A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Court Approves Settlement Agreement Involving Incarcerated Disabled Students and NJDOC and NJDOE

By: Becky Batista, Law Clerk

Editor: Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq.

On March 3, 2022, the U.S. District Court of New Jersey approved a settlement agreement between a class of incarcerated students with disabilities and the New Jersey Department of Corrections (“DOC”) and New Jersey Department of Education (“DOE”) in Adam X. v. New Jersey Department of Corrections.

The plaintiffs filed a civil rights class action lawsuit on behalf of incarcerated disabled students in DOC adult prisons. These students were eligible for special education. They alleged that the DOC and DOE failed to provide special education or related services and equal education access to students with disabilities. As a result, they alleged that the students were denied a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”). They further alleged that the DOC and DOE denied disabled students equal access to the educational services and benefits offered and overseen by DOC and DOE in state prisons throughout New Jersey in violation of Title II of the Americans Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504.

Prior to discovery, the Court appointed, with the Parties’ consent, a neutral and independent expert to review and evaluate both the DOC’s and DOE’s policies, practices, and procedures related to special education. Once the parties received the independent expert’s report, they entered into settlement negotiations. The parties finalized and signed the settlement agreement after over three years of negotiations. Finally, they requested the court to approve their settlement agreement.

Under this agreement, the DOC and DOE will modify their policies and procedures to ensure the development and implementation of individualized education programs (“IEPs”) and Section 504 plans for each eligible student, provide individualized transitions services, and provide at least four hours of instruction per day in a regular classroom setting to students with disabilities. The DOE must develop corrective action plans for the DOC for areas of non-compliance and will monitor to ensure implementation. Additionally, the agreement established a compensatory education program for eligible class members. The settlement agreement also includes other procedural provisions and provides for attorney’s fees.

A class action settlement may not be approved without a determination by the court that the proposed settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate. The court considers the following: (1) complexity, expense, and likely duration of litigation; (2) the reaction of the class; (3) the stage of the proceeding and the amount of discovery completed; (4) the risk of establishing liability and damages; and (5) the risk of maintaining the class through trial.

The court recognized that this matter was not in its infancy. The matter was filed over five years ago and the parties negotiated at an arm’s length of three years with 30 settlement conferences and the exchange of 20,000 pages of documents before filing the agreement. Additionally, an independent expert spent 95 hours on-site evaluating the prisons’ special education-related policies and procedures, and there has been no objection from the any member of the class. The court also acknowledged that while it is unclear which party would be more likely to establish liability, the settlement agreement avoids time consuming and costly nature of litigation.

The court approved the settlement agreement in full, finding it was fair, adequate, and reasonable and would benefit the entire class by correcting violations and providing remedial opportunities for those already affected.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq. concentrates her practice on the representation of boards of education and charter schools in all areas of school law including: labor and employment, special education, Section 504, student discipline, FERPA, Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, student residency, civil rights, tenure, OPRA, and OPMA. In connection with these representations, she is experienced in handling matters before State and Federal courts, including the Office of Administrative Law. Ms. Dev is an experienced special education litigator and defends school districts in due process hearings from inception through trial. In addition, she has handled matters before governmental agencies, including the U.S. Office for Civil Rights and New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. Ms. Dev routinely conducts training and seminars, drafts policies and manuals, and provides strategic advice to school administrators regarding school law issues. Ms. Dev was recently recognized as one of South Jersey’s Awesome Attorneys as published by South Jersey Magazine. She is licensed to practice law in New Jersey, the District Court for the District of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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