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United States v. Nobel Learning Communities

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

May 9, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
NOBEL LEARNING COMMUNITIES d/b/a CHESTERBROOK ACADEMY, Defendant.

          JORDAN MILOWE ANGER DAVID V. SIMUNOVICH OFFICE OF THE U.S. ATTORNEY On behalf of Plaintiff

          CHARLOTTE L. LANVERS U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE On behalf of Plaintiff

          BONNIE M. HOFFMAN, HANGLEY ARONCHICK SEGAL PUDLIN & SCHILLER, ONE LOGAN SQUARE On behalf of Defendant

          ANDREW M. ERDLEN, HANGLEY ARONCHICK SEGAL PUDLIN & SCHILLER On behalf of Defendant

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This case concerns Defendant Nobel Learning Communities (NLC)'s alleged violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12151-89. On October 19, 2017, the Court entered an Order denying Defendant's Motion to Stay, or Alternatively, for Partial Dismissal in its entirety. Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Reconsideration, Defendant's Alternative Motion for Certification of Appeal, and Defendant's Motion for Leave to File Reply. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant Defendant's Motion for Leave to File Reply, deny Defendant's Motion for Reconsideration, and deny Defendant's Alternative Motion for Certification of Appeal.

         I. Background

         The Court takes its facts from its October 19, 2017 Opinion in this matter. Defendant is the owner and operator of Chesterbrook Academy (“Chesterbrook”) in Moorestown, New Jersey. Chesterbrook offers daycare services and an educational foundation program for young children. M.M., born in July 2011 with Down syndrome enrolled at Chesterbrook on January 5, 2012.

         At Chesterbrook, diaper-changing services are provided to children enrolled in its “Infants, ” “Toddlers, ” “and “Beginners” programs. Diaper-changing services are not provided to children enrolled in its “Intermediates” or “Pre-K” programs.

         In December 2014, Chesterbrook informed M.M.'s parents of its intention to move M.M. into the “Intermediates” program. At that time, M.M. still required diapers. M.M. was moved into the “Intermediates” program on January 21, 2015. Chesterbrook worked with M.M. to try to get her toilet trained, setting a deadline pursuant to corporate policy for M.M. to be toilet trained by April 1, 2015.

         On March 26, 2015, Chesterbrook informed M.M.'s parents that M.M. was being expelled effective April 1, 2015 because she was not toilet trained. M.M.'s last day at Chesterbrook was March 31, 2015.

         Plaintiff filed its Complaint in federal court on January 18, 2017.[1] Plaintiff brought a claim under Title III of the ADA asking for a declaration that Defendant violated Title III of the ADA, for Defendant to be enjoined from engaging in discrimination against individuals with disabilities and from failing to comply with Title III of the ADA, for an award of compensatory damages to M.M. and M.M.'s parents, and for a civil penalty against Defendant to vindicate the public interest. Defendant filed a Motion to Stay or, Alternatively, for Partial Dismissal on March 24, 2017, which this Court denied on October 19, 2017.

         The Court briefly summarizes it October 19, 2017 Opinion. After denying Defendant's request to stay this action under Colorado River abstention, [2] the Court considered Defendant's arguments in support of partial dismissal. Defendant argued collateral estoppel applied to Plaintiff's associational discrimination claim based on two Eastern District of Pennsylvania decisions in 2009 and 2010. In the 2009 decision, a judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania considered a motion to dismiss the complaint brought by the defendant, NLC, against the plaintiff, the United States. United States v. Nobel Learning Cmtys., Inc., 676 F.Supp.2d 379, 380 (E.D. Pa. 2009). In its complaint, the United States claimed NLC discriminated against disabled children in violation of the ADA. Id. Part of its complaint consisted of a claim of associational discrimination suffered by the families of the disabled children. Id. The court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found Title III of the ADA did not allow a family to recover “for indirect consequences associated with a child's exclusion from an NLC school.” Id. at 386. Accordingly, the court granted NLC's motion to dismiss as to the plaintiff's allegation of associational discrimination. Id. at 388.

         In the 2010 decision, same court again considered this issue after the United States moved to amend its complaint. United States v. Nobel Learning Cmtys., Inc., No. 09-1818, 2010 WL 1047730, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 19, 2010). The proposed amended complaint “include[d] new factual allegations about the parents of the . . . children with disabilities, ” asserting that the parents “sought to contract with [the defendant] for daycare services that [were] marketed to them for their own benefit, and that the parents were denied the ability to contract for these services because of the parents' association with their disabled children.” Id. at *2. The court denied the motion to amend the complaint, finding an amendment would be futile as to the associational discrimination claim. Id. at *4.

         The court reasoned as follows:

[T]o assert a claim of associational discrimination, a plaintiff must allege that he or she experienced direct discrimination because of his or her association with a disabled person. Such discrimination requires a separate and distinct denial of a benefit or service to a non-disabled person; it may not be premised on a derivative benefit or harm based on treatment towards a disabled person.

Id. (citations omitted). The court found “[a]ny benefit to parents premised on time free from their children is not a benefit that is separate and distinct from the benefit to the child in attending daycare.” Id. at *5. “Although parents enjoy a derivative benefit in sending their children to daycare, and suffer a derivative harm due to the attendant consequences of a child's disenrollment or unenrollment, daycare is not a service for parents because children, not parents, partake in the daycare activities.” Id.

         This Court applied the following test in deciding whether collateral estoppel applied: “(1) the issue sought to be precluded [is] the same as that involved in the prior action; (2) that issue [was] actually litigated; (3) it [was] determined by a final and valid judgment; and (4) the determination [was] essential to the prior judgment.” Burlington N. R.R. v. Hyundai Merchant Marine Co., 63 F.3d 1227, 1231-32 (3d Cir. 1995) (alterations in original) (quoting In re Graham, 973 F.3d 1089, 1097 (3d Cir. 1992)). Noting that Plaintiff conceded the first two prongs were satisfied, the Court found the Eastern District of Pennsylvania decisions did not constitute final judgments. The Court thus found those decisions, standing alone, insufficiently firm to allow for collateral estoppel.

         The Court further addressed a January 2011 Settlement Agreement entered between the United States and NLC, which provided that NLC would implement a non-discrimination policy, publicize that policy to its employees, and provide appropriate training, with mandatory reporting to the United States. It also provided NLC would pay $215, 000 to the named individuals in the complaint. The Settlement Agreement resolved all of the allegations in the complaint and was to remain in effect for two years.

         The Court determined the Settlement Agreement also did not bar Plaintiff's associational discrimination claim. The Court found the Settlement Agreement did not express an intent for collateral estoppel to apply to the earlier Eastern District of Pennsylvania decisions, and that it explicitly allowed Plaintiff to bring new claims after the two-year period of the Settlement Agreement ended.

         The Court then considered the merits of Plaintiff's associational discrimination claim. The Court began by recognizing that an associational discrimination claim requires a separate and distinct denial of a benefit or service to the non-disabled person. Simply being denied a derivative benefit or service is insufficient. The Court determined that, while daycare services center around the child, they are as much a benefit to parents. The Court reasoned: “It is a service, agreed to between the parents and the institution, which provides parents with otherwise unavailable time apart from their children. One can argue in a sense that the disabled child's benefit from daycare services is derivative of the parents' benefit.”

         Finally, the Court determined that Plaintiff's request for injunctive relief was not ripe for adjudication at the pleading stage. The Court thus denied the motion in its entirety. On November 2, 2017, Defendant filed a Motion for Reconsideration and an Alternative Motion for Certification of Appeal. Plaintiff filed its opposition on November 20, 2017. On November 27, 2017, Defendant filed a Motion for Leave to File Reply to the Motion for Reconsideration, along with a reply to the Alternative Motion for Certification of Appeal.

         II. Motion for Leave to File Reply

         The Court begins by briefly addressing Defendant's Motion for Leave to File Reply. Reply briefs are not permitted in support of a motion for reconsideration unless the Court grants leave to file such a reply. Local Civil Rule 7.1(d)(3) (“No reply papers shall be filed, unless permitted by the Court, relating to the following motions: . . . Reconsideration under L.Civ.R. 7.1(i) . . . .”). Defendant filed such a request for leave to file a reply on November 27, 2017.

         Defendant's motion argues Plaintiff's opposition “mischaracterizes the positions taken by Chesterbrook in its Moving Brief and presents new arguments to which Chesterbrook respectfully requests an opportunity to respond.” The Court finds Defendant's request was advanced in good faith and sought to respond to Plaintiff's opposition and not impermissibly advance new arguments or repeat its initial arguments. See Bayer AG v. Schein Pharm., 129 F.Supp.2d 705, 716 (D.N.J. 2001) (“It is axiomatic that reply briefs should respond to the respondent's arguments or explain a position in the initial brief that the respondent has refuted.” (quoting Elizabethtown Water Co. v. Hartford Cas. Ins. Co., 998 F.Supp. 447, 458 (D.N.J. 1998))); accord Dana Transp., Inc. v. Ableco Fin., LLC, No. 04-2781, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18086, at *16 (D.N.J. Aug. 17, 2005) (“The purpose of the reply brief is to respond to the opposition brief or explain a position that the ...


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