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J.N. v. Penn-Delco School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 30, 2017

J.N., a minor, by his parents and natural guardians, J.N. and C.N., Plaintiff,
v.
PENN-DELCO SCHOOL DISTRICT Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, J.

         This is an action brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA” or “the Act”), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1466, on behalf of Plaintiff J.N. (“Plaintiff” or “J.N.”), a minor diagnosed with severe childhood apraxia of speech, by his parents, J.N. and C.N. (“the Parents”). The Parents allege that J.N.'s school district has failed to provide a free, appropriate public education for J.N. in accordance with the requirements of the Act, and they seek reimbursement for J.N.'s tuition, transportation, and other costs of attendance at a private school. The parties have reached a settlement, which must be approved by the Court pursuant to Local Rule 41.2. Plaintiff filed a motion for approval of the settlement agreement, which Defendant does not oppose. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant Plaintiff's motion.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff J.N. is a ten-year-old student who was diagnosed with severe childhood apraxia of speech. J.N. and his parents allege that, for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, Defendant Penn-Delco School District (“the District”) offered J.N. Individualized Education Programs (“IEPs”)[1] that were inadequate to meet J.N.'s needs. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 4-5, ECF No. 14. Those IEPs placed J.N. in a “Multiple Disabilities Support” (“MDS”) classroom, which Plaintiff alleges is designed to serve children who have vastly different needs from those of J.N. Id. ¶¶ 105-15. According to Plaintiff, J.N. has significant difficulties with the motor skills necessary for speech, but he has “normal intelligence and is highly motivated to communicate, ” distinguishing him from the other children in an MDS classroom. Id. ¶¶ 1, 32, 33, 105.

         Plaintiff alleges that the Parents worked extensively with the District to find an appropriate solution for J.N.'s educational needs without success, and subsequently placed J.N. in a private school specializing in his disability, the TALK Institute (“TALK”). Id. ¶ 52-60. After rejecting the District's IEP for the 2013-14 school year, the Parents sought reimbursement from the District for J.N.'s placement at TALK for that school year.[2] Id. ¶¶ 4-5, 115. The District claimed that the Parents were not entitled to reimbursement. Am. Compl. Ex. A at 2, ECF No. 1-1. The dispute regarding the District's 2013-14 IEP for J.N. and the Parents' request for reimbursement for that school year proceeded to a hearing before a Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer. Id. After a nine-session hearing, the Hearing Officer concluded that the District was able to provide an appropriate educational placement for J.N., but that it needed “to take steps to alleviate [the] Parents' concerns” regarding the adequacy of speech and language services. Id. Having concluded that the District's placement was appropriate, the Hearing Officer denied Plaintiff's tuition reimbursement claim. Id.

         The Parents subsequently rejected the District's IEP for J.N. for the 2014-15 school year, which the Parents allege is nearly identical to his IEP for the 2013-14 school year, and kept J.N. in the same private school placement. Am. Compl. ¶ 183.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff commenced this action on March 19, 2014, appealing the Hearing Officer's decision and bringing claims under the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i); the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794; and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12131. ECF No. 1. The District answered the complaint on May 16, 2014. ECF No. 3. Plaintiff filed a motion to amend the complaint on August 22, 2014, seeking to add claims related to the District's IEP for J.N. for the 2014-15 school year. ECF No. 9. The Court granted the motion on November 7, 2014, ECF No. 13, and Plaintiff filed an amended complaint the same day, ECF No. 14. The District answered the amended complaint on November 25, 2014. ECF No. 16. The Court subsequently held a status and scheduling conference and issued a scheduling order. ECF No. 18.

         Following a settlement conference with Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Rueter on January 13, 2015, the Court placed the action in suspense pending the filing of a petition for final approval of settlement. ECF No. 22. On October 31, 2016, the parties having failed to file a petition for final approval of settlement, the Court issued a Rule to Show Cause why the action should not be dismissed for lack of prosecution. ECF No. 23. The Rule was returnable in writing on or before November 18, 2016. Id.

         Plaintiff filed a Motion for Approval of Settlement Agreement on November 18, 2016, attaching a draft of the parties' settlement (the “Settlement Agreement”). ECF No. 24. Plaintiff argues that the settlement is in the best interests of J.N. and that the attorneys' fees included in the settlement are reasonable. Id. Plaintiff also filed a response to the Rule to Show Cause the same day. ECF No. 25.

         The District responded to Plaintiff's motion on December 1, 2016. ECF No. 27. The District does not object to the relief sought in Plaintiff's motion. The District agrees that the Settlement Agreement is fair, reasonable, and in the best interests of J.N., and that it should be approved by the Court. Id. at 1. The District does, however, object to certain statements in Plaintiff's motion regarding J.N.'s progress and the market rate for special education lawyers. Id.

         The Court held a hearing and is now ready to rule on Plaintiff's motion.

         III. THE TERMS OF THE SETTLEMENT

         Under the terms of the Settlement Agreement, the District agrees to make a direct payment of tuition to a parentally selected and properly accredited private school of the ...


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