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J.M. v. East Greenwich Township Board of Education

March 25, 2008

J.M. AND M.M., ON BEHALF OF A.M., AND J.M. AND M.M., INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
EAST GREENWICH TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

OPINION

This matter has come before the Court on defendants' motion to dismiss certain claims in plaintiffs' complaint. For the reasons expressed below, defendants' motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs, J.M. and M.M., are parents to their son, A.M., who at the time of the filing of their complaint was seven years old and a student in the East Greenwich School District. When A.M. was born, he was diagnosed with Noonan Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder. A.M. takes medication for a heart condition and he suffers from bilateral severe sensorineural hearing loss. Plaintiffs state in their complaint that it is "paramount" to them that A.M. is not limited, and they desire that A.M. not be taken out or precluded from a mainstream educational environment.

This lawsuit concerns an Individualized Educational Plan ("IEP") which was developed for A.M. for the 2006-2007 school year. Plaintiffs claim that defendants violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., by implementing A.M.'s IEP without a proper IEP meeting, and by not considering the parents' wishes for their son. Plaintiffs claim that the Child Study Team Supervisor, Mary Heade, improperly and unilaterally determined prior to the IEP meeting that A.M. was to be placed either in a self-contained classroom or beginner's kindergarten, without even considering A.M.'s placement in developmental kindergarten, a class in which A.M. was currently enrolled during the afternoon. Plaintiffs contend that Heade refused to even discuss the option of developmental kindergarten, even though M.M. had raised the issue numerous times.

It appears from the complaint that because plaintiffs objected to the IEP developed for their son, they filed a due process complaint pursuant to the procedures in the IDEA. It also appears that A.M. did not resume attendance at the Greenwich Township schools, but was instead home schooled. While being home schooled, plaintiffs requested additional services, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy from the school district, but plaintiffs claim that these requests were denied.

Based on the foregoing, plaintiffs claim that defendants violated the IDEA (Count I), the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") (Count II), Rehabilitation Act (Count IV), and New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD") (Count V). Plaintiffs have brought these claims for direct violations of those laws, as well as pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count III). Plaintiffs also claim that defendants created a hostile educational environment (Count VI), breached the duty of good faith and fair dealing (Count VII), participated in a civil conspiracy (Count VIII), and committed the torts of intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count IX) and fraud (Count X).

Defendants have moved to dismiss all of plaintiffs' claims except for their IDEA claim. Defendants argue that this case is simply about the dispute over the IEP developed for A.M., and all the other claims either have no basis in law or plaintiffs have failed to state any basis for relief. Furthermore, defendants argue that because this case is essentially an appeal of an Administrative Law Judge's ruling on plaintiffs' due process petition brought pursuant to the IDEA's appeal procedures, this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiffs' other claims. Plaintiffs have opposed defendants' motion.

DISCUSSION

A. Jurisdiction

Plaintiffs have alleged this Court's jurisdiction over their claims based on federal law pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiffs' state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Defendants have challenged the jurisdictional basis for plaintiffs' claims other then their IDEA claim.

B. Standard for Motion to Dismiss

When considering a motion to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), a court must accept all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 351 (3d Cir. 2005). It is well settled that a pleading is sufficient if it contains "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). Under the liberal federal pleading rules, it is not necessary to plead evidence, and it is not necessary to plead all the facts that serve as a basis for the claim. Bogosian v. Gulf Oil Corp., 562 F.2d 434, 446 (3d Cir. 1977). However, "[a]lthough the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not require a claimant to set forth an intricately detailed description of the asserted basis for relief, they do require that the pleadings give defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Baldwin County Welcome Ctr. v. Brown, 466 U.S. 147, 149-50 n.3 (1984) (quotation and citation omitted).

A district court, in weighing a motion to dismiss, asks "'not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claim.'" Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1969 n.8 (2007) (quoting Scheuer v. Rhoades, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)). A court need not credit either "bald assertions" or "legal conclusions" in a complaint when deciding a motion to dismiss. In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1429-30 (3d Cir. 1997). The defendant bears the burden of showing that no claim has been presented. Hedges v. U.S., 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991)).

Finally, a court in reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion must only consider the facts alleged in the pleadings, the documents attached thereto as exhibits, and matters of judicial notice.

Southern Cross Overseas Agencies, Inc. v. Kwong Shipping Group Ltd., 181 F.3d 410, 426 (3d Cir. 1999). A court may consider, however, "an undisputedly authentic document that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff's claims are based on the document." Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). If any other matters outside the pleadings are presented to the court, and the court does not exclude those matters, a Rule 12(b)(6) motion will be treated as a summary judgment motion pursuant to Rule 56. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b).

C. Analysis

Plaintiffs have advanced claims that can be separated into two categories: 1) the appeal of the ALJ's decision on their due process complaint concerning the IEP developed for A.M. for the 2006-2007 school year; and 2) all other claims arising from the events concerning and arising out of the development of the IEP. Defendants claim that the second category of plaintiffs' claims fall outside the scope of the primary issue, which is whether A.M. has received a free appropriate public education (FAPE). They also argue that those claims, if considered, constitute an impermissible end-run around the limited damages afforded by the IDEA.

Under the IDEA, any aggrieved party may "present a complaint . . . 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). The party may elect to have the complaint investigated by the state educational agency, see 34 C.F.R. § 300.661, or avail itself of an "impartial due process hearing," 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f). Any party aggrieved by the outcome of the due process hearing "shall have the right to bring a civil action with respect to the complaint presented . . . in a district court of the United States, without regard to the amount in controversy." Id. § 1415(i)(2)(A). This action must be initiated within 90 days from the date of the hearing officer's decision. Id. § 1415(i)(2)(B). The district court is authorized to grant "such relief as the court determines is appropriate," including attorneys' fees, reimbursement for a private educational placement, and compensatory education. See id. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i).

In reviewing an administrative law judge's decision, a district court must employ a modified version of de novo review. S.H. v. State-Operated Sch. Dist. of the City of Newark, 336 F.3d 260, 269-70 (3d Cir. 2003). Under this standard, the court "must make its own findings by a preponderance of the evidence," but "must also afford due weight to the ALJ's determination." Shore Regional High Sch. Bd. of Educ. v. P.S., 381 F.3d 194, 199 (3d Cir. 2004). The Third Circuit has explained that due weight means that the "factual findings from the administrative proceedings are to be considered prima facie correct," so that "if a reviewing court fails to adhere to them, it is obliged to explain why." S.H., 336 F.3d at 271.

A district court is not confined to hearing only those issues ruled upon by the ALJ, however. See Rancocas Valley Reg'l High School, 380 F. Supp. 2d 490, 493 (D.N.J. 2005) (noting that "the language creating subject matter jurisdiction is both explicit and broad"). Even though failure to raise an issue at the administrative level will result in a waiver of the issue in a civil action before a federal district court, "IDEA plaintiffs may raise claims not presented in the state due process hearing if it would have been impossible or futile for them to have done so." S.C. v. Deptford Twp. Bd. of Educ., 213 F. Supp. 2d 452, 456-57 (D.N.J. 2002). Examples of when it would be impossible or futile to bring a claim before the ALJ include, [1] where the question presented is purely a legal question (Lester H. by Octavia P. v. Gilhool, 916 F.2d 865, 869-70 (3d Cir. 1990)), [2] where the administrative agency cannot grant relief (Komninos by Komninos v. Upper Saddle River Bd.of Educ., 13 F.3d 775 (3d Cir. 1994)), [3] where 'an agency has adopted a policy or pursued a practice of general applicability that is contrary to the law,'" (Association for Community Living in Colorado v. Romer, 992 F.2d 1040, 1044 (10th Cir. 1993) (quoting H.R. Rep. No. 296, 99th Cong., 1st Sess. 7 (1985))[and] . . . [4] "where plaintiffs allege structural or systemic failure and seek system wide reforms[,]" Romer, 992 F.2d at 1044; see also Beth V. by Yvonne V. v. Carroll, 87 F.3d 80, 89 (3d Cir. 1996).

Grieco v. New Jersey Dept. of Educ., 2007 WL 1876498, *6 (D.N.J. June 27, 2007).

Thus, to determine whether plaintiffs' non-IDEA claims can survive defendants' motion for failure to state a claim, it must also be determined whether they should have been, and could have been, brought ...


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