205 F.3d 572 (3rd Cir. 2000), 99-5021, T.R & T.M.R. v. Kingwood Township Bd. of Education

Docket Nº:99-5021
Citation:205 F.3d 572
Party Name:T.R.; E.M.R., ON BEHALF OF THEIR MINOR CHILD, N.R., Appellants v. KINGWOOD TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION, HUNTERDON CO., NEW JERSEY
Case Date:March 09, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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205 F.3d 572 (3rd Cir. 2000)

T.R.; E.M.R., ON BEHALF OF THEIR MINOR CHILD, N.R., Appellants

v.

KINGWOOD TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION, HUNTERDON CO., NEW JERSEY

No. 99-5021

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

March 9, 2000

Argued: November 18, 1999

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. (No. 97-2129 (MLC)) District Judge: Honorable Mary L. Cooper

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Counsel for Appellants: MICHAELENE LOUGHLIN (Argued) Loughlin & Latimer 131 Main Street, Suite 235 Hackensack, NJ 07601, JANET J. STOTLAND The Education Law Center of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA

Counsel for Amici Curiae in Support of Appellants: LINDA D. HEADLEY CANDICE SANG-JASEY New Jersey Protection and Advocacy, Inc. 210 South Broad Street, Third Floor Trenton, NJ 08608

Counsel for Appellee: BRIAN J. DUFF, ESQ. (Argued) Lamb, Hartung, Kretzer, Reinman & DePascale 601 Pavonia Avenue Jersey City, NJ 07306

Before: ALITO, BARRY, and STAPLETON, Circuit Judges.

OPINION FOR THE COURT

ALITO, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiff N.R., through his parents, T.R. and E.M.R., brought this action against the Kingwood Township Board of Education ("the Board") under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C.SS 1400-91 (1994), requesting reimbursement for private school tuition and support services. N.R. claims that the Board's proposed placement failed to provide him with a meaningful educational benefit in the least restrictive environment, as required by the IDEA. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Board.

We affirm the District Court's holding that the Kingwood placement provided N.R. with a sufficient educational benefit to constitute a "free and appropriate public education." However, we vacate the court's holding that the Kingwood placement constituted the least restrictive environment, and we remand for a determination of whether the Board failed to consider any appropriate, state qualified alternate placements within a reasonable distance of N.R's residence.

I.

N.R. was born on September 7, 1991, and was classified as preschool handicapped in 1994. During the summer of 1996, N.R.'s parents met with Board officials to discuss an Individualized Education Program ("IEP") for N.R. for the 1996-97 school year. The Board's child study team determined that N.R. had the

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skills to begin kindergarten in the fall of 1996 and recommended his placement in the Kingwood School's regular kindergarten program. On August 2, 1996, however, T.R. and E.M.R. rejected this proposed placement, stating that they planned to send N.R. to preschool for another year.1

At that time, Kingwood Township did not offer a regular preschool program for non-disabled children. Rather, the Township offered a single, half-day preschool class composed of half disabled children and half non-disabled children. The Board drafted a new IEP which provided for N.R.'s placement in this class, with afternoon placement in the school's resource room. N.R.'s parents rejected this proposal and informed the Board that they planned to have N.R. spend the next year at the Rainbow Rascals Learning Center ("Rainbow Rascals"), a private daycare center that N.R. had attended the previous year. At the time, Rainbow Rascals was not accredited as a preschool by the State of New Jersey or by any independent educational accreditation agency. Nevertheless, T.R. and E.M.R. requested that the Board pay for N.R.'s tuition at Rainbow Rascals and provide supplemental special education services there.

The Board filed for due process, seeking a determination that its 1996-97 IEP provided N.R. with a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment as required by the IDEA. The Administrative Law Judge found that Kingwood Township's kindergarten program satisfied the IDEA's requirements and that the Board should not be liable for the parents' decision to keep N.R. at Rainbow Rascals. In April 1997, N.R.'s parents filed suit on his behalf in District Court. They alleged, inter alia, that the ALJ had erred in finding that the Board's proposed IEPs had offered N.R. a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, and the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Board. The District Court found that the 1996-97 IEP (consisting of placement in Kingwood's half-day preschool class and resource room) provided N.R. with a free, appropriate public education by offering more than a trivial education benefit. See T.R. v. Kingwood Township Bd. of Educ., 32 F.Supp.2d 720, 72829 (D.N.J. 1998). The court pointed to testimony by the Board's expert witnesses, Dr. Frances Hobbie and Dr. Leslie Callanan, who stated that the Kingwood program would meet N.R.'s educational needs. The court also referenced the testimony of Darlene Johnson, the teacher of the Kingwood preschool class, who stated that she was familiar with N.R.'s IEP and would work to implement it on a daily basis.

In addition, the District Court found that the Kingwood class constituted the least restrictive environment for N.R. under the IDEA. See id. at 730. Finally, the court held that Rainbow Rascals could not be considered as a possible placement for N.R. because it was not accredited by the state. See id. at 730-31.

N.R. and his parents appeal, seeking reimbursement for N.R.'s tuition at Rainbow Rascals and for his therapy costs for the 1996-97 school year.

We exercise jurisdiction pursuant to 20 U.S.C. S 1415(i)(2). We exercise plenary review of the legal standard applied by the District Court. See Polk v. Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit 16, 853 F.2d 171, 181 (3d Cir. 1988). However, we must accept the District Court's findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. See Oberti v. Board of Educ. of Borough of Clementon Sch. Dist. , 995 F.2d 1204, 1220 (3d Cir. 1993).

II.

The IDEA requires states receiving federal funding under the Act to

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have "in effect a policy that ensures all children with disabilities the right to a free appropriate public education." 20 U.S.C. S1412(1). Where a state fails to satisfy this statutory mandate, parents have a right to reimbursement for private school tuition. See Burlington v. Department of Educ. of Commonwealth of Mass., 471 U.S. 359, 370 (1985). Appellants argue that the District Court erred in finding that the Board's 1996-97 IEP provided N.R. with a free appropriate public education because the Court applied an incorrect legal standard and failed to conduct an independent review of the record. We reject this argument. Although it appears that the District Court did apply an incorrect legal standard, it is also apparent that the Board introduced more than sufficient evidence to prove, under the proper standard, that the Kingwood preschool placement provided a free and appropriate education (hereinafter "FAPE") for N.R.

The Supreme Court has construed the statute's FAPE mandate to require "education 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." Hendrick Hudson Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 188-89 (1982). The education provided must "be sufficient to confer some educational benefit upon the handicapped child," id. at...

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