A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Third Circuit Clarifies that Decisions Approving Voluntary Special Education Settlements are Appealable Under IDEA

By: Becky Batista, Law Clerk

Editor: Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) permits any aggrieved party of an administrative finding to file an appeal in federal district court. Typically, an administrative finding is a final decision by an Administrative Law Judge on the substance and merits of an underlying due process petition brought by parents of a special education student against a public school district. On March 16, 2022, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a precedential opinion in G.W. v. Ringwood Board of Education clarifying that the entry of a “Decision Approving Settlement” in an IDEA matter before the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law (“NJOAL”) does in fact satisfy the jurisdictional requirement permitting judicial review in district court. 

In G.W. v. Ringwood Board of Education, parents of a student with disabilities filed a due process petition against their school district under the IDEA. The matter was scheduled before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Prior to the scheduled due process hearing on the substance and merits of the case, the parties voluntarily entered into a settlement agreement. The ALJ then issued a “Decision Approving Settlement,” a common practice resolving special education disputes before the NJOAL. The parents later repudiated the settlement agreement, filed a motion before the ALJ to “set aside the agreement,” and filed a complaint in federal district court alleging that “they did not knowingly and voluntarily enter into the agreement.”

The federal district court considered this matter and raised the issue of subject matter jurisdiction sua sponte. The district court characterized the parents’ complaint as arising out of contract law, and denied the motion without prejudice. The court questioned whether the ALJ’s findings of a voluntary settlement agreement resolving all disputes between the parties satisfied the jurisdictional requirement of the IDEA. The district court ultimately concluded that jurisdiction was not provided by the provisions of the IDEA regarding the enforceability of settlements in federal court – such jurisdiction would be in state court. It further held that the decision was not based on “substantive grounds” and dismissed the matter without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The parents appealed the dismissal of their case to the Third Circuit.

The Third Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and remanded the matter pursuant to its opinion. The Court explained that Section 1415(f) of the IDEA permits challenges on due process hearing decisions, and this section “directs that ‘a decision made by a hearing officer shall be made on substantive grounds based on a determination of whether the child received a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”).’” The Court determined that the ALJ’s Decision Approving Settlement was a substantive decision in this case by highlighting that the ALJ’s findings included: “(1) what the issues raised in the due process complaint were; (2) that there is an agreement whose terms resolve the issues raised; (3) that the parties mutually assented to that settlement agreement; and (4) that the agreement’s material terms comply with the IDEA’s mandate that participating school districts provide students with disability a FAPE.” The Court also mentioned that the ALJ’s final order in this matter incorporated the agreed terms, which addressed the provision of the child’s FAPE, and informed the parties of their rights to appeal.

The Court plainly stated that a party is considered aggrieved “by the findings and decision of an ALJ when they articulate a challenge to the ALJ’s basis for entry of a final administrative order.” As a result of this case, voluntary special education settlement agreements which are approved by an ALJ of the NJOAL are now appealable to federal district court.

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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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