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C.T. v. Verona Board of Education

December 7, 2006

C.T., ON BEHALF OF HER SON AND WARD, M.T., PLAINTIFF,
v.
VERONA BOARD OF EDUCATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Martini, U.S.D.J.

OPINION

This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c) concerning Plaintiff's appeal of Administration Law Judge ("ALJ") Clancy's final decision of August 23, 2006 under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C.A. § 1400 et seq . The motions have been briefed and oral argument was held on October 26, 2006. For the reasons explained below, the Court will GRANT summary judgment in favor of Plaintiff and REVERSE the ALJ's opinion.

BACKGROUND

M.T. is a mentally and physically handicapped young man currently attending the Mollie Woods Program and Gardner Education Center at Woods Services in Pennsylvania. He turned 21 on August 2, 2006. Plaintiff C.T. is his mother and legal guardian. On March 15, 2006, Plaintiff filed a petition for due process with the N.J. Dept. of Education demanding that Defendant continue to fund the costs of M.T.'s residential placement at Woods Services through June 30, 2007. At that time, he was enrolled at Woods Services for the 2005-2006 school term with an extended school year program ("ESY") ending August 21, 2006 and he was not given funding by Defendant to continue his placement for the 2006-2007 school year.

After failed mediation in April 2006, the petition was referred to the N.J. Office of Administrative Law, and on May 18, 2006, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment against Defendant with that office. On August 23, 2006, ALJ Thomas E. Clancy disposed of the matter by a Final Summary Decision ("ALJ Decision") concluding that Plaintiff was ineligible for special education funding from Defendant beyond August 21, 2006. His decision focused on the fact that petitioner was enrolled in a program where his ESY offered educational services beyond the traditional school term, that M.T. turned age 21 during the 2005-2006 ESY, and an interpretation that the relevant law does not require educational funding beyond the end of any school year during which a recipient turns 21. Therefore, the ALJ held that M.T. was entitled to no further special educational funding by Defendant beyond the August 21, 2006 end of his ESY. (ALJ Decision at 6.)

On August 31, 2006, Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court pursuant to the IDEA, and New Jersey Special Education Regulations, N.J.A.C. 6A:14-1.1 et seq. , appealing the ALJ's decision. On September 12, 2006, Plaintiff amended the Complaint and filed for temporary injunctive relief by Order to Show Cause. The matter was fully briefed.

The Court heard oral arguments on October 26, 2006 during which both parties agreed that this matter should be considered by the Court now on cross-motions for summary judgment and a briefing schedule was set for any additional submissions in support of summary judgment. Plaintiff submitted her supplemental brief on November 17, 2006 and Defendant responded on November 27, 2006.

DISCUSSION

I. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. Rule 56(e) requires that when a motion for summary judgment is made, the nonmoving party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See id .; see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). The mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment. Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under governing law will preclude the entry of summary judgment. See Anderson , 477 U.S. at 247-48. If the evidence is such that a reasonable fact-finder could find in favor of the nonmoving party, summary judgment should not be granted. See id. ; see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

When reviewing an ALJ decision in an IDEA case, the district court applies a de novo standard to questions of law. P.N. v. Greco , 282 F.Supp.2d 221, 235 (D.N.J. 2003); L.E. v. Ramsey Bd. of Educ. , 435 F.3d 384, 389 (3d Cir. 2006). Findings of fact are considered by the district court under a modified de novo standard of review. See, e.g., Ramsey , 435 F.3d at 389. Because the facts before the ALJ here were not in dispute, his decision was based entirely on interpretation of relevant law. (ALJ Decision at 2.) Therefore this Court's review of the ALJ's decision is plenary.

II. Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment Is GRANTED

A. The IDEA Applies to Students Through the End of the School Year During Which They Reach Age 21

"The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") is the vehicle created by Congress to ensure states follow a mandate to provide a 'free and appropriate education' . . . to all disabled children.'" P.D. v. Franklin Twp. Bd. of Educ., No. Civ. 05-2363(SRC), 2006 WL 753152 at *1 (D.N.J. Mar. 23, 2006) (citing 20 U.S.C.A. ยง 1412). New Jersey ...


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