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Santino P. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 15, 2017

SANTINO P., by and through his Parent, JOSEPH P., Plaintiff,


          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         This case requires the Court to decide whether a parent who prevailed in a due process hearing against a public charter school can recover attorneys' fees from the Pennsylvania Department of Education when the Department was not a party to that hearing and separately satisfied its obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). The parties stipulated to all facts and filed cross motions for summary judgment. The Court grants the Department's motion for two related reasons: The Plaintiff did not prevail against the Department at the due process hearing and Congress declined to make fee shifting integral to a free appropriate public education under IDEA.



         IDEA requires states receiving federal funding to make a “free appropriate public education available to all children with disabilities.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A); see also Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v. Douglas Sch. Dist., 137 S.Ct. 988, 993 (2017); D.S. v. Bayonne Bd. of Educ., 602 F.3d 553, 556 (3d Cir. 2010). A free appropriate public education “includes both ‘special education' and ‘related services.'” Endrew F., 137 S.Ct. at 994 (citing 20 U.S.C. §§ 1401(26), (29)). IDEA mandates instruction that is “specially . . . designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child, supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child to benefit from the instruction.” D.S., 602 F.3d at 556 (quotation and citation omitted); see also 20 U.S.C. § 1401(9). Under IDEA, states “must confer an education providing ‘significant learning' and ‘meaningful benefit' to the child.” Id. (quoting Ridgewood Bd. of Educ. v. N.E., 172 F.3d 238, 247 (3d Cir. 1999)). IDEA thus “ensures that students with special education needs receive the type of education that will ‘prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.'” Ferren C. v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., 612 F.3d 712, 717 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A)).

         States seeking funding under IDEA must submit a plan of compliance to the Secretary of Education. 20 U.S.C. §§ 1412-14. IDEA then gives the State Education Agency (“SEA”)-i.e., the state department of education, id. § 1401(32)-the responsibility of apportioning the funds to Local Education Agencies (“LEAs”)-i.e. school districts or public charter schools, id. § 1401(19)(A). See Id . § 1413(a). “The SEA is responsible for ensuring that LEAs comply with the mandates of the IDEA in providing educational services to those eligible students.” Charlene R. v. Solomon Charter Sch., 63 F.Supp.3d 510, 513 (E.D. Pa. 2014) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(11)(A)). The LEA is the entity that actually provides services to children under IDEA. Id.; see also 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A). It is the SEA, however, that “retains primary responsibility to ensure that all children with disabilities receive the education that is their right under the IDEA.” Charlene R., 63 F.Supp. at 513; see 20 U.S.C. §§ 1412(a)(11)(A), 1413(g)(1); Kruelle v. New Castle Cty. Sch. Dist., 642 F.2d 687, 696 (3d Cir. 1981); see also Pachl v. Seagren, 453 F.3d 1064, 1070 (8th Cir. 2006); St. Tammany Parish Sch. Bd. v. State of Louisiana, 142 F.3d 776, 784 (5th Cir. 1998); Gadsby v. Grasmick, 109 F.3d 940, 943 (4th Cir. 1997).


         IDEA requires states to establish extensive safeguards to ensure all disabled children receive a free appropriate public education. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(a). Three primary mechanisms exist to settle such disputes: a due process hearing, a state complaint and formal mediation.

         A due process hearing provides an “opportunity for any party to present a complaint . . . with respect to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child.” Id. § 1415(b)(6)(A). “In Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth's Office of Dispute Resolution (“ODR”) is responsible for conducting IDEA due process hearings.” H.E. v. Palmer, 220 F.Supp.3d 574, 577 (E.D. Pa. 2016) (citing 22 Pa. Code § 14.162). Any party “aggrieved by” the hearing officer's “findings and decision” may seek review of the decision by filing a civil action in state court or in a district court of the United States. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A).

         Alternatively, parents may file a complaint directly with the SEA. “Upon receipt of such a complaint, the SEA must evaluate the complaint and carry out, as necessary, an independent investigation before reaching a final decision containing findings of fact and conclusions.” R.V. v. Rivera, 220 F.Supp.3d 588, 591 (E.D. Pa. 2016) (citing 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.151-.153)). The due process hearing and state complaint process are parallel proceedings, “either of which a parent may opt to pursue in the first instance, ” however, “the due process complaint procedure takes priority over the state complaint procedure.” Id. (citing 34 C.F.R. § 300.152(c)(1) (explaining that an SEA must stay its investigation when a due process complaint is filed)).

         Finally, IDEA provides for formal mediation. States must “ensure that procedures are established and implemented to allow parties . . . to resolve such disputes through a mediation process.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(1). This process must be voluntary, cannot be “used to deny or delay a parent's right to a due process hearing . . . or to deny any other rights” and must be “conducted by a qualified and impartial mediator who is trained in effective mediation techniques.” Id. § 1415(e)(2)(A).


         Separate from the procedural protections described above, IDEA allows prevailing parties the opportunity to recover attorneys' fees. See Id . § 1415(i)(3). That provision provides that in “any action or proceeding brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs . . . to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability.”[1]

         Notably, § 1415(i)(2), which provides for court review of a hearing officer's decision, and § 1415(i)(3), providing for fee shifting, “contain separate jurisdictional grants, and the weight of authority holds that they create two distinct causes of action.” D.G. v. New Caney Indep. Sch. Dist., 806 F.3d 310, 317 (5th Cir. 2015); see Zipperer v. Sch. Bd., 111 F.3d 847, 851 (11th Cir. 1997); Moore v. District of Columbia, 907 F.2d 165, 171 (D.C. Cir. 1990); see also B.K. Toms River Bd. of Educ., 998 F.Supp. 462, 471 ...

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