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M.C.I. v. North-Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School Board of Education

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 15, 2018

M.C.L on behalf of M.I., Plaintiff,
v.
NORTH HUNTERDON-VOORHEES REGIONAL HIGH SCHOOL BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

          OPINION

          ANNE E. THOMPSON, U.S.D.J.

         INTRODUCTION

         This matter comes before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff M.C.L ("Plaintiff) (ECF Nos. 7, 8) and Defendant North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School Board of Education ("Defendant") (ECF No. 9). Both Motions are opposed. (ECF Nos. 14, 15, 16, 17.) The Court has decided the motions based on the parties' written submissions and without oral argument pursuant to Local Civil Rule 78.1(b). For the reasons stated herein, the Court: (1) affirms the ALJ's finding that Plaintiffs notice was untimely and (2) remands this matter for further consideration of whether Plaintiff is entitled to any reimbursement for her unilateral private placement.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff M.C.L, mother of M.I., brings suit against the North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School Board of Education alleging violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., and corollary provisions of New Jersey law. Plaintiff claims that Defendant failed to provide her daughter, M.I., with a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE") in the least restrictive environment, as required by the IDEA, and that she is entitled to tuition reimbursement for a unilateral private school placement.

         I. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

         The IDEA requires states receiving federal education funding to ensure that students with disabilities receive a FAPE. 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400(d)(1)(A), 1412(a)(1); see also Munir v. Pottsville Area Sch. Dist., 723 F.3d 423, 425-26 (3d Cir. 2013). A state satisfies the FAPE requirement by providing "personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction." Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 203 (1982). At its core, the IDEA requires school districts to evaluate students who may be considered disabled under the statute and develop and administer an Individualized Education Program ("IEP") for any eligible student. See 20 U.S.C. § 1414; see also S.H. v. State-Operated Sch. Dist. of Newark, 336 F.3d 260, 264 (3d Cir. 2003). The student's IEP must address their "level of functioning, set forth measurable annual achievement goals, describe the services to be provided, and establish objective criteria for evaluating the child's progress." C.H. v. Cape Henlopen Sch. Dist., 606 F.3d 59, 65 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)).

         In New Jersey, the IEP is developed by a school district's Child Study Team-composed of a school psychologist, a learning disabilities teacher-consultant, and a school social worker- along with the student's parent(s) or guardian(s), a teacher familiar with the student, and other specified school personnel. N.J.A.C. 6A:14-2.3(k)(2). A parent who disagrees with a school district's proposed IEP may challenge the IEP in a due process hearing, which is adjudicated by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALT"). N.J.A.C. 6A: 14-2.7; Lascari v. Bd. of Educ, 560 A.2d 1180, 1183-84 (N.J. 1989). The ALJ's final decision may then be appealed by any aggrieved party through a civil action in state or federal court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2).

         II. Case History & Procedural Background

         M.I. is a high-school aged student from Clinton Township, New Jersey. (Pl's Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ("SMF") ¶ 1, ECF No. 7-2; Def.'s SMF ¶ 1, ECF No. 9-1.) As a child, she attended public school in the Clinton School District, which serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. (Pl's SMF¶ 2.) Following eighth grade, Clinton Township public school students attend high school in the district overseen by the North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School Board of Education ("the NHV District"). (Pl's SMF¶ 2; Def.'s Resp. to Pl's SMF ¶ 2, ECF No. 15-1; Def.'s SMF ¶ 3; see also M.L o/b/o M.I v. North Hunterdon/Voorhees Regional High Bd. of Educ. ("ALJ Op."), OAL No. 15963-16, Final Decision, at 2 ¶ 1 (Mar. 8, 2017), ECF No. 9-13.)

         In third grade, M.L was diagnosed with dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"), determined by the Clinton School District to be eligible for special education services under the IDEA, and designated to receive services under the "specific learning disability" classification, see N.J.A.C. 6A:14-3.5(c)(12). (Pl's SMF¶ 1; Def.'s Resp. to Pl's SMF¶ 1; Def.'s SMF¶ 2.) Pursuant to a settlement agreement with M.I's parents, the Clinton School District agreed to an out-of-district placement for M.L at the Craig School, a private day school, beginning in 2011. (Pl's SMF ¶ 3; see also ALJ Op. at 2 ¶ 2.) M.L continued attending the Craig School and receiving special education services there through eighth grade, ending in the spring of 2016. (Pl's SMF ¶¶ 3-4; Def.'s SMF ¶ 2.) M.L was provided with an Orton-Gillingham based program, assistive technology, and in-class supports. (Pl's SMF ¶ 3.)

         During M.I's eighth grade year, Plaintiff and Defendant began a transition plan for M.L to attend high school in the NHV District beginning in the 2016-2017 school year. (Pl's SMF ¶¶ 4-7; Def.'s Resp. to Pl's SMF ¶¶ 6-7.) On January 19, 2016, a meeting was held with Plaintiff, members of the Clinton School District child study team, and a representative of the NHV District's child study team for M.I's annual IEP review and to begin planning for her transition to high school. (Pl's SMF ¶ 7; Def.'s SMF ¶ 6; ALJ Op. at 2 ¶ 3.) Plaintiff completed the NHV District's high school enrollment form[1] and signed a permission form for a NHV District representative to observe M.I. during a class at the Craig School.[2] (Pl's SMF ¶ 7.)

         At the meeting, the Clinton School District proposed an IEP dated January 19, 2016, which continued to classify M.I. under "specific learning disability." (See Katz Cert., Ex. B, January 2016 IEP, ECF No. 7-4; Moore Cert., Ex. D, January 2016 IEP, ECF No. 9-7.)[3] Plaintiff signed the January 19, 2016 IEP, giving her consent to implement it immediately. (Katz Cert., Ex. B; Moore Cert., Ex. D.) The NHV District proposed that beginning in fall 2016 M.I. would receive special education and related services in public high school consisting of English taught by a special education teacher in a resource center setting; supplemental instruction in reading, writing, and math; in-class support for her other academic classes; and other modifications to her instructional program. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 7; ALJ Op. at 3 ¶ 4.) Plaintiff agreed to visit North Hunterdon High School to explore the transition. (Pl's SMF ¶ 8.)

         In March 2016, Plaintiff and M.I. met with members of the NHV District child study team, toured North Hunterdon High School, and received information about the proposed program for M.I. (Pl's SMF ¶ 10; Publicover Cert., Ex. A.) It is disputed whether, as part of that visit, Plaintiff advised Defendant that the proposed IEP was unacceptable because it failed to provide M.L with FAPE. (Compare Pl's SMF¶ 10, with Def.'s Resp. to Pl's SMF¶ 10.) M.I. was evaluated for Read 180 during the visit. (Publicover Cert. ¶ 6; M.C.I. Cert. ¶ 5.) She was found to be ineligible for Read 180, and the results of the evaluation were forwarded to the Clinton School District in early April 2016. (Publicover Cert. ¶ 6; Publicover Cert., Ex. B.) However, the results were not sent to M.I's parents until August 2016. (M.C.I. Cert. ¶ 5; see Publicover Cert., Ex. B.) In May 2016, the NHV District also sent Plaintiff an updated proposed course schedule for M.I. (Publicover Cert. ¶ 6.)

         In May 2016, Plaintiff submitted a signed enrollment contract for M.I. to attend ninth grade at the Pennington School ("Pennington"), a private, out-of-district school.[4] (Pl's SMF ¶ 11; Def.'s SMF ¶ 9; see also ALJ Op. at 3 ¶ 10.) The record is not clear as to when Plaintiff made the first deposit to Pennington to secure a spot for M.I. (Compare Pl's SMF ¶ 11 (10% deposit made in May 2016) and Def.'s SMF ¶ 10 (10% deposit made in May 2016), with Moore Cert., Ex. B, ECF No. 9-5 (contending Plaintiff made first payment July 30, 2016) ...


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