Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

West Chester Area School District v. A. M.

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

June 19, 2017

West Chester Area School District, Petitioner
v.
A. M. and K. M., individually and as parents and natural guardians of C. M. and Charles Jelley, Hearing Officer, Pennsylvania Office of Dispute Resolution, Respondents

          Submitted: February 10, 2017

          BEFORE: HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Senior Judge

          OPINION

          ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge.

         In this appeal/declaratory judgment action, the West Chester Area School District (District) appeals from a final order of Hearing Officer Charles Jelley (Hearing Officer) of the Pennsylvania Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR) denying the District's motion to enforce a waiver agreement and release (Waiver Agreement).

         In our appellate jurisdiction, the District asserts Hearing Officer erred in determining he lacked the authority to enforce a settlement agreement at a due process hearing. In addition, the District filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that A.M. and K.M. (Parents), parents and natural guardians of C.M. (Student), waived their rights to file any further due process claims for the 2015-16 school year. Upon review, we affirm Hearing Officer's order, and we remand the declaratory judgment action for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

         I. Background

         Student, a resident of the District, suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, a type of autism. As such, he is eligible for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).[1] Based on our review of the limited record in this matter, it appears the present controversy began in early November of the 2015-16 school year. A dispute arose at a November 5, 2015 IEP (individualized educational plan) team meeting between Parents and the District as to what courses Student should be taking his junior year of high school. Principally, Parents requested that Student remain in an all honors curriculum. However, Student's teachers and Special Education Supervisor P.J. Dakes (Supervisor Dakes) believed the honors courses covered too much material, which overwhelmed Student, who began to struggle in some of his classes. As such, the IEP team recommended Student take academic level classes, which are also college preparatory, in order for him to graduate at the same time as his nondisabled peers. Parents, however, assert Student will be exposed to certain classmates in the lower level classes who bullied him since elementary school.

         However, the merits of Parents' due process challenge under the IDEA are not the central issue in this case. On November 13, 2015, approximately a week after the November 2015 IEP meeting, Parents entered into the Waiver Agreement with the District. Essentially, the District would allow Student to remain in the honors classes, some of which he was failing, in exchange for Parents' agreement not to file any due process claims based on the decision to allow Student to remain in the honors classes. The Waiver Agreement states in pertinent part (with emphasis added):

1. Parents acknowledge that the District has made an offer of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) as described in the IEP with a revision date of November 5, 2015. Included in the IEP are proposed courses to be taken.
2. Parents have requested that the IEP with a revision date of November 5, 2015 not be implemented and that the Student remain in the following courses: English 11 Honors, Algebra II Honors, American History Honors, Earth/Space Honors, German 3 Honors, Concert Band/Choir and Physical Education. Parents acknowledge that Student may fail any and all classes and may be required to repeat 11th grade if he does not pass a sufficient number of required classes.
3. In consideration of [Parents'] request, the District agrees to implement the specially designed instruction listed in the IEP with a revision date of November 5, 2015.
4.In consideration of [Parents'] request, the Student shall have a check-in period with a special education teacher 3 days per 5 day cycle.
5. The Parties agree that [Parents] may terminate this Waiver Agreement by providing written notice to the Supervisor of Special Education. Termination of the waiver shall result in the immediate full implementation of the IEP with a revision date of November 5, 2015, including adjusted class assignments. Upon receipt of a written request to terminate this Agreement, the District shall convene an IEP meeting. The Parents agree that in the event of a dispute for any reason, the pendent program and placement shall be the fully implemented IEP with a revision date of November 5, 2015.
6.[Parents] acknowledge and affirm that by agreeing to accept the consideration defined in this Agreement, they are waiving rights, whether known or unknown, that they and the Student may otherwise have to claims arising and relating to the future to fully implement the IEP with a revision date of November 5, 2015 under the [IDEA and its implementing regulations ….] Waivers as described herein shall be applicable from the execution of this Waiver Agreement through the start of the 2016-2017 school year or until such time as Parents make a written request to the Supervisor of Special Education to terminate this Waiver. Termination of the waiver shall have no impact on the validity or enforceability for any time period in which the waiver was in effect.
7. [Parents] warrant (a) that they have received written notification of their rights under state and federal law as the parents of a child with disabilities; (b) that they are fully aware of these rights and of the extent to which they are waiving them in this Agreement; (c) that they are fully aware that they are waiving rights on behalf of the Student; (d) that they have had the opportunity to consult with counsel if they so desired, concerning their rights and this Agreement; (e) that they are satisfied with the representation and advice that they have received from their counsel, if any, including that they have received an adequate explanation of the terms and obligations described by this Agreement; (f) that they understand the nature and scope of this Agreement, and are signing this Agreement, including this waiver of important rights, knowingly and voluntarily.

District's Pet. for Review, Ex. B.

         Despite the Waiver Agreement, Parents brought a special education due process complaint seeking relief, in part, for alleged claims which arose during the period of November 13, 2015 through the start of the 2016-2017 school year. Based on the Waiver Agreement, the District filed a motion to limit or dismiss Parents' due process complaint. See R.R. at 8a-11a.

         On May 16 and June 3, 2016, Hearing Officer conducted telephonic hearings addressing the District's motion and the Waiver Agreement. At the hearings, Parents asserted the Waiver Agreement should not be enforced because they signed it under duress. However, Hearing Officer did not find that Parents' concerns constituted adequate proof of duress. Notes of Testimony (N.T.), 6/3/16, at 55-56; R.R. at 67a. Nonetheless, Hearing Officer determined that the enforceability of the Waiver Agreement is an issue for the courts, not the ODR. N.T. at 56; R.R. at 67a. To that end, Hearing Officer stated:

While I understand and appreciate [Parents'] concerns, those concerns do not rise to the level of actually establishing duress [in] executing or completing the document. That said, the document speaks for itself.
Now back to the dilemma that I originally had when I first contacted the District. And said, well, there is a case out there that says I can't do anything with this. There can be arguments on it, but it's for a judge to decide. And I'm somewhat crippled in my position to be able to take and act on the agreement. But as far as duress in terms of not having the agreement, I do not find there is adequate proof as to duress at this time. Maybe able to appeal that ruling when this is concluded.

Id. (emphasis added).

         On June 22, 2016, Hearing Officer entered what he labeled a "final order" denying the District's motion to enforce the Waiver Agreement, but granting the District's oral motion to file an action in the courts to enforce the Waiver Agreement. R.R. at 75a. The order specified that the District must file its court action within 45 days. Id. In addition, Hearing Officer scheduled a July 22, 2016 hearing on Parents' consolidated claims, including their claim for a denial of FAPE relief for the 2016-17 school year. Id.

         On July 1, 2016, the District filed a petition for review in this Court appealing Hearing Officer's "final order." In addition, the District's petition includes a one-count complaint seeking declaratory judgment. Specifically, the District requests an order: (a) enjoining Hearing Officer from considering any claim for the period of November 13, 2015 through the start of the 2016-2017 school year; (b) declaring Parents waived their right to seek any claims or remedies for the period of November 13, 2015 through the start of the 2016-2017 school year; and, (c) declaring that Hearing Officer, at the scheduled July 2016 hearing, is not to consider any claim or remedy brought by Parents for the period of November 13, 2015 through the start of the 2016-2017 school year.

         On July 11, 2016, the District filed an application for special relief in the nature of a preliminary injunction. The District sought to enjoin Hearing Officer from considering any claim for the period of November 13, 2015 through the start of the 2016-2017 school year until resolution of this case.

         On July 14, 2016, this Court entered an order temporarily enjoining the scheduled ODR hearing on Parents' claims and scheduling a hearing on the District's application for a preliminary injunction. Following a hearing on the application two weeks later, Senior Judge Bonnie B. Leadbetter filed a memorandum opinion and order staying the ODR proceedings pending the disposition of the District's petition for review. Senior Judge Leadbetter also directed that in the absence of any dispositive motions this matter be scheduled for trial at the close of the pleadings "and upon praecipe of either party." See West Chester Area School District v. A.M. and K.M., individually as parents ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.