United States District Court, D. New Jersey
K.G., individually, and as guardian ad litem of R.L. Plaintiff,
CINNAMINSON TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.
MICHELLE GAINES ASHLEY N. RICHARDSON BARGER & GAINES On
behalf of Plaintiff
L. HARRISON JARED SAMUEL SCHURE JOSEPH D. CASTELLUCCI, JR.
METHFESSEL & WERBEL, ESQS. On behalf of Defendant
L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.
before the Court the are cross-motions for summary judgment
filed by Plaintiff, K.G. on behalf of her minor daughter,
R.L., a child classified as eligible for special educational
services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education
Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., and
by Defendant Cinnaminson Township Board of Education.
Plaintiff appeals the decision of the administrative law
judge (“ALJ”) who declined to find that Defendant
failed to provide R.L. with a free appropriate public
education (“FAPE”) in the least restrictive
environment, and declined to direct Defendant to reimburse
Plaintiff for tuition when Plaintiff unilaterally placed her
daughter in an out-of-district private school. For the
reasons expressed below, the Court will enter judgment in
favor of Defendant.
K.G., is the mother and legal guardian of R.L., who was
thirteen during the relevant time period, and who is
classified as eligible for special education and related
services. R.L. is diagnosed with Epilepsy and Landau-Kleffner
Syndrome, a syndrome which results in language-function
deterioration. She also suffers from left-hemisphere
epileptic seizures from a condition known as Perisylvian
Syndrome caused by a brain fissure. R.L. requires a ketogenic
diet that is high in fat and low in carbohydrates. R.L. is
also diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder,
Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder,
language disorder, and emotional lability.
has received special education and related services since the
age of six when she attended her local public school program
in the Berlin Township, New Jersey school district. She was
thereafter placed at specialized, out-of-district programs
under the provisions of her IEP from first grade (2010-2011)
through October of 2014, when her family moved to
Cinnaminson, New Jersey. Plaintiff continued R.L. at the
Quaker School at Horsham (“QSH”), R.L.'s
out-of-district placement under the Berlin Township School
District's IEP, and Defendant ultimately agreed to
continue R.L.'s placement at QSH for the remainder of the
2014-2015 school year.
according to Plaintiff, Defendant still had not proposed any
programming or placement for R.L. for the 2015 extended
school year or the 2015-2016 school year, Plaintiff provided
Defendant with formal, written notice of her intention to
unilaterally continue R.L.'s placement at QSH. Plaintiff
contends that even though Defendant scheduled an
individualized educational plan (“IEP”) meeting
on June 3, 2015, Defendant had already predetermined, without
input from Plaintiff who is part of R.L.'s child study
team, that R.L. would be placed at public school in the
district. Plaintiff claims that Defendant's proposed
program was inappropriate and not reasonably calculated to
confer a significant and meaningful educational benefit upon
R.L. Plaintiff made this determination based upon private
recommendations from the team of professionals working with
R.L. who found that R.L. required the specialized programming
provided at QSH in order to be appropriately educated.
Plaintiff therefore unilaterally continued R.L.'s
placement at QSH for the 2015 extended school year as well as
the 2015-2016 school year.
filed for a due process hearing on June 16, 2015. The matter
was transmitted to the Office of Administrative Law on
September 15, 2015. Hearing dates were scheduled and the
matter was heard before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”), the Honorable Joseph A. Ascione, on May
23, June 13, July 22, August 3, and August 15, 2016. Just
prior to the first hearing date, Defendant convened an IEP
meeting on May 5, 2016 to propose R.L.'s educational
program for the 2016-2017 school year. The ALJ issued a
decision on March 30, 2017 considering both the June 2015
proposed IEP and the May 2016 proposed IEP. The ALJ found
that Defendant provided a FAPE in the LRE to R.L. in the June
2015 IEP and the May 2016 IEP because those IEPs had the
capacity to address R.L.'s educational needs. The ALJ
also found that Plaintiff denied Defendant the ability to
determine if services for the 2016 extended school year were
accordingly denied Plaintiff's claim for private
placement for R.L. at QSH, and denied Plaintiff's claims
for reimbursement for tuition at QSH for the 2015 and 2016
extended school years and school year 2015-2016.
has appealed the decision of the ALJ to this Court. Plaintiff
claims that the ALJ erred by improperly ignoring
Plaintiff's expert testimony and reports; by improperly
considering testimony about programming that Defendant did
not actually propose for R.L.; by improperly holding that
Plaintiff denied Defendant an opportunity to modify its
proposed educational program for R.L.; and by improperly
holding that a determination about appropriateness can never
be made unless a student first tries the
program. Defendant argues that it fulfilled its
obligations to R.L. under the IDEA, and the ALJ's
decision must be affirmed. Both parties have moved for
summary judgment in their favor.
Subject matter jurisdiction
Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 20 U.S.C.
§ 1415(i)(2)(A) and 28 U.S.C. § 1331.
Standard of Review under the IDEA
funding of state special education programs is contingent on
the states providing a “free appropriate public
education” to all disabled children. S.H. v.
State-Operated School Dist. of City of Newark, 336 F.3d
260, 264 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1412). The
IDEA is the vehicle Congress has chosen to ensure that states
follow this mandate. Id. (citing 20 U.S.C. §
1400 et seq.) The IDEA “protects the rights of disabled
children by mandating that public educational institutions
identify and effectively educate those children, or pay for
their education elsewhere if they require specialized
services that the public institution cannot provide.”
D.K. v. Abington Sch. Dist., 696 F.3d 233, 244 (3d
Cir. 2012) (citation omitted).
school district has identified a child who is eligible for
IDEA services, it must create and implement an Individualized
Education Plan (“IEP”) based on the student's
needs and areas of disability. Munir v. Pottsville Area
Sch. Dist., 723 F.3d 423, 426 (3d Cir. 2013) (citation
omitted). School districts are not required to
“maximize the potential” of each disabled
student, and instead the district must offer an IEP that is
“reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive
meaningful educational benefits in light of the student's
intellectual potential.” Id. (citations and
quotation omitted). The IDEA also includes a
“mainstreaming” component requiring the placement
of a student with disabilities in the least restrictive
environment (“LRE”) that will provide the child
with a meaningful educational benefit. D.S. v. Bayonne
Bd. of Educ., 602 F.3d 553, 556-57 (3d Cir. 2010).
IDEA establishes a private cause of action against a school
district that fails to abide by its legal obligations. The
parent or guardian of a minor student who is denied the
rights and procedures set forth in the IDEA is afforded the
opportunity to file an administrative complaint. C.H. v.
Cape Henlopen School Dist., 606 F.3d 59, 66 (3d Cir.
2010) (citing 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(b)(6), (i)(2)). In
New Jersey, this process entails filing a complaint and
request for a due process hearing with the New Jersey
Department of Education, N.J.A.C. 6A: 14- 2.7(c), and the due
process hearing is conducted by an ALJ in New Jersey's
Office of Administrative Law, N.J.A.C. 6A: 14- 2.7(g).
Aggrieved parties may appeal the ALJ's final decision by
filing a civil action in state or federal court. 20 U.S.C.
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 the IDEA?; and (2) Has the school district fulfilled
its obligation to provide the student with a FAPE?
C.H., 606 F.3d at 66 (citing Bd. of Educ. of
Hendrick Hudson Central Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S.
176, 206-07 (1982)).
district court applies a “modified version of de novo
review.” Munir, 723 F.3d at 430 (quoting
L.E. v. Ramsey Bd. of Educ., 435 F.3d 384, 389 (3d
Cir. 2006)). The reviewing court gives “due
weight” to the underlying administrative proceedings,
with the factual findings from the administrative proceedings
to be considered prima facie correct. S.H. v.
State-Operated School Dist. of City of Newark, 336 F.3d
260, 270 (3d Cir. 2003) (citation omitted) (further
explaining that if a reviewing court fails to adhere to the
ALJ's factual findings, it is obliged to explain why).
“The court is not . . . to substitute its own notions
of sound educational policy for those of local school
authorities.” Id. (citations omitted).
District courts must accept the hearing officer's
credibility determinations “unless the non-testimonial
extrinsic evidence in the record would justify a contrary
conclusion.” Shore Reg'l High Sch. Bd. of Educ.
v. P.S. ex rel. P.S., 381 F.3d 194, 199 (3d Cir. 2004)
(citation omitted). “In this context[, ] the word
‘justify' demands essentially the same standard of
review given to a trial court's findings of fact by a
federal appellate court.” Id. The burden of
proof in a proceeding to receive reimbursement is placed on
the party seeking relief. L.E., 435 F.3d at 391-92.
The ALJ's Decision
made the following findings of fact:
1. K.G.'s daughter R.L., age thirteen, presents with a
learning disability, occasioned by her diagnoses of epilepsy
and Landau-Kleffner syndrome. Her classification of
"other health impaired" ...