On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Docket No. L-3094-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Skillman and Fuentes.
In this suit between plaintiff, the Lenape Regional High School District Board of Education, and defendants, G.P. and M.P., on behalf of their disabled son, J.P., the Law Division found a valid and enforceable settlement between the parties concerning tuition payments for the educational needs of J.P. Defendants now appeal from that order.
We reverse. In order to properly review the merits of defendants' arguments, we must first briefly describe the procedural history that led to this appeal.
This controversy began on September 23, 2008, when defendants filed a petition with the New Jersey Office of Special Education Programs seeking a determination of the amount plaintiff would be required to pay for J.P.'s educational expenses during the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years. Plaintiff did not respond directly to this petition; instead, plaintiff moved to dismiss or stay the proceedings in lieu of filing an answer.*fn1
While the motion for a stay was pending in the administrative forum, plaintiff filed a verified complaint in the Law Division on October 7, 2008,*fn2 seeking a judicial determination as to the amount of tuition each party was obligated to pay for J.P.'s educational needs. On December 15, 2008, plaintiff requested an entry of default against defendants for their failure to file responsive pleadings, which the Deputy Clerk of the Superior Court filed on December 18, 2008. On December 19, 2008, the judge assigned to the case granted plaintiff's motion for an order to proceed summarily. Both of these orders were sent to defendants' counsel on January 5, 2009. The following day, plaintiff filed a notice of motion to enforce settlement, or in the alternative, for the entry of final judgment by default pursuant to Rule 4:43-2.
On that same day, defendants sought to remove this controversy to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. Three weeks later, the District Court denied defendants' removal motion and remanded the case to the Law Division. The parties thereafter entered into a consent order concerning counsel fees defendants owed to plaintiff as a consequence of their unsuccessful attempt to remove the case to federal court.
On February 18, 2009, plaintiff again moved before the Law Division for an order enforcing the alleged settlement between the parties, or as an alternative, for the entry of judgment by default. Defendants responded to the motion and the matter came before the trial court for argument on March 6, 2009. After considering the parties' respective positions, the motion judge found that the parties had reached a binding and enforceable settlement; he thus granted plaintiff's motion.
Against this procedural backdrop, we will now describe the salient facts underpinning this case.
J.P. is a child who has been classified as eligible for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 20 U.S.C.A. § 1400. He was first enrolled in the Lenape Regional High School District prior to the 2006-2007 school year. Although school officials originally recommended an in-district placement for J.P., his parents placed him in the New Hope Academy, located in Pennsylvania. Because plaintiff did not agree that this placement was necessary, J.P.'s parents filed a petition for a due process hearing before the Office of Special ...