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J.N. v. Mt. Ephraim Board of Education

September 26, 2008

J.N., A MINOR, INDIVIDUALLY AND BY HIS PARENT AND LEGAL GUARDIAN, P.S., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
MT. EPHRAIM BOARD OF EDUCATION, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. L-3650-07.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted September 16, 2008

Before Judges Winkelstein and Gilroy.

Plaintiff J.N., a minor, individually and by his parent and legal guardian, P.S., appeals from the November 2, 2007 order of the Law Division, granting summary judgment to defendant Mt. Ephraim Board of Education. We affirm.

PRIOR PROCEEDINGS*fn1

Plaintiff, a sixteen-year-old student, is domiciled within the Mt. Ephraim School District. Because plaintiff suffers from multiple disabilities, he is eligible for special education and related services pursuant to the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 to § 1482. During the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 school years, plaintiff's special education program was implemented at the Bankbridge Elementary School. During the 2004-2005 school year, P.S. became frustrated with the manner in which the Bankbridge School's faculty and administration were implementing her son's individualized education program, including the failure to assign him a one-to-one classroom aide during the school day.

Following a denial of P.S.'s request for a placement change from the Bankbridge School to the Bancroft School in Haddonfield and defendant's continued refusal to assign a one-to-one classroom aide to her son, P.S. filed a due process petition with the New Jersey Office of Special Education on March 2, 2005, and the matter was referred to the Office of the Administrative Law (OAL) as a contested case. On March 14, 2005, a scheduling conference was conducted by the assigned Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), during which the parties discussed the defendant's offer to provide a one-to-one classroom aide to plaintiff. However, the issue was not resolved. On May 5, 2005, after engaging in further settlement discussions with the ALJ, the parties reached an agreement and entered into a consent order resolving the matter.

On May 13, 2005, plaintiff filed a complaint in the United States District Court, appealing in part a March 14, 2005 decision, pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2), and seeking attorney's fees and costs as the prevailing party, pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i). On March 26, 2007, the district court entered summary judgment in favor of plaintiff, determining that he was the prevailing party entitled to an award of attorney's fees.

PRESENT DISPUTE

On March 28, 2007, presumably to assist in his fee application in the district court, plaintiff's counsel served a letter upon defendant, pursuant to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA),*fn2 requesting to inspect defendant's "attorney fee records (whether electronic or paper) which make reference to P.S. and/or J.N., including, but not limited to: correspondence, bills, invoices, vouchers, etc." On March 29, 2007, defendant sent plaintiff's counsel its OPRA request form. On April 2, 2007, counsel served the completed form on defendant, but defendant's offices were closed for spring break from the afternoon of Thursday April 5 through Friday, April 13, 2007.

On April 16, 2007, the first business day after spring break, Melissa Raywood, defendant's Business Administrator, advised plaintiff's counsel that the requested documents would be available for pick-up on April 18, 2007. However, the documents only included records from March 2005 through April 2006. The marshaled documents did not include records for the period from May 2006 through March 2007. On May 8, 2007, Raywood received a telephone call from plaintiff's counsel notifying her of the missing records. Raywood informed counsel that she would be out of the office after that day until the afternoon of May 11, 2007, and that she would have her secretary search for the missing records in her absence. On returning to her office on May 11, 2007, Raywood listened to a voicemail from plaintiff's counsel recorded May 9, 2007, advising that if Raywood did not contact him about the missing records by the end of that business day, he would file an enforcement action with the court.

On May 11, 2007, plaintiff's counsel filed an application for an OTSC with the district court, seeking to compel production of the missing documents, and for attorney's fees and costs, citing OPRA. On May 18, 2007, defendant mailed to plaintiff's counsel copies of legal bills for the months of June, August, October, and December 2006, and March 2007. On May 28, 2007, plaintiff's counsel received supporting vouchers for the months of June 2006 through March 2007.

On June 11, 2007, the district court heard oral argument on plaintiff's application. The court reserved decision and requested the parties to submit supplemental briefs on the issue of the court's jurisdiction to entertain the OPRA application. Defendant argued that the district court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate the OPRA request, asserting that the New Jersey Superior ...


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