the ALJ's findings.

Along with its Answer, Deptford also filed a Third-Party Complaint against the New Jersey Department of Education ("DOE") and the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Division of Developmental Disabilities ("DDD"). According to Deptford, DOE and DDD are obligated, under the IDEA, to pay at least for the residential portion of S.C.'s education in the Lindens program. Deptford also alleges in its Third-Party Complaint that the DOE and DDD have failed to enter into an "interagency agreement" to provide for DDD's provision of services to students who require them in order to receive a FAPE.

On March 14, 2002, the State Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss Deptford's Third-Party Complaint for failure to state a claim. In the course of resolving that Motion, I determined that this Court may lack subject matter jurisdiction to hear the Third-Party Complaint. Accordingly, on April 16, 2002, I sent a letter to the parties asking for supplemental briefing on the question of this Court's subject matter jurisdiction. I resolve both sets of issues in this Opinion.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Jurisdiction

1. Whether the IDEA Provides Deptford with a Private Right of Action to Assert its Third-Party Claims

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction; we may not hear actions without authorization from Congress. See U.S. Const. Art. III § 1. "The judicial task is to interpret the statute Congress has passed to determine whether it displays an intent to create not just a private right but also a private remedy." Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 286, 121 S.Ct. 1511, 149 L.Ed.2d 517 (2001). Although the Third-Party Complaint does not identify the source of this Court's jurisdiction, in response to my request for supplemental briefing, Deptford argued principally that it has a private right of action against the State Defendants pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2) (2000).*fn1

The difficulty with Deptford's argument is that, by its terms, the IDEA limits the scope of suits brought under it to those that are brought "with respect to the complaint presented" under ยง 1415. Id. The issue of the State Defendants' liability for S.C.'s placement, and the DOE's failure to promulgate an "interagency agreement," were not raised in "the complaint presented" to the ALJ. Accordingly, there is some question whether or not Congress' express grant of jurisdiction to parties aggrieved by the ALJ's findings can extend to Deptford's third-party claims. In addition, the State Defendants argue that, even if the IDEA would grant a right of action in general, Deptford ...


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