Israel and Monson Public Schools – BSEA # 10-5064
COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS
DIVISION OF ADMINISTRATIVE LAW APPEALS
BUREAU OF SPECIAL EDUCATION APPEALS
In Re: Israel1 and the Monson Public Schools
Ruling on School Motion To Dismiss
This matter comes before the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (“BSEA”) on the Motion of the Monson Public Schools to Dismiss the Hearing Request filed by Israel’s Parents on February 17, 2010. Both parties submitted written arguments in support of their respective positions and additional oral arguments were heard on May 25, 2010.
A Motion to Dismiss may be granted when, viewing the agreed upon facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, no set of facts can be proved that would entitle the party opposing dismissal to relief from the BSEA. BSEA Rule XVII(B); 801 CMR 1.01(7)(g)(3). Here the pertinent facts are not in dispute. It is the question of entitlement “to relief from the BSEA” that is an issue. This matter brings to the fore one of the most interesting and evolving conundrums in Massachusetts special education practice: whether the BSEA must resolve disagreements arising from privately negotiated settlement agreements involving the provision of special education services?
For the purposes of the Motion to Dismiss the facts are few and not in dispute:
1) Israel is a student with a disability entitled to a free appropriate public education pursuant to M.G.L.c. 71B and 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et. seq.
2) The parties signed a Settlement Agreement and Release on December 19, 2007, and an Addendum on August 7, 2009. The documents set out resolution of disputed claims concerning Israel’s education for the 2007-2008, 2008-2009, 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years. Both parties were and are represented by independent legal counsel.
3) The Parties’ Agreement and Addendum were not the result of a resolution meeting conducted pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(B).
4) The Parties’ Agreement and Addendum were not reached in a mediation conducted by a BSEA mediator.
5) The Parties’ Agreement and Addendum were not incorporated into an Individualized Education Plan for Israel.
6) In return for an exchange of monies between the parties for specific enumerated items, the Settlement Agreement and Addendum relieve the school district of any statutory obligation to evaluate the student, develop IEPs, provide special education or otherwise conform to federal or state special education laws through the conclusion of the 2010- 2011 school year. The Settlement Agreement and Addendum contain a clause stating that “the Bureau of Special Education Appeals and/or any court of competent jurisdiction may enforce this Agreement.”
7) A dispute has arisen concerning the Settlement Agreement and Addendum language relating to the method of calculating the amount of reimbursement to the Parents for transportation expenses and for a laptop computer.
Monson asserts that the BSEA may not interpret or enforce a privately negotiated settlement agreement not memorialized in an Individualized Education Plan. Monson argues that as an administrative agency the BSEA’s jurisdiction is circumscribed by the IDEA and M.G.L.c 71B and does not include general jurisdiction to consider contract language. Monson points out that the parties may seek clarification of disputed contract language in a court with appropriate jurisdiction which would have both the authority, and the experience, to resolve issues relating to contracts.
The Parents contend that the BSEA may consider “any matter” concerning a student’s special education services and entitlements, including the terms of a privately negotiated settlement agreement that relates to special education. The Parents argue that the BSEA has both the specialized knowledge and the streamlined dispute resolution timeline to permit efficient interpretation of contract language in special education settlement agreements, even when the agreement may conflict with provisions in the IDEA or Massachusetts special education law. Further, according to the Parents, the instant dispute involves the amount of reimbursement due to them under the terms of the Settlement Agreement and Addendum, thus implicating the “free” component of the free, appropriate public education over which the BSEA clearly has jurisdiction.
The question of whether the Bureau of Special Education Appeals has subject matter jurisdiction to interpret and enforce privately negotiated settlement agreements concerning students with disabilities has been a matter of considerable debate in the special education bar and within the BSEA for some time. There are good and reasonable arguments for and against asserting administrative due process jurisdiction over private agreements. There is, however, no definitive guidance on this issue from courts in Massachusetts. One BSEA Hearing Officer has tracked the decisions of courts in other jurisdictions that have considered this issue2 . He has concluded that, in most situations, the BSEA should accept jurisdiction of disputes involving the interpretation of settlement agreements. Other Hearing Officers who have considered the BSEA’s role with respect to privately negotiated settlement agreements have reached different conclusions. See eg : Timothy W. and Martha’s Vineyard , 2 MSER 213 (1996) (finding that a dispute concerning the terms of a privately negotiated settlement agreement was one of contract over which the BSEA does not have jurisdiction); accord: Andrew C. and Norfolk , 3 MSER 55 (1997); North Reading , 4 MSER 78 (1998) (BSEA has jurisdiction to interpret and enforce terms of a settlement agreement if it is incorporated into an accepted IEP.); Dedham Public Schools , 11 MSER 155 (2005) (BSEA does not have jurisdiction to determine the existence or validity of a purported contract.)3 I last discussed this substantive issue in Agawam Public Schools , 8 MSER 103 (2002). There I found that neither the 3rd Circuit’s Decision in D.R. v. East Brunswick Board of Education , 109 F.3d 896 (3rd Cir. 1997), permitting enforcement of a settlement “contract” that on its face was inconsistent with IDEA guarantees, nor the IDEA’s statutory preference for speedy and “informal” resolution of special education disputes, compelled the BSEA to entertain conflicts involving interpretation of stand alone settlement agreements. More recently, in a related matter and in large part adopting the reasoning set out more fully in the Agawam Decision, I declined to apply the terms of a Resolution Agreement to a dispute over a student’s “stay-put” services. I found that the BSEA does not have the authority under IDEA 2004 or M.G.L.c71B to enforce Resolution Agreements. In Re: Foxborough Public Schools , BSEA #10-6287/10-7942 (Byrne, June 29, 2010); see also: 20 U.S.C. §1415(f).
Despite the passage of time, and the renewal of the IDEA in 2004, I remain persuaded that the reasons I found that the BSEA should not assert jurisdiction over a settlement agreement negotiated between Agawam and the Parent in 2001 remain valid and applicable to the instant dispute in 2010. For me the question presented here, as it was in the Agawam matter, is whether parties having elected to bypass the dispute resolution mechanisms authorized by the IDEA, and having agreed to terms incompatible with the application of one or more of the IDEA’s mandatory substantive provisions, may then require the IDEA’s due process arm to apply, interpret or enforce that agreement? I continue to believe that, as historical champions of individual student rights, courts in this jurisdiction would be reluctant to require an IDEA agency to act in any manner inconsistent with the plain language of the IDEA. While I acknowledge that the bulk of judicial authority in other jurisdictions weighs in favor of administrative consideration of disputed settlement agreements in the first instance (s ee Footnote 2), I am troubled by both the statutory and policy implications of that course.
The Student posits three primary reasons the BSEA should take subject matter jurisdiction of disputes involving stand alone settlement agreements. First, Student asserts that the IDEA’s statutory grant of jurisdiction to the BSEA to consider “any matter” relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of a child with disabilities, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child, 20 USC 1415(b)(6)(A), along with the similarly worded Massachusetts provision4 , is sufficiently broad to include consideration of settlement agreements that touch on any matter involving the education of students with disabilities. Second, the student argues that the judicial requirement that parties exhaust their administrative remedies prior to filing an appeal in court means that the BSEA must create a factual record a court can review whenever publicly funded services to a student with a disability are implicated in a dispute. Third, the Student contends that administrative consideration of private settlement agreements promotes one of the primary aims of the IDEA: efficient use of alternative dispute resolution resources.
1. Statutory Jurisdiction
Fundamentally the issue here presents a question of the reach of administrative decision making and of faithfulness to the intent of the law.
The BSEA’s jurisdiction is circumscribed both by general principles of administrative law, and by the particular statutes that authorize the BSEA to operate. Its subject matter jurisdiction is both conferred and limited by statute. Lacking a general grant of jurisdiction, the BSEA has authority to consider and take action only with respect to those claims expressly delegated to it by its enabling statutes and regulations, and not inconsistent with them. Globe Newspaper Co. v. Beacon Hill Architectural Comm , 847 F. Supp. 179 (D. Mass. 1994); Globe Newspaper Co. v. Beacon Hill Architectural Comm. 421 Mass.570, 659 N.E.2d 710 (Ma.1996). Here, the IDEA and conforming Massachusetts law give the BSEA authority to determine the respective rights and obligations of publicly funded agencies and parents/students in the implementation of federal and state special education statutes. In other words, the BSEA exists to enforce the public duties set out in the IDEA and to ensure on behalf of individual students that those public responsibilities are appropriately developed, designed and implemented.
Both the IDEA and Massachusetts special education law grant the BSEA authority to consider “any matter” relating to the determination or implementation of a specially designed educational program for a student with a disability. Removed from its context this jurisdictional grant appears to be broad enough to encompass consideration of agreements reached outside of the statutes’ authorized dispute resolution mechanisms. But statutory grants of jurisdiction to administrative agencies must be read in concert with the entire statute. The IDEA sets up a comprehensive and directive system to assure that public agencies act, and public funds are expended, in accordance with its stated purpose: to assure appropriate, accessible, equitable public education to students with disabilities. Enforceable obligations under the IDEA run to the public agencies responsible for ensuring the proper distribution of public funds for a public purpose.
Recognizing that mistakes and disagreements would be inevitable in an administrative system at once both complex and personal, Congress created a multi-path dispute resolution process that includes informal face to face “resolution meetings” between parents and school district personnel with decision making capacity, mediation sessions with the assistance of an independent, trained mediator, and a formal due process hearing system. The first two options offer the opportunity for the parties to discuss, negotiate, and compromise. Agreements developed using those mechanisms are enforceable in court, not in the parallel administrative hearing process authorized by Congress, 20 U.S.C. 1415(e)(2)(f); 20 U.S.C. 1415(f)(1)(B)(iv)(ii)(II). See discussion at Harold and Foxborough Public Schools , BSEA 10-6287 / 10-7942 (Byrne 6/29/10). See also : 20 U.S.C.§122(1)(E) and 603 C.M.R. 2802 (2) acknowledging corollary limitations on BSEA jurisdiction.
Congress created a more formal, though still accessible and swift, administrative hearing process for those few disputes not amenable to mutual resolution. §20 U.S.C.§1415(f). It is notable that, consistent with its instructions regarding agreements reached in resolution meetings and mediations, the product of administrative hearings is reviewable only in court. §20 U.S.C.§§ (1415 (i). Just as the IDEA does not authorize the administrative hearing system to consider agreements reached through resolution meetings or mediations, there is no explicit provision in the IDEA, or in M.G.L. 71B, or in their implementing regulations, requiring or even authorizing the administrative due process hearing to take jurisdiction of disputes involving private settlement agreements. Indeed, if neither Resolution Agreements nor Mediation Agreements are reviewable by the BSEA, why would agreements reached outside the IDEA’s authorized dispute resolution mechanisms be reviewable by the BSEA?
Instead Congress requires that a “decision made by a hearing officer shall be made on substantive grounds based on a determination of whether the child received a free, appropriate public education” 20 U.S.C. 1415(f)(E). As Congress reserved to the administrative Hearing Officer the responsibility for weighing evidence, applying law, and making independent substantive findings concerning FAPE, a Hearing Officer may not accept without further examination the bald assertions in a settlement agreement that a particular program or service would constitute a free, appropriate public education. By extension, some common settlement agreement clauses, such as one in which one or both parties acknowledge that the terms of the agreement do not represent a free, appropriate public education, would then pose a significant dilemma to the prudent Hearing Officer. If the Hearing Officer must engage in a substantive review of the settlement agreement, the Hearing Officer must also consider, as s/he would when examining an IEP, whether the settlement agreement conforms to the IDEA’s comprehensive regulatory system and assures all of the student’s statutory rights (eg annual reviews and IEPs; triennial evaluations; “stay put”, no cost to parents; etc.).
Therefore I find that the limited authority granted to the BSEA as an administrative dispute resolution agency under the IDEA 2004 and M.G.L. 71B does not require the BSEA to take jurisdiction of privately negotiated settlement agreements that are not incorporated into an IEP.
Second, the Student argues that the jurisdictional requirement that parties exhaust special education administrative due process procedures before filing a complaint in court means that any dispute, in any form, involving special education in Massachusetts, must pass through the BSEA on its way to court. Certainly the principle of exhaustion applies to disputes under 20 U.S.C. 1401 et seq., 29 U.S.C. 794, and M.G.L.c. 71B. However it applies only when there is an administrative procedure authorized to consider the dispute in the first instance. Where none exists, or the administrative agency is not authorized to consider a particular type of dispute, the exhaustion requirement is not applicable and the parties may proceed directly to court. Pihl v. Massachusetts Department of Education , 9 F.3d 184 (1 st Cir. 1993); O’Neill v. City Manager of Cambridge 428 Mass. 257 (1998).
3. Administrative Economy and Associated Policy Considerations
Finally, the Student contends that asserting administrative jurisdiction over privately negotiated settlement agreements would promote the IDEA’s preference for rapid, efficient resolution of disagreements between parents and schools. While I agree that the language of the IDEA favors swift resolution of disputes and encourages active participation of the parents in the process, I am not persuaded that that policy preference would be advanced by having the terms of a privately negotiated settlement agreement be subject to a formal due process hearing. First, I do not believe it is possible to skirt black and white jurisdictional limitations ( supra ) by offering a good reason to do so. Also, I am not convinced that were the BSEA to assume jurisdiction of disputes involving settlement agreements there would be any associated decrease in the passage of time between the genesis of a dispute and its resolution. There is no data to suggest such an outcome. Were the parties to file for an administrative hearing at the time the dispute initially arose, the dispute could well be decided before the time elapsed in negotiating, drafting, and implementation of a settlement agreement.
The Student asserts that should the BSEA decline to take jurisdiction of settlement agreement disputes the resulting increase in the volume of hearings would overwhelm BSEA resources, preventing timely resolution of disputes. I find that argument speculative. Should it be prescient, it will be up to BSEA administrators to marshall the resources necessary to maintain the efficiency and responsiveness of the BSEA.
Asserting subject matter jurisdiction in this matter would require the BSEA to either approve the transfer of public funds for private use without any form of public accountability or to strike down the proffered settlement agreement as void as against public policy. Neither option is palatable. There is a relatively simple fix. If the agreement conforms to the law, there is no reason its terms cannot be incorporated into an IEP over which the BSEA indisputably has jurisdiction. On the other hand, if the parties are reluctant to reduce the agreement to an IEP, presumably because some terms are incompatible with the IDEA, there is little justification for review by the entity charged with enforcing the provisions of the IDEA.
Although I acknowledge the reasonableness of my colleague’s analysis and conclusion to the contrary, for the foregoing reasons I am not persuaded by the Parents’ arguments that the BSEA must, or even should, take jurisdiction of this appeal. In the absence of a clear statutory directive to do so I decline to assert subject matter jurisdiction of a dispute that relates solely to the interpretation of a privately negotiated settlement agreement not incorporated into an IEP or BSEA Order. As noted in the Settlement Agreement and Addendum presented here, the Parties have a ready alternate path for resolving their contractual claims: court.
Finally, it is instructive to consider the projected outcome of an administrative hearing convened to determine the terms of the Settlement Agreement at issue in this matter. Viewing the Settlement Agreement through the lens of the web of public obligations contemplated under the IDEA would require a finding that most of its terms would fall short of IDEA standards, likely rendering it void as against public policy. The dispute would then start ab initio , assuming the statute of limitations did not pose a bar. Alternatively the dispute about the terms of the settlement agreement could be considered in a court of competent jurisdiction, where the judge’s experience and expertise in interpretation of contract language, along with the court’s enforcement powers, might give better effect to the parties’ original intentions.
The School’s Motion to Dismiss for lack of jurisdiction is GRANTED .
August 23, 2010
Lindsay Byrne, Hearing Officer
“Israel” is a pseudonym selected by the Hearing Officer to protect the privacy of the student in documents available to the public.
Longmeadow Public Schools, BSEA 08-0673 p. 52-54 (Crane 6/30/10)
The Brief in Support of Monson’s Motion to Dismiss has an excellent discussion of the evolution of the BSEA’s treatment of disputes involving settlement agreements; I quote it at length:
Hearing Officer Crane has reasoned that the underlying purposes of the IDEA, most especially the strong encouragement of dispute resolution through compromise and settlement, support BSEA enforcement of settlement agreements. In Re: Boston Public Schools, BSEA #02-4323, 8 MSER 396 (December 2002). In his decision, Hearing Officer Crane argued that the scope of a due process hearing is broad, citing Rosa et al. v. Yeau , 214 F.3d206 (1st Cir.2000). But in Rosa , the Court of Appeals held that the BSEA has the authority to hear a claim that the LEA failed to implement what was agreed upon by the parties in an Amended IEP, not simply a private settlement agreement. ID .
Shortly after the above-referenced Boston Public Schools case, Hearing Officer Crane, applying principles of contract law, ruled that once the parties reduce their obligation to a written agreement, the responsibilities of the parties are determined by the agreement itself: “The BSEA may look only to the actual language used within the agreement to determine the parties’ obligations.” In Re: Nahant Public Schools , BSEA #04-1098, 9 MSER 381 (December 2003). But the agreement in Nahan t involved a written stipulation entered into by the parties and incorporated into a BSEA Order. Id .
In August 2005, Hearing Officer Crane held that if the subject matter of a voluntary settlement agreement falls within Section 1415(b)(6)(A) of IDEA 2004; the BSEA has jurisdiction over the agreement. In Re: Norwood Public Schools , BSEA #06-0214, ll MSER 162 (August 2005). Hearing Officer Crane’s decision relied in large part on new language in IDEA 2004 that agreements reached through mediation or a resolution session are binding on the parties and enforceable in court, similar to any other contract. Id,, citing 20 USC 1415(e)(2)(F) and 20 USC 1415(f)(I)(B)(iii). But agreements reached through mediation or resolution meetings are markedly different than private settlement agreements, which are not prescribed by IDEA 2004. In addition, the settlement agreement in Norwood was, in fact, an IEP Amendment.
Less than a year later, in contrast to his December 2002 decision In Re: Boston Public Schools , Hearing Officer Crane ruled that the BSEA does not have the authority to enforce a settlement agreement. In Re: Boston Public Schools , BSEA #06-3836, 12 MSER 161 (June 2006). He did, however, determine that the BSEA may consider whether an LEA has complied with the terms of an agreement, and may issue an order relative to any compensatory claims a parent may have relative to compliance with the agreement (in the same manner as compliance with an IEP). Id . Noteworthy, the parties stipulated that all of the claims under the settlement agreement that formed part of the dispute in Boston Public Schools (June 2006) related to IDEA 2004’s grant of jurisdiction to the BSEA under 20 USC 1415(b)(6)(A)…
In a more recent decision, Hearing Officer Crane reasoned the “parties to a dispute before the BSEA may enter into an agreement, pursuant to which they change their obligations and responsibilities under state and federal law. The BSEA does not have the authority to enforce such an agreement.” In Re: Peabody Public Schools , BSEA #09-95-6, 15 MSER 154 (June 2009). (See, e.g., A.R. v. New York City Department of Education , 407 F.3d 65, n.13 (2nd Cir.2005). However, where the agreement relates to rights and responsibilities that fall within the BSEA’s purview (as defined by USC 141.5(b)(6)(A), a hearing officer may—or must – consider the agreement and determine whether and to what extent the agreement adheres to the rights and responsibilities of the parties in regards to the student’s special education services and related procedural protections…But the agreement as issue in Peabody was reached through a BSEA Settlement Conference. Id .
In Massachusetts, the BSEA has the authority to conduct due process hearings “on any matter concerning the eligibility, evaluation, placement, IEP, provision of special education in accordance with state and federal law, or procedural protections of state and federal law for students with disabilities” 603 CMR 28.08(3)(a).