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John T. v. Delaware County Intermediate Unit

January 30, 2003

JOHN T., A MINOR BY HIS PARENTS AND NEXT FRIENDS, PAUL T. AND JOAN T.; PAUL T.; JOAN T., INDIVIDUALLY, AND ON THEIR OWN BEHALF, ALL OF
v.
THE DELAWARE COUNTY INTERMEDIATE UNIT, DEFENDANT/THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION; THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT DELAWARE COUNTY INTERMEDIATE UNIT, APPELLANT NO. 01-3575
JOHN T., A MINOR BY HIS PARENTS AND NEXT FRIENDS, PAUL T. AND JOAN T.; PAUL T.; JOAN T., INDIVIDUALLY, AND ON THEIR OWN BEHALF, ALL OF
v.
THE DELAWARE COUNTY INTERMEDIATE UNIT, DEFENDANT/THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION; THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT JOHN T., PAUL T. AND JOAN T. APPELLANTS NO. 01-4206



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 98-cv-05781) District Judge: Honorable Norma L. Shapiro

Before: Roth, RENDELL*fn1 and Rosenn, Circuit Judges

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Roth, Circuit Judge

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued on June 13, 2002

OPINION OF THE COURT

We review two Orders entered by the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in connection with a claim brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. SS 1400 et seq. (2002) (IDEA). For the reasons set forth below, we will affirm both Orders.

First, the Delaware County Intermediate Unit (DCIU), the defendant before the District Court, asks us to reverse a Contempt Order requiring it to pay plaintiffs John T. and his parents Paul T. and Joan T. (hereinafter "John T.") $1,100 in compensation for the costs of its failure to comply with a Preliminary Injunction. The DCIU raises various objections regarding the nature of the contempt proceeding, the requirements of the Preliminary Injunction and the process to which the DCIU was entitled. We conclude that none of these objections has merit.

Second, in a separate appeal, John T. asks us to reverse an Order that denied him attorney's fees. Before reaching settlement and voluntarily dismissing his claim, John T. had obtained preliminary injunctive relief and a civil contempt order to enforce that relief. We must determine whether John T. then qualifies as a "prevailing party" under the IDEA fee-shifting provision. We hold that he does not.

I. Facts and Procedural History

John T. is a twelve year old mentally retarded child with Downs Syndrome. He lives with his family in the Haverford Township School District in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. From September 1993 until June 2000, John T. attended the St. Denis Elementary School, a non-profit, private school in Delaware County. Although John T.'s parents paid his St. Denis tuition, John T. received some publicly-funded special education programs and related services at St. Denis from the DCIU.

The DCIU is charged by Pennsylvania law with the provision of special education services to children with disabilities attending private schools within Delaware County. See 24 P.S. SS 9-972.1 & 13-1372(4) (2002) (charging the Intermediate Units with the provision of proper education, training and "auxiliary services" for exceptional children not enrolled in public schools) (collectively, the Pennsylvania Statutes).

During the summer of 1998, a dispute arose regarding the programs and services that DCIU was obligated to provide John T. for the 1998-99 school year. While the DCIU was willing to provide services to John T. at a public school, it refused to continue providing them at St. Denis. John T. and the DCIU were unable to resolve their dispute before the school year began. During the early months of that school year, the DCIU provided no programs or services to John T. and refused to provide the state due process hearing procedures outlined in the IDEA. During that time, John T.'s parents provided necessary programs and services to John T. at their own expense.

On November 2, 1998, John T. filed a Complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Proceeding under the IDEA, John T. sought inter alia (1) compensation for the cost of providing programs and services during the first months of the 1998-99 school year, (2) provision of needed programs and services for John T. at St. Denis during the remainder of the year, and (3) a due process hearing and other procedural safeguards provided by the IDEA.

After hearing testimony and argument, the District Court issued a Preliminary Injunction and Memorandum Opinion on May 8, 2000. See John T. v. Delaware County Intermediate Unit, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6169 (E.D. Pa. May 8, 2000) (John T. I). The Preliminary Injunction ordered DCIU to "provide John T. with speech therapy, occupational therapy, a teacher's aide,*fn2 and an itinerant teacher,*fn3 for secular subjects only, at levels reasonably calculated to afford meaningful educational progress in his current school program at St. Denis." Id. at *31 (emphasis added).*fn4

The District Court explained that the crux of the issue between the parties was not the extent of the services that the DCIU was obligated to provide to John T., but whether the DCIU was obligated to provide services to John T. at St. Denis. See id. at *7. The court also set forth several findings of fact that supported its decision to keep John T. at St. Denis. Specifically, the court noted that previous attempts to move John T. to a public school had failed and that John T. benefitted from attending school at St. Denis because his two non-disabled siblings were students there. Ultimately, the District Court concluded that John T. "can only be educated effectively at St. Denis; he cannot receive an appropriate education at [the public elementary school]." Id. at *5.

On May 25, 2000, the DCIU appealed the Preliminary Injunction and filed a motion to stay the injunction with the District Court. The parties apparently agree that the DCIU took no action to comply with the Preliminary Injunction between May 8 and June 19, 2000. On June 19, the District Court entered a second Order denying the DCIU's motion to stay and compelling the DCIU to"comply with the preliminary injunction of May 8, 2000 FORTHWITH under penalty of sanctions for contempt of court." The DCIU withdrew its appeal of the Preliminary Injunction on November 27, 2000.

Over the remainder of the summer and the beginning months of the 2000-01 school year, the DCIU met with John T. and his parents and worked to develop an appropriate Individualized Education Program (IEP). During this process, the DCIU concluded that John T. needed a "life skills class" for 50% of his school day and that such a class could not be provided at St. Denis. For that reason, the DCIU issued a Notice of Recommended Assignment (NORA), proposing to move John T. to a public school within the Haverford Township School District.

John T.'s parents refused to approve the NORA. They argued that the NORA and IEP conflicted with the Preliminary Injunction's mandate that necessary programs and services be provided at St. Denis. On October 23, 2000, the DCIU filed a motion with the District Court to either vacate or modify the Preliminary Injunction in order to allow the DCIU to provide necessary programs and services at a public school.

The parties dispute the extent to which the DCIU provided -- or even could have provided -- an itinerant teacher and a teacher's aide for John T. at St. Denis during September 2000. John T. argues that no such services were provided to him by the DCIU during that month and that his parents located teacher's aides at their own expense. The DCIU contends that it did provide some itinerant teacher services during September 2000 but that it had difficulty locating teacher's aides during that month because of a shortage of job applicants.

Dissatisfied with the proposed IEP and NORA, John T. sought and obtained a state administrative due process hearing. Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer Linda Stengle presided over the hearing, which continued off and on from November 6, 2000, until January 4, 2001. On January 19, 2001, Hearing Officer Stengle released an order reaffirming the importance of John T.'s continued attendance at St. Denis and ordering the DCIU to modify John T.'s IEP accordingly. The DCIU appealed Hearing Officer Stengle's order to the Pennsylvania Special Education Due Process Appeals Review Panel, which reversed Hearing Officer Stengle's order on March 15, 2001.

Before the Review Panel had ruled, however, the District Court ordered the DCIU to Show Cause why it should not be held in contempt for failing to comply with the Preliminary Injunction. On September 4, 2001, after conducting a hearing, the District Court entered an order finding the DCIU in civil contempt of the Preliminary Injunction for failing to provide an itinerant teacher or teacher's aide during the month of September 2000. The Contempt Order required the DCIU to pay John T. $1,100 to compensate him for providing services during September 2000 at his own expense. On September 18, 2001, the

DCIU appealed the Contempt Order.

Before the 2001-02 school year commenced, John T. and the DCIU were able to develop a mutually agreeable IEP pursuant to which John T. matriculated at a public school in the Haverford Township School District. Having thereby achieved the primary objective of his litigation before the District Court, i.e., obtaining a satisfactory IEP, John T. moved for voluntary dismissal of his Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a). John T. also moved for attorney's fees of $136,172.79, arguing that he was a "prevailing party" under the fee-shifting provision of the IDEA. See 20 U.S.C. S 1415(i)(3)(B).

By Memorandum and Order dated November 7, 2001, the District Court granted John T.'s motion for voluntary dismissal but denied his request for attorney's fees. See John T. v. Delaware County Intermediate Unit, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18254 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 7, 2001) (John T. II). John T. timely appealed the District Court's refusal to award attorney's fees.

II. Jurisdiction and Standards of Review

The District Court had jurisdiction over the instant case pursuant to 20 U.S.C. S 1415(i)(3)(A) (conferring jurisdiction over IDEA actions specifically) and 28 U.S.C. S 1331 (federal question jurisdiction). We have jurisdiction over this appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. S 1291.

"The imposition of contempt is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard and will only be disturbed if there is an error of law or a clearly erroneous finding of fact. [citation omitted] We determine on a plenary basis whether the district court committed an error of ...


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