On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey District Court Judge: The Honorable Katherine S. Hayden (01-CV-3389)
Before: Sloviter, Fuentes, Circuit Judges,
and FULLAM,*fn1 District Judge
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes, Circuit Judge
Argued on October 31, 2002
The present appeal is the latest chapter in the longstanding feud between citizens, public interest groups, municipal officials, and state agencies over the provision of public education in the City of Newark. In an earlier chapter, the New Jersey Department of Education ("NJDOE") determined that the Newark Board of Education had failed to provide a thorough and efficient system of education and invoked its statutory powers*fn2 to establish the State-Operated School District of the City of Newark ("SOSD" or "Newark") in July 1995. See generally Gonzalez v. State-Operated School District of the City of Newark, 784 A.2d 101, 102 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2001).
Plaintiffs commenced this action on behalf of six minors attending public schools in Newark and on behalf of all others similarly situated (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), against the SOSD, NJDOE, and several state officials (collectively, "Defendants").*fn3 They alleged violations of (a) the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-87; (b) 42 U.S.C. § 1983, based on the claimed violations of the IDEA; and (c) the New Jersey Constitution and relevant state laws. After the District Court denied their motions to dismiss, Defendants appealed. The principal issue on appeal is whether the state of New Jersey waived its sovereign immunity from suit in federal court when it accepted funds disbursed pursuant to the IDEA. Insofar as the District Court held that the state had waived its sovereign immunity, we will affirm.*fn4
A. The Statutory Framework of the IDEA
The IDEA is a comprehensive scheme of federal legislation designed to meet the special educational needs of children with disabilities. See Dellmuth v. Muth, 491 U.S. 223, 225 (1989). The legislation was enacted in part based on Congress's findings that, prior to 1975,*fn5 "the special educational needs of children with disabilities were not being fully met," and that "more than one-half of the children with disabilities in the United States did not receive appropriate educational services that would enable such children to have full equality of opportunity." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(c)(2)(A) and (2)(B).
In light of its findings, Congress made federal funds available to assist states in providing educational services to children with disabilities. See 20 U.S.C. §§ 1411, 1412(a). Under the IDEA, assistance is available on the condition that states meet a number of substantive and procedural criteria. See 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)-(a)(22); W.B. v. Matula, 67 F.3d 484, 491 (3d Cir. 1995). The cornerstone of eligibility for federal funds under the IDEA is the substantive right of disabled children to a "free appropriate public education." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1); see Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 308-10 (1988); Beth V. v. Carroll, 87 F.3d 80, 82 (3d Cir. 1996). As we noted in Matula, a free appropriate education " 'consists of educational instruction specifically designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child, supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child "to benefit" from the instruction.' " 67 F.3d at 491 (citing Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 188-89 (1982)).
In addition to the condition of ensuring free, appropriate public education, the IDEA requires states to guarantee certain procedural rights in order to qualify for funding. Many of these procedural mechanisms have been implemented in the laws and regulations of New Jersey. See id. at 492 ("New Jersey fulfills its obligations [under the IDEA] through a complex statutory and regulatory scheme...."). Several of the procedural rights bear upon the Plaintiffs' allegations here.
First, a state must demonstrate that it has a system in place to identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities residing in the state. See 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(3);*fn6 see also Matula, 67 F.3d at 492; N.J.A.C. § 6A:14-3.1(a). This obligation is commonly referred to as the "child find" duty. Matula, 67 F.3d at 492. In New Jersey, if a parent requests an evaluation for his or her child, the request shall immediately be considered a referral to a Child Study Team ("CST") to determine if the child should be classified as disabled. See N.J.A.C. § 6A:14-3.3(d)(2).
Second, after identifying and evaluating children with disabilities, a state must develop and implement Individual Education Programs ("IEP") for all children classified as disabled. See 20 U.S.C. §§ 1412(a)(4), 1414(d); see also 34 C.F.R. § 300.128(a); N.J.A.C. § 6A:14-3.1(a); Matula, 67 F.3d at 492 ("The primary mechanism for delivering a free appropriate education is the development of a detailed instruction plan, known as an Individual Education Program...."). Each IEP must take the form of a written statement setting forth, among other things, the effect of a child's disability, measurable goals and benchmarks, the special educational services to be provided to the child, and the child's progress under the IEP. See 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A).
Both the IDEA and, in greater detail, the implementing laws of New Jersey delineate timetables for meeting various IDEA obligations. For instance, if a student is referred for an evaluation, the CST, including the child's teacher, must convene a meeting with the child's parents within 20 days. See N.J.A.C. § 6A:14-3.3(e). A decision based on the evaluation should be made within 15 days of the meeting. See N.J.A.C. § 6A:14-2.3(e) and (f). If a child is determined to be disabled, the CST must convene a meeting to develop an IEP within 30 days. See 34 C.F.R. § 300.343(b)(2). From start to finish, the laws of New Jersey require implementation of an IEP for a disabled child within 90 days of initial evaluation. See N.J.A.C. § 6A:14-3.4(c).
Third, the IDEA affords parents a number of other procedural safeguards. Parents have the right to (1) examine all records and participate in all meetings with respect to the identification, evaluation, and educational placement of their child, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(1); (2) receive written notice whenever a school proposes to change or refuses to change an identification, evaluation, or educational placement of their child, § 1415(b)(3); and (3) participate in mediation to resolve any disputes arising under the IDEA, § 1415(b)(5). See also Matula, 67 F.3d at 492.
Fourth, the IDEA requires states to provide "an opportunity to present complaints with respect to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6); see also Beth V., 87 F.3d at 82. The complaint procedure must also provide parents an impartial due process hearing to be conducted by the state or local educational agency in accordance with the state's laws. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f); see also Beth V., 67 F.3d at 82. Any party aggrieved by the findings and decision of the due process hearing has the right to appeal to either state court or federal court. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2); see also Beth V., 67 F.3d at 82.
As the text of the IDEA suggests, state agencies and local educational agencies, or school boards, share the responsibility for complying with the requirements of the Act. Naturally, when decisions concerning the educational services of an individual child are at issue, the duties will tend to shift from those removed from the situation to the local educational agencies with greater access and knowledge. New Jersey's statutory scheme for implementing the IDEA recognizes these shared duties. See N.J.A.C. § 6A:14-3.1(a) and (b) (school districts responsible for the development and review of IEPs, as well as the placement of children with disabilities). Nevertheless, as Plaintiffs allege, the participating state retains primary responsibility for ensuring compliance with the IDEA and for administering educational programs for disabled children. See 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(11)(A); Kruelle v. New Castle County School District, 642 F.2d 687, 696 (3d Cir. 1981).
Because the IDEA offers conditional federal funds for state educational programs with full recognition of the importance of state laws and local educational agencies, courts have described the Act as a model of "cooperative federalism." Beth V., 87 F.3d at 82 (citations omitted).
We turn to the specific factual allegations in the present case. At this point in the litigation, we accept all well-pleaded allegations in the Complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving parties. Board of Trustees of Teamsters Local 863 Pension Fund v. Foodtown, Inc., 296 F.3d 164, 168 (3d Cir. 2002). Plaintiffs are the parents of six minors who attended schools in Newark. Based on their experiences, the children may be grouped into two categories: (1) E.S., G.T., A.O., and M.M. are allegedly disabled children who, despite repeated requests by their parents, never received an evaluation to determine eligibility for special education services, or never benefitted from the implementation of IEPs; and (2) O.D.J. and A.J.E. were evaluated as disabled children and began receiving special education services, but only after years of neglect by local educational agencies and the state.
E.S. entered Newark's public schools in September 1997 as a kindergartner. For several years, E.S. either failed or marginally passed most classes, but nevertheless advanced to the next grade level each year. Sometime during the 1999-2000 school year, E.S.'s mother requested help. As instructed by the School Principal, E.S.'s mother asked for an evaluation. Despite three separate follow-up requests, no evaluation was ever scheduled for E.S. School officials told E.S.'s mother that Newark lacked the resources to evaluate every potentially disabled child and that it would be a "waste of time" to continue sending E.S. to school. Compl. at ¶ 108.
G.T.'s mother initially requested an evaluation in September 2000, as a result of G.T.'s poor academic performance. School officials never responded. In 2001, a private physician diagnosed G.T. with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder ("ADHD") and Myasthenia Gravis. Id. at ¶¶ 112-13. At the time, G.T. was in the third grade at a Newark public school. G.T.'s mother requested evaluations again on two separate occasions. Finally, school officials attempted to schedule an initial meeting to determine whether an evaluation was necessary, but postponed on numerous occasions. Despite G.T.'s diagnosed disabilities, ...