A school district was ordered to go to a due process hearing under the IDEA despite the waiver agreement that it had with the parents on the issues.
West Chester Area School District 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, 2017 WL 2623939 (June 19, 2017)
In a case of first impression in the Pennsylvania state courts, the Commonwealth court held that only courts have jurisdiction to enforce a settlement agreement and not hearing officers in due process hearings brought under the IDEA. The Commonwealth Court decision followed the law in the federal court. However, in order for the Commonwealth Court to have the agreement in front of it for review and a decision, the Court ordered that the matter first had to go to hearing before the validity of the agreement could be determined by the Court on appeal.
At issue before the Commonwealth Court was a waiver agreement signed between parents and the school district. The parents wanted their son with Asperger’s Syndrome to continue in the honors program in which he struggled and not to be placed into lower level classes in which he was allegedly bullied. The school district acceded to the parents’ request under the terms of an agreement with the parents that their son would be kept in the honors classes provided that the parents agreed to waive their right to a due process hearing during the period of time that the boy’s IEP recommended by the district was not implemented as a result.
Five months into the agreement, the parents requested a due process hearing which convened before Hearing Officer Charles Jelley. The district asked the hearing officer to enforce the agreement. The parents argued that the agreement was void because they had signed it under duress, despite that fact that they had been represented by counsel. Hearing Officer Jelley did not find duress but issued a final order denying the district’s request on the ground that he lacked jurisdiction because the enforceability of the agreement was a matter for the courts.
The school district appealed the final order to the Commonwealth Court which hears appeals from school districts, requested that the hearing officer be enjoined from hearing any claims covered by the waiver agreement and that the Court declare that the parents had waived their right to seek claims or remedies for the time period covered by the waiver agreement.
The Commonwealth Court upheld Hearing Officer Jelley’s ruling that the parents had not signed under duress. The parents argued that they were under duress because they had to sign the waiver agreement in order to prevent their son from being removed from honors classes. In upholding the hearing officer’s ruling rejecting the parents’ argument, the Court defined duress as “that degree of restraint or danger, either actually inflicted or impending, which is sufficient in severity or apprehension to overcome the mind of an individual of ordinary firmness.”
As follow up, the Court found that the hearing officer had determined that a valid settlement agreement existed between the parties because he had rejected their only argument challenging its validity.
The Court then went on to distinguish the authority a hearing officer has to determine whether a valid settlement agreement exists, derived from the IDEA’s provisions for resolution sessions and settlement agreements, from the authority a hearing officer does not have, to enforce an agreement.
The Court distinguished between the expertise of hearing officers to understand educational terms and to hear claims of denial of FAPE from that of courts who have expertise regarding contract interpretation and enforcement. Thus, the Court found, the enforcement of settlement agreements is an area of law unrelated to the fundamental question of whether a child received FAPE and therefore exceeds the authority conferred on hearing officers by the IDEA. There is no other enforcement mechanism for settlement agreeements in Pennsylvania.
As a further complication, the Commonwealth Court’s jurisdiction in this matter is as a court of appeals. Therefore, the Court ordered that the parties have to exhaust administrative remedies first, before coming to court, in order to create a record and to decide how, if at all, the waiver agreement impacts the parents’ complaints. According to the Court: “Thus, a hearing officer could decide that in light of all the circumstances, including the Waiver Agreement, the education provided to Student during the [relevant period] met the requirements of the IDEA. Conversely, a hearing officer could decide that despite the Waiver Agreement, other arrangements for the Student were required by law. Once a hearing officer has resolved all outstanding issues, an aggrieved party may appeal to this Court. As part of an appeal, a party may seek enforcement from this Court.”
And so the Court remanded the matter back to hearing on the substantive issues because the exclusive mechanism for enforcing a settlement agreement under the IDEA is in state or federal court. “[W]e remand the matter to the ODR for appontment of a hearing officer to address Parents’ complaints about the [relevant] school year, to create a record, and to decide how, if at all, the Waiver Agreement impacts the Parents’ complaints.”
What are lessons for schools? If a parent challenges a settlement agreement entered into with an educational entity, have the hearing officer determine its validity if considering an appeal to state court. Consult with counsel to modify your agreement to make the school-based placement and program a default placement.
Bottom Line for Schools
This decision brings into question whether schools can trust that agreements with parents of students eligible for special education can every have a truly binding effect. Under this decision, enforcement of a special education agreement requires that a hearing officer first assess the question of FAPE in light of that agreement, which means analyzing the agreement itself and its impact on FAPE. While, based on this one case it is premature to predict the demise of agreements in lieu of FAPE, the best advice is for school districts to be fair and transparent in negotiating waivers with parents and, to the extent possible, ensure that agreements are in the best interest of the student.
School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. They are meant to be informational and do not constitute legal advice. John E. Freund, III, is our editor.