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Adam Gutin v. Washington Township Board of Education


February 24, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Gloucester County, Docket No. L-1124-08.

Per curiam.


Submitted December 13, 2010 - Decided Before Judges Sabatino and Alvarez.

Plaintiff Adam Gutin appeals the Law Division's dismissal of his complaint against the Board of Education of Washington Township in Gloucester County ("the School Board"). The complaint was mainly dismissed because of plaintiff's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

This appeal stems from the School Board's expulsion of plaintiff from the Washington Township High School ("the high school") in 2000, after he had twice tested positive for illegal drug use. Although the protracted history of the dispute is complicated, we recite the key events and proceedings to the extent they are pertinent to our analysis.

During the 1999-2000 academic year, plaintiff, then fifteen years old, was enrolled as a freshman at the high school. By that point, plaintiff had been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder ("ADD").

On December 21, 1999, plaintiff was suspected of being under the influence of drugs while at school. A urinalysis revealed the presence of marijuana in plaintiff's system. As a result, plaintiff was suspended from school for a total of ten days: five days of external suspension, followed by five days of internal suspension. As a further consequence, plaintiff was thereafter subjected to random drug screens. During such a random drug screening on February 22, 2000, plaintiff again tested positive for marijuana.

After plaintiff's second positive drug screening, the high school's Child Study Team ("CST") conducted a hearing on March 3, 2000 to determine whether plaintiff's drug use was a manifestation of a disability, i.e., his ADD. The CST determined that his conduct was not a manifestation of his ADD and that plaintiff was therefore subject to the school's general disciplinary procedures and consequences. Neither plaintiff nor his parents challenged the CST's decision.

Following a School Board hearing in April 2000 concerning plaintiff's drug use, he was expelled from the high school, effective August 2000. The School Board agreed to provide homebound instruction for plaintiff until his 16th birthday in August 2000, at which time it would cease to provide him with educational services. Plaintiff apparently received that homebound instruction, and thereafter he obtained his GED degree.

Plaintiff and his parents attempted to challenge his expulsion in administrative proceedings. On June 19, 2000, they petitioned for an emergent relief hearing with the State Department of Education ("the Department"). The Department referred the request to the Office of Administrative Law ("OAL"), where Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Jeff S. Masin denied plaintiff's petition for emergent relief.

The following month, ALJ Masin conducted a three-day plenary hearing, after which, on September 19, 2000, he upheld the Board's decision to expel plaintiff. Plaintiff filed timely exceptions to the ALJ's decision with the Commissioner of Education. On November 6, 2000, the Commissioner vacated the expulsion and directed the School Board to conduct a new hearing to determine whether expulsion was appropriate and whether there were available alternatives.

The second hearing in the school district was held on December 6, 2000. On December 13, 2000, the School Board reaffirmed its prior determination that expulsion was indeed the appropriate remedy. Plaintiff again contested the School Board's decision and filed an application for emergent relief, which was denied by ALJ Bruce R. Campbell on February 7, 2001. On February 15, 2001, the Commissioner affirmed ALJ Campbell's decision to deny plaintiff's application for emergent relief.

After another plenary hearing in the OAL, on June 13, 2001, ALJ Campbell upheld the School Board's renewed decision to expel plaintiff. Among other things, ALJ Campbell found credible the school administrators' testimony that their decision was "based on [plaintiff]'s apparent failure to enroll in an intensive drug program as recommended by professional drug counselors after the first positive [drug] test and the apparent absence of any desire on the part of [plaintiff] and his family to work aggressively to combat [his] drug abuse."

Plaintiff appealed to the Commissioner, who affirmed ALJ Campbell's ruling on August 6, 2001. In his decision, the Commissioner agreed with the ALJ that plaintiff had not sustained his burden of proving that his expulsion was arbitrary, capricious or otherwise contrary to law. Despite his uneasiness with respect to the School Board's initial expulsion decision, the Commissioner was ultimately satisfied that the School Board's renewed decision reflected that it had ordered plaintiff's expulsion only as a "last ditch expedient." The Commissioner was persuaded that "less draconian courses of action," short of expulsion, were duly "considered [by the School Board] and found to be inappropriate under the particular circumstances of the case."

The Commissioner's second decision expressly informed plaintiff and his counsel that they could appeal it to the State Board of Education ("the State Board"), pursuant to the procedures then prescribed by N.J.S.A. 18A:6-27 and N.J.A.C. 6A:2-1.1. *fn1

On September 7, 2001, plaintiff filed an appeal of the Commissioner's August 2001 decision with the State Board of Education. However, according to plaintiff's brief, plaintiff thereafter "decided not to pursue the matter administratively," and decided instead to "seek redress from the [c]courts for damages for federal and state law violations."

On April 26, 2004, plaintiff filed a civil action against the School Board in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, alleging both federal and state law violations. The School Board moved for summary judgment, which was argued before District Judge Joseph E. Irenas. On December 21, 2006, Judge Irenas dismissed a substantial part of plaintiff's complaint. The School Board then filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff's remaining claims, based on his failure to exhaust administrative remedies. On July 23, 2007, Judge Irenas dismissed plaintiff's remaining federal claims, agreeing with the School Board that plaintiff had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. Judge Irenas declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff's state law claims.

Plaintiff moved for reconsideration, which Judge Irenas denied on August 7, 2007. On August 21, 2007, plaintiff appealed the dismissal of his federal action to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. However, plaintiff voluntarily dismissed his federal appeal on June 5, 2008, and turned his attention to the state court.

On July 9, 2008, plaintiff filed a complaint in the Law Division, seeking damages against the School Board for alleged state constitutional law violations. The School Board moved for summary judgment.

After oral argument in the Law Division before Judge Jean

B. McMaster, the trial court dismissed plaintiff's state-law claims. In her oral opinion dated October 30, 2009, Judge McMaster granted defendant's motion for summary judgment, primarily based on plaintiff's failure to exhaust administrative remedies, and the doctrine of collateral estoppel. Among other things, the judge observed that relief had been available to plaintiff through the administrative process, and that it was "his own choice" to abandon that process by foregoing an administrative appeal of the Commissioner's decision to the State Board. The judge also expressed concern that plaintiff's efforts to litigate in the administrative arena, then in federal court, and then in state court was suggestive of potential "forum shopping."

This appeal ensued. Plaintiff argues that the trial court should have found that the School Board, in expelling him, wrongly denied him a free and appropriate public education. He further contends that the trial court erred in barring his state-law claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

Having fully considered the arguments raised on appeal, we affirm the Law Division's dismissal of plaintiff's complaint, substantially for the reasons expressed in Judge McMaster's bench opinion. We add only a few comments.

The exhaustion of remedies doctrine requires that a party first pursue administrative processes to resolve a dispute before seeking judicial intervention. Garrow v. Elizabeth Gen. Hosp. & Dispensary, 79 N.J. 549, 558-59 (1979). The policy discourages parties' premature judicial intervention in claims that are more appropriately resolved through administrative proceedings. Hernandez v. Overlook Hosp., 149 N.J. 68, 73-74 (1997). Where an agency has exclusive jurisdiction, the courts are required to defer. See Smerling v. Harrah's Entm't, Inc., 389 N.J. Super. 181, 187 (App. Div. 2006).

Only in narrow circumstances are litigants permitted to appeal an administrative decision without first exhausting administrative remedies. Pursuant to Rule 2:2-3(a)(2), a party may appeal to the Appellate Division, as of right, from a final decision of a state administrative agency. However, such review "shall not be maintainable so long as there is available a right of review before any administrative agency or officer, unless the interest of justice requires[.]" Ibid.

Although plaintiff maintains that he "properly and appropriately utilized the administrative process," he acknowledges that he "elected to forego the final step" of that process through review by the State Board. He contends that he chose to abandon administrative remedies "in order to vindicate his rights under federal law in Federal Court." In that regard, he notes that Judge Irenas dismissed only his federal claims and declined to exercise jurisdiction over his state law claims. That decision to decline supplemental federal jurisdiction does not, however, deprive the state court of its ability to apply all relevant legal principles to the state-law claims, including the doctrine requiring the exhaustion of administrative remedies.

At the time it was issued, the Commissioner's August 2001 decision did not constitute a final agency decision, because of plaintiff's right to obtain further administrative review before the State Board of Education.*fn2 Plaintiff abandoned his administrative action by failing to take his case to the next level, i.e., the State Board, and obtain a final agency decision. Nor did plaintiff pursue an appeal of the administrative action to this court. Rather, plaintiff detoured to the trial courts, first to the federal district court and, after that effort proved unsuccessful, to the Law Division. These collateral litigation maneuvers do not excuse plaintiff's failure to continue his administrative action to completion. He did not exhaust his administrative remedies, but instead aborted the administrative process prematurely.

Aside from these procedural shortcomings, we detect no likely merit in the substance of plaintiff's claims against the School Board. Although the State does assure our youths a thorough and efficient public education, see N.J. Const., art. VIII, § 4, ¶ 1, that right is neither unconditional nor immutable. The Legislature has clearly and constitutionally authorized the expulsion of students from public school where good cause exists to do so. N.J.S.A. 18A:37-2; see R.R. v. Bd. of Educ., 109 N.J. Super. 337, 344 (Ch. Div. 1970); Palmyra Bd. of Educ. v. Hansen, 56 N.J. Super. 567, 571 (Law Div. 1959). The law at the time of plaintiff's expulsion in 2000 did not require the School Board to provide him with alternative educational services pending the completion of the administrative proceedings challenging that expulsion. Cf. N.J.A.C. 6A:16-7.5(b)(1) (adopted Sep. 15, 2006). Moreover, the findings of ALJ Campbell, after the multi-day administrative hearing, reflect that plaintiff and his parents were not sufficiently diligent in pursuing drug treatment that might have made alternative educational options more feasible.

In sum, there are no genuine issues of material fact or law that would forestall the entry of summary judgment here. See Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995). Plaintiff did not exhaust the administrative process, and his forum-shopping efforts ought not be rewarded.


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