SCHOOL LAW UPDATE Part 1 of 4
I. THIRD CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS
Third Circuit upheld summary judgment in favor of school district where parents asserted that teacher deprived student of due process when she allegedly engaged in excessive force to ensure that he did not leave the school building. The court determined that while force was used, it was not with the purpose of causing harm, where student initiated the contact by attempting to duck under the teacher. No constitutional violation where the teacher's actions were not malicious and sadistic. State law claims of assault and battery also dismissed. Betz v. Satteson, Dkt. No. 171950, 2017 U.S. App. Lexis 23056 (3d Cir. Nov. 16, 2017).
Third Circuit determined that while board members who barred a citizen from attending public board meetings due to his disruptive conduct and threats of violence made toward sitting board members may be entitled to qualified immunity, the law was unclear as to the school district itself. 3rd Circuit declined to address whether the board had the constitutional right to ban a citizen who physically threatened board members based on the claims of qualified immunity. Board members were entitled to qualified immunity where the citizen's right to continuing attendance at public board meetings was not clearly established in circumstances where citizen was banned due to physical threats made against individual board members. Case law relied upon by citizen pre-dated the conduct in question and could not therefore support the requisite "clearly established" element supporting liability. Third Circuit determined that immunity of the school district remained a viable issue and remanded to district court despite citizen's failure to preserve the issue for appeal. Barna v. Panther Valley Sch. Dist, Dkt. 15-3904, 877 F.3d 136; 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 24712, (3d Cir. Dec. 7, 2017).
Third Circuit, on parental appeal from the District Court, found no need to determine whether parents exhausted administrative remedies where parents entered into a comprehensive settlement agreement resolving all state and federal claims arising from an alleged denial of FAPE. Court found that a plaintiff who seeks relief available under the IDEA must exhaust his administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit, even if he relies on laws other than the IDEA. Moreover, the Court, in dictum, suggested that exhaustion of administrative remedies was not a jurisdictional prerequisite. Matter remanded for an order of dismissal with prejudice. Finally, the Court clarified the methodology to be used in determining whether the "gravamen of the complaint" was based on the denial of FAPE. Wellman v. Butler Area Sch. Dist., Dkt. 15-3394, (3d Cir. Dec. 12, 2017).
Special Education — Attorney's Fees
Parents were not unreasonable in demanding attorney's fees where they opened a new school for autistic twins and unilaterally enrolled them where there was no evidence that parents were unwilling to meet with the district to discuss placement. Founding a school was not substantially different than seeking a private placement. District practice of not holding IEP meetings over the summer months deprived parents of opportunity to participate in the decision–making process. Parents were not entitled to special education services over and above those contained in an appropriate IEP but were entitled to out-of-pocket expenses necessary to implement appropriate services. Court affirmed principle that pursuant to §504 and the ADA, parents were not entitled to damages for allegedly discriminatory conduct absent a showing of "deliberate indifference" and clarified that deliberate indifference must be a conscious act and not the result of negligence or bureaucratic inaction. Court further clarified that parent request for tuition reimbursement was a claim for compensatory damages instead of a claim for equitable relief and therefore properly analyzed the claim under the ADA's deliberate indifferent standard. Sch. Dist. of Phila. v. Kirsch, Dkt. No. 16-3021, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 2819, (3d Cir. Feb. 5, 2018).
Special Education—Exhaustion of Remedies
Appellate Division determined that parents failed to exhaust administrative remedies when following an incident where the bus driver bruised child's leg in locking him into his seatbelt, parents filed suit alleging negligence, a violation of the due process clause, Section 504 and the IDEA. Court should examine the question as to whether the plaintiff could have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school, and, conversely, whether an adult at the school could have pressed essentially the same grievance. If the answer to both is no, a denial of a FAPE is likely the gravamen of the complaint and exhaustion is required. Court further noted, prayer for money damages does not necessarily absolve a plaintiff from exhausting administrative remedies under the IDEA. J.L. v. Wyoming Valley West Sch. Dist., Dkt. No. 16-3727, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 3198, (3d Cir. Feb. 9, 2018).
Building principal asserted that her Fourteenth Amendment due process rights were violated because she was deprived of her "constitutionally-protected interest in her previous position where she was transferred from a position with oversight over the k-12 curriculum to a position with lesser responsibilities, but at the same salary. Principal had no property right to the k-12 position. Donovan v. Pittston Area Sch. Dist., Dkt. No. 16-4221, 2017 U.S. App. Lexis 24549, (3d Cir. Dec. 5, 2017)
II. NEW JERSEY DISTRICT COURT DECISIONS
In matter where student/athlete alleged racial discrimination on the gridiron and in the locker room, District Court dismissed claims against the Commissioner of Education and State of New Jersey because neither had any involvement in the allegations of discrimination. Court specifically explained the standard of review pursuant to a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to F.R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Parents lacked standing to assert a claim under Title VI and lacked authority to assert an equal protection claim under the New Jersey Constitution because this matter did not involve employment. Finally, Court allowed student's §1983 and Title VI claims where student alleged football coaches and administration failed to end the racially incendiary conduct of teammates. Williams v. Lenape Bd. of Educ., Dkt. No. 17-7482 (RBK/JS), 2018 U.S. Dist. Lexis 25697, (D.N.J. Feb. 16, 2018).
Borough adopted a tuition resolution directing that tuition be enforced against border properties unless the majority of the property lay within the boundaries of the borough. Plaintiffs alleged that their property was taken without just compensation, a violation of the 5th Amendment's "takings" clause, where despite the fact that the plaintiffs' properties lie partially within the borough of Glen Ridge, their students were assigned to Brookdale, which designation allegedly reduced plaintiffs' property values amounting to an unconstitutional taking. Three of the matters were dismissed as unripe where plaintiffs had not sought compensation for the allegedly unconstitutional taking. Fourth plaintiff's claim did not rise to the level of a taking because mere diminution in value because of a land-use or zoning regulation does not constitute a taking unless drastic or it deprives the owner of reasonable use of the property. As to the due process claims, the court determined that plaintiffs had no constitutionally cognizable property or liberty interest in attending the specific school of their choice; generally, residency regulation determine where a student will attend school. However, fourth plaintiff whose children were initially assigned to Glen Ridge and then re-assigned without an opportunity to challenge such re-assignment should have received such notice and opportunity to be heard. Wojak v. Borough of Glen Ridge, Civ. No. 2:16-cv-1605-KM-JBC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25255, (D.N.J. Feb. 15, 2018).
Court explained the basis for the imposition of sanctions against a pro se plaintiff although the Court ultimately determined not to impose sanctions. Skoorka v. Kean University, Dkt. No. 163842 (Km), 2017 U.S. Dist. Lexis 210369, (DNJ December 21, 2017)
Special Education — Settlements
District Court dismissed advocate's complaint objecting to the entry of a settlement of an oral agreement. After reviewing precedent regarding the enforceability of oral agreements, the Court determined that despite the advocates complaints that (1) he did not think his oral agreement was binding, (2) he is not bound by his attorneys statements, (3) he could not hear what was discussed when he agreed to settle on October 19, (4) he was under duress when he agreed to settle, and (5) the parties did not settle because the agreement was subject to the approval of the Pennsauken Board of Education, the Court ruled that the agreement was binding, Vandergrift v. Pennsauken School District, Dkt. No. 12-7646, 2017 U.S. Dist. Lexis 211016, (DNJ December 22, 2017)
Special Education — Tuition Reimbursement
District Court determined to remand summary judgement issued in favor of school district where ALJ failed to explain rational supporting a total denial of tuition reimbursement where parent failed to provide sufficient 10-day notice and regulations provide for discretion in such denial. ALJ erroneously determined summary judgement ruling that parent failure to notify constituted a complete bar to recovery. District Court determined that ALJ failed to explain how school district was prejudiced by the lack of notice. A hearing was required to determine the facts of the matter. H.L. v. Marlboro Twp. Bd. of Educ., Dkt. No. 16-9324, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 187828, (DNJ November 14, 2017).
Special Education — Unilateral Placement
District Court determined that parents removed student from the district when they executed a contract for unilateral placement of their classified child. Parents were unable to show that the district prevented parents from filing timely and were unable to show that delay to provide proper notice would have likely to result in physical or serious emotional harm to the student. Court further determined that parents' failure to provide timely notice was not a categorical bar to recovery of tuition where ALJ failed to provide an equitable analysis barring parents from recovery where law provides for discretion and record did not contain any evidence that parents were unreasonable. M.C.I. v. North Hunterdon-Voorhees Reg'l High Sch. Bd. of Educ., Civ. No. 17-1887, 2018 U.S. Dist. Lexis 24902, (D.N.J. Feb. 15, 2018).
District Court granted summary judgment in favor of school district and police officers in matter where parents asserted a constitutional violation in student's suspension for alleged theft of a cell phone. Court determined that where a process is available, the parents must resort to that process before filing a federal action. Student was suspended pursuant to a Goss hearing & parent failed to appeal. Four day suspension did not "shock the conscience" so as to rise to the level of a substantive due process violation. Parent also failed to demonstrate a §1983 claim in the police report of the alleged theft to the school district because probable cause existed to substantiate the report. Paredes v. Egg Harbor Trip. Bd. of Educ., Dkt. No. 15-cv-2929, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 211519, (DNJ December 26, 2017).
*John J. Burns, Esq. is Counsel to the New Jersey School Boards Association . This presentation is reprinted from the 2018 Spring School Law Forum with permission.
Nothing contained in this document should be construed as legal advice. This document is for informational purposes only.
Before making your choice of attorney, you should give this matter careful thought. The selection of an attorney is an important decision. You may, if this letter is inaccurate or misleading, report same to the Committee on Attorney Advertising, Hughes Justice Complex, P.O. Box 037, Trenton, NJ 08625