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FALZETT v. THE POCONO MOUNTAIN SHCOOL DISTRICT

July 23, 2001

FRANK FALZETT AND BRANDE FALZETT, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PARENTS AND NATURAL GUARDIANS OF TIBER FALZETT, A MINOR, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
THE POCONO MOUNTAIN SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo

MEMORANDUM

This case arose after Tiber Falzett contracted Giardiasis from surface water parasites in early 1998 and was forced to receive home bound schooling during the spring of his seventh grade year and the whole of his eighth grade year. (Am. Compl., Doc. 8 ¶ 7-9.) After unsuccessfully negotiating with the defendant school district regarding Tiber's individualized education program ("IEP"), the Falzetts placed Tiber in a private school and brought the instant action for tuition reimbursement and compensatory damages. The complaint invokes the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), various Pennsylvania regulations, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Id.) Presently before the court is the school district's motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.*fn1 This motion requires the court to decide whether an IDEA plaintiff must exhaust his administrative remedies prior to bringing suit where the plaintiff seeks both tuition reimbursement, a remedy that is available through the administrative process, and monetary damages, a remedy that is not. Because the court concludes that such a plaintiff must exhaust the available administrative procedures, and because the court further concludes that the exhaustion requirement is not excused by the parties' irreconcilable differences, the school district's motion to dismiss will be granted.

LEGAL STANDARD

The school district brought the present motion to dismiss for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). However, as exhaustion of administrative remedies is jurisdictional in the IDEA context, see W.B. v. Matula, 67 F.3d 484, 493 (3d Cir. 1995), the court will treat the motion to dismiss as one brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), which provides for the dismissal of a complaint where the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction.*fn2

Unlike dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(6), dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is not a judgment on the merits of the plaintiff's case, but only a determination that the court lacks the authority to hear the case. Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. and Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977). A Rule 12(b)(1) motion may be treated either as a facial or a factual challenge to the court's subject matter jurisdiction. Gould Elecs. Inc., v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 178 (3d Cir. 2000). If the motion is treated as a facial attack, the court may consider only the allegations contained in the complaint and the exhibits attached to the complaint; matters of public record such as court records, letter decisions of government agencies and published reports of administrative bodies; and "undisputably authentic" documents which the plaintiff has identified as a basis of his claims and which the defendant has attached as exhibits to his motion to dismiss. Hunter v. United States, 2000 WL 1880257, *3 (M.D.Pa.). See generally Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus. Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196-97 (3d Cir. 1993).

On the other hand, if the defendant submits and the court considers evidence that controverts the plaintiff's allegations, the court must treat the motion as a factual challenge under Rule 12(b)(1). Gould, 220 F.3d at 178. In such cases, "the trial court is free to weigh evidence and satisfy itself as to the existence of its power to hear the case." Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891. No presumption of truthfulness attaches to the allegations in the plaintiff's complaint, and the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to show that the court possesses jurisdiction. Id. However, the plaintiff must be permitted to respond to the defendant's evidence with evidence supporting jurisdiction. Id. In the present matter, the court will consider only the allegations in the Falzetts' amended complaint, treating the school district's motion to dismiss as a facial attack on subject matter jurisdiction.

DISCUSSION

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees handicapped children a "free appropriate public education" by providing the states with incentives to adopt the Act's comprehensive scheme of procedural safeguards. See 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.; Komninos v. Upper Saddle River Bd. of Educ., 13 F.3d 775 (3d Cir. 1994). Chief among these safeguards are the right to a due process hearing before an independent administrative officer, see 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(2), and the right to institute a civil action after receiving an adverse decision on the administrative level, see 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2). However, the IDEA requires that a plaintiff exhaust his administrative remedies under the Act before filing a civil action seeking relief that is "also available" under the IDEA. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l).*fn3 Such an exhaustion requirement

enables the agency to develop a factual record, to apply its expertise to the problem, to exercise its discretion, and to correct its own mistakes, and is credited with promoting accuracy, efficiency, agency autonomy, and judicial economy. See McKart v. United States, 395 U.S. 185, 194, 23 L.Ed.2d 194, 89 S.Ct. 1657 (1969).

Christopher W. v. Portsmouth Sch. Comm., 877 F.2d 1089, 1094 (1st Cir. 1989).

Although the Falzetts requested a due process hearing pursuant to 22 Pa. Code § 14.64(a), it appears that the Falzetts declined to go forward with the hearing due to their dissatisfaction with the school district's conduct during the course of the parties' settlement negotiations. (Doc. 8 ¶¶ 25-34; Brief, Doc. 13 at 3.) In any event, the Falzetts do not dispute that they have failed to exhaust their administrative remedies prior to bringing suit. (Doc. 13 at 3.) Rather, they argue that their failure to exhaust is excused as futile. See Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 326-27, 108 S.Ct. 592, 98 L.Ed.2d 686 (1988) (excusing the exhaustion requirement where administrative proceedings would be futile).

The Falzetts point to the parties' failed settlement negotiations — in particular to the school district's failure to consummate a settlement agreement — as evidence that administrative proceedings would be futile. (Doc. 13 at *3.) However, an atmosphere of animosity between the parties, even where accompanied by dilatory tactics on the part of the defendant, does not make the plaintiff's administrative remedies futile. See Kuszewski v. Chippewa Valley Sch., 51 F. Supp.2d 812, 815 (E.D.Mich. 1999). Even the defendant's refusal to participate in the due process hearing does not make the administrative process futile. See Rose v. Yeaw, 214 F.3d 206, 212 (1st Cir. 2000). In such circumstances, the plaintiff can and should proceed with the due process hearing unilaterally. Id.

The Falzetts have not alleged that the school district withdrew from the scheduled due process hearing. They simply argue that the course of negotiations between the parties indicates that no mutually satisfactory resolution is possible. According to the Falzetts,

[i]t is obvious that a result such as the one negotiated by the Plaintiffs [but rejected by Defendant] would be unsatisfactory to the Defendant. A result of less than that which the Plaintiffs bargained for will likewise be an unsatisfactory and inadequate [sic] to the Plaintiffs. As such, and as ...

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