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Ocean Township Board of Education v. E.R.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 10, 2014

Ocean Township Board of Education, Plaintiff,
v.
E.R. o/b/o O.R., Defendant.

OPINON

ANNE E. THOMPSON, District Judge.

The matter comes before the Court on the motion of Plaintiff Ocean Township Board of Education. (Doc. No. 1). Plaintiff seeks a temporary restraining order barring Plaintiff O.R., a student, from attending Ocean Township High School and a preliminary injunction placing him in the alternative educational setting during the pendency of his disciplinary proceedings. (Doc. Nos. 1 and 10). The Court has decided the motion based upon oral arguments and written submissions. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted.

BACKGROUND

O.R. is an eighteen-year-old male and is currently a senior at Ocean Township High School. (Doc. No. 1 at 8). He is eligible for special education benefits and services and is classified as "multiply disabled." ( Id. ). O.R.'s disabilities include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Impulse Control Disorder, and Adjustment Disorder of Childhood. ( Id. at 8-9). Prior to the incident at hand, O.R. had a series of behavioral problems at school, including one "horseplay" incident that caused the injury of a fellow student. ( Id. ).

On October 31, 2013, O.R. was removed from Ocean Township High School after he was found to be in possession of a three-inch-long knife and alcohol on school premises. ( Id. at 10). Student was then placed in an alternative educational setting of home instruction for forty-five days pending further disciplinary action by the Board of Education. ( Id. ).

On November 5, 2013, a manifestation hearing held by the IEP Team found that O.R.'s actions were not a manifestation of his disabilities and disorders. ( Id. ). Neither O.R. nor his parent have contested the findings of this hearing. On November 19, 2013, the Board of Education held a formal disciplinary hearing after which O.R. was suspended for the remainder of the school year. (Doc. No. 1 at 12). O.R. filed an action for expedited due process, challenging the Board of Education's long-term suspension.

On February 6, 2014, Administrative Law Judge Patricia Kerins issued an "Order [for] Emergent Relief." Pursuant to this Order, O.R. was placed back in Ocean Township High School. On February 21, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court appealing the February 6 Order. Plaintiff also filed an Order to Show Cause with Temporary Restraints, seeking to enjoin O.R. from attending Ocean Township High School.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

When examining an IDEA case, the district court generally applies a modified version of de novo review and is required to give due weight to the factual findings of the Administrative Law Judge. L.E. v. Ramsey Bd. of Educ., 435 F.3d 384, 389 (3d Cir.2006) (citations omitted). "Under this standard, [f]actual findings from the administrative proceedings are to be considered prima facie correct, ' and [if] a reviewing court fails to adhere to them, it is obliged to explain why.'" Shore Reg'l High Sch. Bd. of Educ. v. P.S., 381 F.3d 194, 199 (3d Cir. 2004)(quotations omitted). However, the question of what constitutes a student's "current educational placement" under IDEA's "stay put" provision is one of law. See R.S. v. Somerville Bd. of Educ., 2011 WL 32521 (D.N.J. Jan. 5, 2011).

ANALYSIS

To be granted the "extraordinary relief of a temporary restraining order, a plaintiff must demonstrate four things: (1) that [it is] reasonably likely to prevail eventually in the litigation and; (2) that [it is] likely to suffer irreparable injury without relief. If these two threshold showings are made the District Court then considers, to the extent relevant, (3) whether an injunction would harm the [defendant] more than denying relief would harm the plaintiff [...] and (4) whether granting relief would serve the public interest." Fed'n of State Massage Therapy Boards v. Acad. of Oriental Therapy, LLC, 2013 WL 5888094 (D.N.J. Oct. 28, 2013) (citing K.A. ex rel. Ayers v. Pocono Mountain Sch. Dist., 710 F.3d 99, 105 (3d Cir. 2013). A plaintiff must show that all four factors weigh in favor of a TRO. Opticians Ass'n of Am. v. Indep. Opticians of Am., 920 F.2d 187, 192 (3d Cir.1990). The Court will examine each factor in turn.

i. Likelihood of Success on the Merits

The current dispute arises under the stay put provision of the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j). See, e.g., Susquenita Sch. Dist. v. Raelee S., 96 F.3d 78, 82 (3d Cir. 1996). This "provision was included in the IDEA to protect handicapped children and their parents during the review process." Id. The stay put provision states in relevant part: "[D]uring the pendency of any proceedings conducted pursuant to this section, unless the State or local educational agency and the parents otherwise agree, the child shall remain in the then-current educational placement of the child [... ]." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j). The relevant inquiry thus becomes the identification of "the then current educational placement, " of the handicapped student. See, e.g., Drinker by Drinker v. Colonial Sch. Dist., 78 F.3d 859, 864-65 (3d Cir. 1996) (citation omitted).

The test for determining the current educational placement is "the operative placement actually functioning at the time the dispute first ...


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