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S.N. and G.N., Individually and As v. Washington Township Board of Education

September 27, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Joseph H. Rodriguez


This matter has come before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment on the record below in an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) case. Oral argument was heard on the motions on May 15, 2012, and the record of that proceeding is incorporated here. For the reasons expressed on the record that day, as well as those articulated below, summary judgment will be entered in Defendant's favor.


The Complaint in this matter was filed on July 6, 2011 pursuant to the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A), by the parents of an educationally disabled student residing in Washington Township, New Jersey. The parents filed a petition for due process on or about June 29, 2010 because they disagreed with their child's Individualized Education Program (IEP) for the 2010-11 school year. In short, the parents felt that the school district's in-district placement was inappropriate and not reasonably calculated to confer educational benefit upon their child. They have maintained that the most appropriate placement for I.N. was at St. Lucy's School for the Blind in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

After six days of hearing, a decision was rendered by an administrative law judge on April 12, 2011. In a fifty-seven page decision, the ALJ ruled in favor of the Defendant, finding that the most appropriate educational placement in the least restrictive environment for I.N. was in district. On July 6, 2011, Plaintiffs filed the Complaint requesting that this Court grant reimbursement of all expenses incurred in sending I.N. to St. Lucy's, as well as counsel fees and costs. Cross-motions for summary judgment were filed on December 12, 2011.


"When considering an appeal from a state administrative decision under the IDEA, district courts apply a nontraditional standard of review, sometimes referred to as 'modified de novo' review." D.S. v. Bayonne Bd. Of Educ., 602 F.3d 553, 564 (3d Cir. 2010). See alsoShore Reg'l High Sch. Bd. of Educ. v. P.S., 381 F.3d 194, 199 (3d Cir. 2004) (noting that the district court "must make its own findings by a preponderance of the evidence" but "also afford 'due weight' to the ALJ's determination"). Where, as here, a district court reviews administrative fact finding without hearing additional evidence, it is "required to defer to the ALJ's factual findings unless it can point to contrary non-testimonial extrinsic evidence in the record." S.H. v. State-Operated Sch. Dist. of Newark, 336 F.3d 260, 270 (3d Cir. 2003).


Congress enacted the IDEA as a means to ensure that states follow a mandate to provide a "free and appropriate education" ("FAPE") to all disabled children. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). FAPE is defined as "special education and related services that (A) have been provided at public expense . . . without charge; (B) meet the standards of the State educational agency; (C) include an appropriate . . . education in the State involved; and (D) are provided in conformity with the [IEP]." 20 U.S.C. § 1401(8). That is, "[e]ducational instruction specially designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child," coupled with services "necessary to permit the child to 'benefit' from the instruction" constitute a FAPE. Susan N. v. Wilson Sch. Dist., 70 F.3d 751, 756 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 188-89 (1982)). Thus, "[a] school district provides a FAPE by designing and implementing [an IEP] reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive meaningful educational benefits in light of the student's intellectual potential." P.P. v. West Chester Area Sch. Dist., 585 F.3d 727, 729-30 (3d Cir. 2009). New Jersey has enacted regulations which are intended to fulfill its responsibilities under the IDEA. N.J. Admin. Code 6A:14-1.1(b).

A parent who believes that a school district has not provided his or her child with a FAPE as required under IDEA, may request a due process hearing or a mediation conference. See Lascari v. Bd. of Educ., 560 A.2d 1180, 1184 (N.J. 1989). New Jersey has designated its Office of Administrative Law ("OAL") to hear the special education complaints filed with the Department. L.P. v. Edison Bd. of Educ., 265 N.J. Super. 266, 274 (N.J. Super Ct. Law Div. 1993). The dispute is adjudicated by an ALJ, who has authority under the IDEA and New Jersey law to deem the IEP inappropriate. See id.; N.J. Admin. Code 6A:14-2.7. Parents challenging the IEP may be entitled to reimbursement of their education costs if the ALJ finds that the IEP was inappropriate, and that the parents' unilateral placement was appropriate, Florence Cty. Sch. Dist. v. Carter, 510 U.S. 7, 12 (1993), if the parents complied with the notice and reevaluation requirements of the IDEA and New Jersey regulations, 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10) and N.J. Admin. Code 6A:14-2.10(c), and if the parents cooperated with the school district, Patricia P. v. Board of Educ. of Oak Park, 203 F.3d 462, 468 (7th Cir. 2000). Thus, the first step in determining whether a parent is entitled to reimbursement under a unilateral placement theory is whether the school district provided the child with FAPE. N.J. Admin. Code § 6A:14-2.10(a); Shore Regional, 381 F.3d at 198-99 (3d Cir. 2004). If the school did provide FAPE, the parent is not entitled to reimbursement. The second and third steps of the unilateral placement analysis look at whether the unilateral placement was appropriate and whether parents complied with the notice and reevaluation requirements of the IDEA and New Jersey regulations so as to warrant reimbursement. Shore Regional, 381 F.3d at 198-99.

Pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2), aggrieved parties may appeal the ALJ's decision to a state or federal district court. See also C.H. v. Cape Henlopen Sch. Dist., 606 F.3d 59, 66 (3d Cir. 2010). "[T]he Supreme Court has directed that a school district's liability for violations of the IDEA is a two-fold inquiry: (1) Has the school district complied with the procedures set forth in IDEA?; and (2) Has the school district fulfilled its obligation to provide the student with a FAPE?" Id. at 66.

Also pursuant to the IDEA, a procedural violation committed during the formulation of a child's IEP is actionable only if that violation: (1) impedes the child's right to a free appropriate public education; (2) significantly impedes the parents' opportunity to participate in the decisionmaking process; or (3) causes a deprivation of benefits. Winkelman ex rel. Winkelman v. Parma City Sch. Dist., 550 U.S. 516 (2007) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(E)(i) & (ii)); see also C.H. v. Cape Henlopen Sch. Dist., 606 F.3d at 67 (3d Cir. 2010) (a procedural violation constitutes a denial of a FAPE when that violation causes "'substantive harm'" to the child or her parents and "'significantly impede[s] the parent's opportunity to participate in the decision-making process regarding the provision of a FAPE to the parent's child.'" (quoting 34 C.F.R. § 300.513(a)(2)); W.G. v. Board of Trustees, 960 F.2d 1479, 1484 (9th Cir. 1992) (holding that only "procedural inadequacies that result in the loss of educational opportunity or seriously infringe the parents' opportunity to participate in the IEP formulation process clearly result in the denial of a [free and appropriate public education]") (citations omitted); Roland M. v. Concord Sch. Comm., 910 F.2d 983, 994 (1st Cir. 1990) (en banc) ("Before an IEP is set aside, there must be some rational basis to believe that procedural inadequacies compromised the pupil's right to an appropriate education, seriously hampered the parents' opportunity to participate in the formulation process, or caused a deprivation of education benefits.") (citations omitted).


"Summary judgment is proper if there is no genuine issue of material fact and if, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Pearson v. Component Tech. Corp., 247 F.3d 471, 482 n.1 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)); accord Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 (a). The Court will enter summary judgment in favor of a movant who shows that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and supports the showing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact by "citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, ...

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