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A.S. v. office for Dispute Resolution (Quakertown Community School District)

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

January 24, 2014

A.S. and R.S., individually and on behalf of S.S., and S.S. in his own right, Petitioners
v.
Office for Dispute Resolution (Quakertown Community School District), Respondent

Submitted: November 8, 2013.

Appealed from No. 13461/12-13-KE. State Agency: Office for Dispute Resolution.

Angela M. Smith, Pro se.

Jonathan P. Riba, New Britain, for respondent Quakertown Community School District.

BEFORE: HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, President Judge, HONORABLE RENÉ E COHN JUBELIRER, Judge, HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge. OPINION BY JUDGE COHN JUBELIRER. DISSENTING OPINION BY PRESIDENT JUDGE PELLEGRINI.

OPINION

Page 257

RENÉ E COHN JUBELIRER, Judge.

A.S. and R.S., individually and on behalf of S.S., and S.S. in his own right (collectively

Page 258

" Parents" ), petition, pro se, for review of an Order of a Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer (Hearing Officer) finding that no settlement agreement existed between Parents and the Quakertown Community School District (School District). On appeal, Parents argue that the Hearing Officer erred by finding that no valid settlement agreement existed where the approval of the settlement agreement by the School District's School Board was the result of negligence on the part of the School District and not fraud on the part of Parents. Upon review, we conclude that the Hearing Officer erred by finding that no valid settlement agreement existed in this matter; therefore, we must reverse the Hearing Officer's Order.

The Hearing Officer made the following relevant findings of fact. Parents have an elementary age child, S.S., (Student), who is a resident of the School District and eligible for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act[1] (IDEA). (Hearing Officer's Decision at 2, Findings of Fact (FOF) ¶ 1.) In the Spring of 2012, Parents filed a counseled due process complaint which was bifurcated to permit expedited consideration of Parents' contention that the School District failed to provide appropriate extended school year (ESY) services to Student. (FOF ¶ 1 n.3.) The remaining part of the complaint was assigned Office of Dispute Resolution file #3209-11-12-AS.[2] (FOF ¶ 1.) Parents and the School District, through their respective counsel at the time,[3] entered into negotiations to resolve the complaint without proceeding to a due process hearing. (FOF ¶ ¶ 2-4.) The child's mother, Parents' counsel, and the School District's counsel met on September 14, 2012 and discussed settlement terms. (FOF ¶ 4.) The School District's Director of Pupil Services was not present at this meeting. (FOF ¶ 4.) Thereafter, between September 20, 2012 and September 25, 2012, the parties' counsel negotiated, via email, the terms of the settlement agreement. (FOF ¶ 8.)

On October 2, 2012, the School District's counsel emailed Parents' counsel a settlement agreement (Agreement One) for Parents' review. (FOF ¶ 16.) The School

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District's counsel requested that Parents' counsel have Parents sign two copies of Agreement One and return the originals to her office. (FOF ¶ 18.) The School District's counsel informed Parents' counsel that the originals would be forwarded to the School District for final approval and execution. (FOF ¶ 18.) A copy of Agreement One was not sent to the School District's Director of Pupil Services. (FOF ¶ 18.)

Parents reviewed Agreement One, identified provisions that they believed had been discussed at the September 14, 2012 meeting that were not included in Agreement One, and also identified provisions in Agreement One that they did not recall being discussed at the meeting. (FOF ¶ 25.) Parents made handwritten changes to their copy of Agreement One. (FOF ¶ 25.) Parents disputed that the terms in Agreement One were the agreed upon terms and believed that the terms were those of the School District's counsel, not Parents' counsel. (FOF ¶ 26.)

On October 3 or 4, 2012, Student's mother contacted Parents' counsel to discuss the changes Parents wanted to make to Agreement One. (FOF ¶ 27.) Student's mother directed Parents' counsel to redraft Agreement One and send it back to Parents for further review. (FOF ¶ 27.) Parents' counsel emailed a revised agreement (Agreement Two) to Parents sometime between October 4 and 7, 2012. (FOF ¶ 28.) Agreement Two was typed in a different font than Agreement One, contained additional provisions than those found in Agreement One, omitted some provisions that had been in Agreement One, and " did not contain the notation 'draft' in the lower left hand corner of the pages as did Agreement One." (FOF ¶ 29.) Agreement Two also " contained terms that were explicitly rejected by the [School] District during the September 14th meeting and during subsequent negotiations." (FOF ¶ 29.)

Parents reviewed Agreement Two and determined that it conformed with the changes that Student's mother directed Parents' counsel to make to Agreement One. (FOF ¶ 30.) However, Parents did not contact their counsel that they approved Agreement Two. (FOF ¶ 30.) Parents signed Agreement Two on October 8, 2012. (FOF ¶ 31.) On that same date, Student's mother hand-delivered the signed Agreement Two to the building receptionist at the School District's administrative office. (FOF ¶ 32.) Student's mother did not inform the receptionist or notify the School District's Director of Pupil Services that Agreement One, drafted by the School District's counsel, had been revised by Parents' counsel at Parents' request. (FOF ¶ ¶ 33-34.)

The School District's Director of Pupil Services testified that he was puzzled that Student's mother had dropped off material for him without waiting for him to initial that he had received the material, as she had done in the past.[4] (FOF ¶ 35.) As a result, he checked Agreement Two " to be sure the dollar amount agreed upon was correct, and as the amount was correct he gave the document to the School Board secretary to be put on the Board's agenda" for approval. (FOF ¶ 35.) The Director of Pupil Services did not read Agreement Two in any depth because these types of agreements are usually negotiated and finalized by the School District's counsel. (FOF ¶ 35.) The Director of Pupil Services believed that Agreement Two was

Page 260

the agreement that the School District's counsel had negotiated with Parents' counsel and that he had no reason to believe that Parents or their counsel had changed the terms. (FOF ¶ ¶ 36-37.)

Parents' counsel did not inform the School District's counsel that Parents disagreed with the terms of Agreement One or that his office had drafted Agreement Two. (FOF ¶ 39.) Parents' counsel emailed Parents on October 8, 2012 and asked them to get back to him regarding Agreement Two so that he could forward it to the School District's counsel. (FOF ¶ 40.) Parents' counsel was unaware that Student's mother had already delivered a signed copy of Agreement Two to the School District. (FOF ¶ 41.)

When the School District's counsel learned that Student's mother had delivered signed copies of an agreement to the Director of Pupil Services, she did not request that the Director send a copy to her office. (FOF ¶ 42.) The School District's counsel testified that, although it was not the norm, it was not unusual for parents to deliver agreements to the School District and that she never encountered the situation where the agreement was different than what she expected. (FOF ¶ 42.)

On October 11, 2012, Parents' counsel emailed the School District's counsel requesting a confirmation as to when a written settlement agreement would be concluded. (FOF ¶ 43.) The School District's counsel replied, with a copy to the Director of Pupil Services as follows: " If you are asking when Board approval will occur, that will be at the October 25, 2012 meeting." (FOF ¶ 44.) Parents' counsel then forwarded the School District's counsel's response to Parents with the comment that they would have to wait and see until October 25, 2012. (FOF ¶ 45.)

On either October 10, 2012 or October 11, 2012, Student's mother and the Director of Pupil Services conversed on the telephone, but Student's mother did not directly inform the Director that her counsel had retyped Agreement One and that the terms presented in Agreement Two were different than those contained in Agreement One. (FOF ¶ ¶ 46-47.) Student's mother informed the Director that the agreement she provided to him was " more in line with what we had discussed." (FOF ¶ 46.)

The School District's Superintendent (Superintendent) presented Agreement Two to the School Board for approval on October 25, 2012 and when she did so, she was unaware that Agreement Two was a revision of Agreement One. (FOF ¶ 49.) The Superintendent's common practice is to rely on counsel to negotiate the terms of an agreement and to draft a settlement agreement for the School Board's approval and execution. (FOF ¶ 49.) The Superintendent is only informed of the essential terms of a settlement agreement. (FOF ¶ 49.) The School Board approved Agreement Two on October 25, 2012, without discussion, the Board President signed Agreement Two without first reading the document " in accordance with the accepted practice and in reliance that the agreement," and ...


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