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I.K. v. School District of Haverford Township

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 14, 2013

I.K., by and through his parent and educational decision maker, B.K.
v.
THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF HAVERFORD TOWNSHIP

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For I.K., BY AND THROUGH HIS PARENT AND EDUCATIONAL DECISION MAKER, B.K., Plaintiff: SONJA D. KERR, LEAD ATTORNEY, THE PUBLIC INTEREST LAW CENTER OF PHILA, PHILADELPHIA, PA; BENJAMIN D. GEFFEN, PUBLIC INTEREST LAW CENTER OF PHILA, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF HAVERFORD TOWNSHIP, Defendant: FRANCES RATNER, LEAD ATTORNEY, NATALIE M. HABERT, BEATTY LINCKE, KENNETT SQUARE, PA.

For JUDITH GRAN, Movant: CATHERINE MERINO REISMAN, LEAD ATTORNEY, REISMAN CAROLLA PC, HADDONFIELD, NJ.

OPINION

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MEMORANDUM

STEWART DALZELL, J.

This consolidated matter has its genesis in disputes between a parent, B.K., and her now twenty-year-old special education-eligible child I.K.'s (collectively, " plaintiff" or " B.K." ) former school district,[1] the School District of Haverford Township (" the District" ), over certain individualized education issues arising under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, formerly known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (" IDEA" ), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. The precise claims now before us arise from

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the District's alleged failure to provide I.K. with a free appropriate public education (" FAPE" ) and allegations that the District discriminated against I.K. on account of his disability.

In 2012, following a tortured history and narrative of inter-party communications at the administrative and federal court levels, Hearing Officer Linda M. Valentini, Psy.D., CHO (" hearing officer" ) issued a final decision on substantive grounds that reopened a previously closed due process complaint and ultimately reached the merits of I.K.'s IDEA claims.

Pending are the District's motion to supplement the administrative record and three dispositive motions. B.K. and the District filed what collectively function as cross appeals of the hearing officer's 2011 and 2012 Decisions below. B.K. also filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the discrimination claims that are still pending in this case. On August 5, 2013, we convened an evidentiary hearing to assist us in deciding the District's motion to supplement the record.

For the reasons detailed below, we will grant in part and deny in part the District's motion to supplement the administrative record and motion for summary judgment. We conclude that although no valid settlement agreement exists between the parties, the District has nevertheless succeeded on its equitable claim that promissory estoppel makes B.K.'s promises to settle I.K.'s IDEA and discrimination claims enforceable under the augmented record. Therefore, the District is entitled to summary judgment on the basis of the waiver and release -- the affirmative defenses it pled in its answer to B.K.'s complaint in C.A. No. 12-4066. We therefore affirm the hearing officer's 2011 decision but vacate her 2012 decision in its entirety. Because we conclude that B.K. has waived and/or released the District from liability for the IDEA and discrimination claims she advances in her complaint, we are obliged to deny as moot B.K.'s motion for judgment on the administrative record and motion for partial summary judgment on the discrimination claims.

I. An Overview of the Parties' Dispositive Motions

The District's motion for summary judgment takes issue with the hearing officer's findings of fact and conclusions of law to the extent she (1) failed to find the existence of a settlement agreement between the parties in July of 2009, (2) lacked authority to issue her April 2012 decision in light of our remand Order, (3) failed to entertain the District's promissory estoppel claim, and, assuming the hearing officer was justified in reaching the merits of B.K.'s claims, she (4) erred in her merits determination. The District's motion for summary judgment seeks an Order " reversing the Hearing Officer's July 8, 2011 ruling denying the existence of a settlement agreement between the parties." The District also seeks reversal of the hearing officer's April 18, 2012 ruling on the substance of Plaintiff's claims in its entirety. District MSJ 4.

Unsurprisingly, B.K.'s response contends that the hearing officer did not err in finding that no settlement agreement existed between the parties. B.K. asserts that the hearing officer had the authority to issue her April 2012 Decision. Although B.K. responded to the District's unclean hands claim, her response (oddly) fails to acknowledge the District's estoppel argument. And, but for one aspect of her merits determination, B.K. contends that the hearing officer's 2012 Decision should be affirmed in full and the District's motion for summary judgment on the discrimination claims should be denied.

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By contrast, B.K.'s motion for judgment on the administrative record focuses exclusively on the hearing officer's April 2012 decision. B.K. Mt. J. Admin. Rec. 18 (" the Court should . . . revers[e] the Hearing Officer's legal error requiring Plaintiff I.K. to re-enroll to receive a proposed Individual Education Plan (" IEP" ), and otherwise uphold[] the Hearing Officer's decision." ). B.K. also filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the liability components of her Rehabilitation Act § 504, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (" Section 504" ) and Americans with Disabilities Act (" ADA" ) claims. The District seeks summary judgment based upon its waiver and release contentions premised upon its promissory estoppel argument. District MSJ 45.

II. Jurisdiction

The parties' IDEA claims comprise what are effectively cross-appeals of the hearing officer's 2011 and 2012 decisions. Since the hearing officer's final 2012 Decision addressed on substantive grounds " whether [I.K.] received a free appropriate public education'", 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(E)(i), and denied the parties portions of the relief that each of them sought, they are both " aggrieved by the findings and decision" and thus they have a " right to bring a civil action . . . in a district court of the United States, without regard to the amount in controversy" . Id. § 1415(i)(2)(A). In light of our consolidation of four civil actions -- C.A. Nos. 12-4066, 12-4033, 11-6040, and 10-4397 -- we will construe all of the parties' claims of error in the hearing officer's decisions below as if they had raised them collectively in omnibus cross-appeals.

As to the federal discrimination claims under Section 504 and the ADA, we have general federal question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

III. Pertinent Facts and Procedural History

The District's motion for summary judgment takes issue with the hearing officer's conclusion of law in her July 8, 2011 Decision, ODR #00803/09-10 KE (" the 2011 Decision" ), that the parties failed to enter into an enforceable contract in July of 2009 because their alleged agreement lacked consideration. We will begin with a survey of the hearing officer's findings of fact pertinent to this issue and we will canvass other facts relevant to the overall procedural history of this controversy.

We proceed under the prescribed modified de novo standard of review under which must " give 'due weight' to the findings of the state hearing officer. . . . [and consider f]actual findings from the administrative proceedings . . . to be considered prima facie correct." Ridley Sch. Dist. v. M.R., 680 F.3d 260, 268 (3d Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). If we choose to reject the hearing officer's factual findings, we must explain why we do. Id. " Within the confines of these standards, [we are] authorized to make findings based on the preponderance of the evidence and grant the relief [we] deem[] appropriate." D.S. v. Bayonne Bd. of Educ., 602 F.3d 553, 564 (3d Cir. 2010) (citations omitted); 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii); see also Shore Reg'l High Sch. Bd. of Educ. v. P.S., 381 F.3d 194, 199 (3d Cir. 2004) (describing a district court's burden as " unusual" in that it must make its own findings by a preponderance of the evidence, but nevertheless afford " due weight" to the administrative officer's determinations). We have plenary review of the hearing officer's legal conclusions and the standards she applied in deciding the claims before her. D.S., 602 F.3d at 564.

Giving the hearing officer's factual findings the due weight they deserve under

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this modified de novo standard of review, we find no basis to depart from her findings as to the settlement agreement question. We reproduce below those facts that she found in her 2011 Decision that factor into our analysis of her decision and the lengthy procedural history in this case.

A. 2011 Findings of Fact[2]

* * *
2. The Parent through her former counsel filed a due process complaint on June 15, 2009. The matter was assigned to Hearing Officer Daniel Myers and scheduled for July 29, 2009.
3. The Parent did not receive or hear from her counsel about any settlement proposal from the District following the filing of the due process complaint.
4. On July 28, 2009 the parties and their respective attorneys held a resolution meeting for several hours. At times the parties and their counsel all met together, at other times the parties met individually with their attorney, and at times counsel met with each other.
5. Counsel for the District wrote down some basic settlement terms which had been discussed in the fashion described above. District counsel then read the terms discussed thus far, and Parent's counsel, who was the Parent's formal legal representative at the time, orally agreed to the terms. None of the participants signed the sheet of paper on which the terms were written.
6. The handwritten notes reflecting some basic items of the proposed agreement do not reflect that there was specific and detailed discussion about elements that would be put into a written agreement, such as a release of civil rights claims, a confidentiality provision, and the necessity for the school board to ratify any agreement. Neither the Parent nor her former attorney recalled that conditions such as these were examined.
7. Believing the parties had come to an agreement in principle, counsel for both the District and the Parent spoke to Hearing Officer Myers on the telephone, asking that the hearing session be canceled and requesting 30 days to finalize the agreement. Hearing Officer Myers canceled the session and agreed to continue the matter for 30 days after which time, if he had not heard from the attorneys, he would dismiss the case. He confirmed this by email.
8. The Parent left the meeting not believing that there had been a settlement, and/or not being in complete agreement with the proposal.
9. The standard retainer agreement between a client and the Parent's former attorney's agency specifically gives the client responsibility concerning the acceptance

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or rejection of settlement of any claims.
10. On September 4, 2009, when 38 days had elapsed, and having heard nothing further, Hearing Officer Myers notified counsel by email that he was dismissing the matter and considered it closed.
* * *
12. As of September 4, 2009 the Parent had not signed the settlement agreement. The Parent has not ever signed a finalized revised copy of the settlement agreement.
* * *
22. After attempts to work out [certain] problems [related to the closure of the 2009 due process complaint] were not successful, on March 9 or 10, 2010 Parent's counsel amended the original complaint and submitted a motion to re-open the original due process matter. The parties held several resolution sessions, and exchanged communication by email, none of which resulted in a resolution of the matter.
* * *
24. On March 19, 2010 the District through counsel filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that an agreement had already been reached in principle in July 2009, that the present hearing officer had no authority to reinstitute a prior complaint, that even if she did have that authority it should not be exercised as a six month period to re-file a claim was " completely out-of-step with the emphasis on timeliness regarding these types of claims", and that a claim for specific enforcement of a contract is a matter of state law over which the hearing officer lacks jurisdiction.
25. The Parent through counsel filed a response in opposition to the motion. The District filed a reply to the response. The Parent filed a motion for reconsideration.
26. In a ruling dated June 5, 2010 this hearing officer granted the District's motion to dismiss because the same matter had been dismissed by the previous hearing officer, because the Parent had not taken a timely appeal of that hearing officer's dismissal order and because insofar as the hearing would involve a determination of whether or not an agreement existed between the parties this hearing officer believed that she did not have the jurisdictional authority to decide a contract dispute. Further, on June 5th this hearing officer denied the Parent's motion for reconsideration.

B. Procedural History

As will be seen, the procedural history of this controversy has been long and complex. Regrettably, we must rehearse it in detail here.

On June 5, 2010, the hearing officer denied B.K.'s request to reopen the 2009 administrative action that had been dismissed by another hearing officer. In her Decision, Hearing Officer Valentini granted the District's earlier motion to dismiss because the same matter had been dismissed by the previous hearing officer, the Parent had not taken a timely appeal of that hearing officer's dismissal order, and the hearing would involve a determination of whether an agreement existed, an issue the hearing officer believed she lacked the jurisdiction to decide. H1 Ex. 4 (2011 Decision) ¶ 27.

On October 15, 2010, I.K., by and through his parent and educational decisionmaker, B.K., filed Civil Action No. 10-4397 (" the 2010 action" ) against the District as an appeal from the hearing officer's June 5, 2010 Decision.

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On March 21, 2011, we issued a Memorandum, I.K. v. Sch. Dist. Of Haverford Twnp., No. 10-4397, 2011 WL 1042311 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 21, 2011), and held that " it [was] within Hearing Officer [Dr. Linda] Valentini's jurisdiction to determine whether a valid settlement agreement exists" . [WL] at *5. We granted the District's Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss without prejudice and remanded the matter " to Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer Valentini on the issue of whether a valid settlement agreement exist[ed]" between plaintiff and the District. Id.

Acting pursuant to our remand Order, Hearing Officer Valentini heard the parties' evidence over the course of two days. On July 8, 2011, she issued her 2011 Decision, articulated twenty-seven findings of fact, and concluded that " no settlement agreement exists between the parties." H1 Ex. 4 (2011 Decision) at 13. Though the School District raised a promissory estoppel claim in its written closing argument before the hearing officer in the proceedings related to the 2011 Decision, H1 Ex. 5 at 22, her 2011 Decision failed to address this claim.

On August 30, 2011, within the ninety-day period to file a federal action challenging a hearing officer's ruling in an IDEIA matter, the District initiated Civil Action No. 11-6040 seeking primarily to " [r]eview and reverse the Hearing Officer's order dated July 8, 2011" and " [u]phold the enforceability of the October 15, 2009 written settlement agreement, including Parent's release of all claims as set forth therein" . Civ. Action No. 11-6040, Complaint at 25 (" the 2011 action" ).

On September 19, 2011, after the District had initiated the suit before us, it moved before the hearing officer to dismiss B.K.'s second administrative proceeding in light of the hearing officer's intimation that she would allow the second due process complaint to proceed as if the first-filed action had not been dismissed. In its memorandum of law in support of its motion, the District once again contended that B.K.'s claims were barred by promissory estoppel because " the District acted in reliance upon the representations made by Parent and her attorney that the matter had been resolved." H1 Ex. 3 at 17. The hearing officer denied the District's motion without explanation, id. Ex. 2, thus implicitly rejecting the District's estoppel argument without reaching it.

The hearing officer then set a merits determination and scheduled hearings. After several days of evidence were presented to the hearing officer in mid-March of 2012, the parties filed post-hearing submissions. H2 Exs. 3-4. In the District's written closing, it raised the promissory estoppel claim for a third time. Id. Ex. 4 at 56-58.

While the parties were engaged in these administrative proceedings, the District filed before us its motion to strike the administrative record, or, in the alternative, motion to supplement the administrative record with Judith A. Gran, Esq.'s (B.K.'s former attorney) testimony about a September 28, 2009 evening conversation that occurred between Gran and B.K. on B.K.'s sister's porch. Though we denied that motion without prejudice in light of the parties' lack of opposition to a mediation before the Honorable Jacob P. Hart, the proceedings before us in C.A. No. 11-6040 the 2011 action stalled after the mediation with Judge Hart failed, but the parties continued to actively litigate the merits of B.K.'s claims before the hearing officer.

On April 18, 2012, the hearing officer issued a Decision on the merits of I.K.'s IDEA and Section 504 claims following seven days of testimony and the introduction of evidence (" the 2012 Decision" ).

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The hearing officer's fifty-four page Decision again failed to mention the District's estoppel claim. On July 16, 2012, we transferred Civil Action No. 11-6040 from our Active docket to our Civil Suspense docket pending the expiration of the ninety-day period the parties had under the IDEA to initiate an action appealing a hearing officer's decision.

Both parties filed new complaints -- Civil Action Nos. 12-4033 and 12-4066 -- which together constitute cross-appeals of different aspects of the 2012 Decision. B.K.'s complaint also raised discrimination claims under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA. We ...


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