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Woodruff v. Hamilton Township Public Schools

December 20, 2007

THOMAS WOODRUFF AND, MICHELLE WOODRUFF, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF THEIR MINOR SON, B.W.,*FN1 PLAINTIFFS,
v.
HAMILTON TOWNSHIP PUBLIC SCHOOLS, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Noel L. Hillman, U.S.D.J.

OPINION

This matter has come before the Court on Plaintiffs' motion to amend their complaint, as well as their motion for reconsideration of the Court's June 26, 2007 Opinion. For the reasons expressed below, Plaintiffs' motion to amend will be continued for twenty days, and their motion for reconsideration will be denied.

BACKGROUND

This case concerns a child, who is diagnosed with Attention-Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and the issue of whether his school and teachers discriminated against him because of his disability. This case also has a somewhat complicated history. When the Woodruffs filed their discrimination complaint in August 2006, their son had been a seventh grade student at a middle school in the Hamilton Township School District during the preceding academic year. A few days after they filed their complaint, the Woodruffs filed a motion for emergency relief, asking that this Court order the school district to allow their son to enter eighth grade, as expulsion proceedings had been commenced against their son at the end of the previous school year. The Woodruffs withdrew their application, however, because they chose to enroll their son in private school. The individual defendants then filed a motion to dismiss the Woodruffs' claims against them. The school district did not move to dismiss the claims against it at that time.

On June 26, 2007, in deciding the individual defendants' motion to dismiss, the Court dismissed the Woodruffs' claims under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA, but allowed the Woodruffs' claim for hostile environment under the NJLAD to survive the motion. On July 9, 2007, the Woodruffs moved for reconsideration of the Court's decision. A few weeks later, on August 8, 2007, the Woodruffs also moved to amend their complaint to include a due process claim. A couple weeks after that, on August 20, 2007, the Woodruffs again moved for emergency relief, seeking an order from the Court directing that their son be permitted to enter Oakcrest High School, as he was a rising high school freshman and the Woodruffs wished to return their son to public school.

The Court held a hearing on the Woodruffs' emergency motion on August 21, 2007. At the hearing, several issues were raised. One issue was whether the defendant in this case--Hamilton Township School District--was the proper party to provide the Woodruffs with their requested relief, because the Woodruffs wished to have their son enrolled in Oakcrest High School, which is part of the Greater Egg Harbor School District, and not the Hamilton Township district. Another issue raised was whether the Woodruffs could proceed pro se in representing the claims of their son. This issue had been raised in the defendants' opposition to the Woodruffs' motion to amend their complaint, but it was also brought to the Court's attention prior to the hearing via letter from the Hamilton Township defendant.

At the hearing, the Court addressed the issue of whether the Woodruffs could represent their son's interests, because resolution of that issue impacted all outstanding motions and the viability of the Woodruffs' case. The Court determined that binding legal precedent in this Circuit required that their son be represented by an attorney, rather than by his parents. The Court then directed that if the Woodruffs wished to proceed with their case, they had to choose to either hire an attorney, or apply to the Court for pro bono representation for their son.

At a telephone conference on August 27, 2007, the Court was informed that the Woodruffs had obtained legal counsel for their son. In order to address the issue of who was the proper party to the Woodruffs' emergency request to have their son enrolled in Oakcrest High School, the Woodruffs' attorney filed a separate action and order to show cause against the Greater Egg Harbor School District. (See Civil Action No. 07-4135.)

The issue of the Woodruffs' son's enrollment at Oakcrest was decided in the separate action, and that case has since been closed. This action against Hamilton Township, and all of the motions filed previous to the Woodruffs' application for emergent relief, are still pending. Also still pending is the issue of whether the Woodruffs can appear pro se and represent their son on his discrimination claims, because the attorney hired by the Woodruffs was only retained for the case against Greater Egg.

Because the defendants raised the issue of the Woodruffs' standing to pursue their son's claims in their opposition to the Woodruffs' motion to amend their complaint, the Court will consider it in that context. The Court recognizes, however, that this issue is dispositive to all the other motions pending in this case, as well as to the viability of the case as a whole.

DISCUSSION

This Court, as with all other federal courts, is under an independent obligation to examine its own jurisdiction, and "standing is perhaps the most important of the jurisdictional doctrines." FW/PBS, Inc. v. City of Dallas, 493 U.S. 215, 230-31 (1990) (citation omitted) (stating that even if the parties fail to raise the issue of standing, it may be addressed by the court sua sponte at any stage of the proceedings).

In their original complaint, the Woodruffs asserted claims that Defendants violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by failing to provide their son with an individualized "504 Plan"; that certain Defendants, three of B.W.'s teachers, created a hostile environment for B.W., which the Court has construed as a claim under New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD); that the superintendent, principal, and vice-principal defendants retaliated against them "for bringing to light various issues with teachers centered around Brandon's 504 Plan and the failure of the school to act on those issues"; and that they have suffered emotional distress. In their motion for leave to file an amended complaint, the Woodruffs wish to add a due process claim.

Defendants argue that the Woodruffs do not have standing to assert their son's discrimination claims. The Woodruffs counter that pursuant to a recent United States Supreme Court case, ...


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