G.W. v. Ringwood Board of Education, 28 F.4th 465, 80 IDELR 209 (3d Cir. Mar. 16, 2022), is a decision turning on federal judicial jurisdiction that may nevertheless be of interest to impartial hearing officers. The case involved a due process hearing initiated by the parents of a student eligible for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. After a first hearing session was adjourned, the administrative law judge held a meeting with counsel for both parties, then a meeting with one of the parents and a school board representative. The parties appeared to reach an agreement, and the terms of the agreement were read into the record. The ALJ found that the parties voluntarily agreed to the signed settlement document, the settlement disposed of all issues in controversy between the parties, and the settlement was consistent with the law. The parties were ordered to comply with the settlement terms. The agreement said the parties would bear their own fees and costs.
Three days later, the parents wrote to the school superintendent and all members of the school board, stating that they repudiated the agreement. They filed a motion with the ALJ to set the agreement aside. A little more than a month later, the parents filed suit in federal court alleging that they did not enter into the agreement knowingly and voluntarily. They sought relief under the IDEA, under the New Jersey Declaratory Judgment Act seeking to declare the settlement void, and under the New Jersey Declaratory Judgment and Civil Rights Acts to have the attorney fee waiver declared void. The district court dismissed the case without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
On appeal, the circuit court reversed and remanded. The court reasoned that the parents were challenging the order of the ALJ terminating their due process complaint, contending that they did not enter into any valid agreement resolving the case. Accordingly, the parents were alleging that the ALJ’s order was erroneous. That the basis for the alleged error was that the supposed agreement was invalid under contract law did not deprive the federal court of jurisdiction, for 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A) permits a civil action in state or federal court challenging the findings and decision of the ALJ or hearing officer. The decision was one made on substantive grounds, as 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(E)(1) requires, and addressed the student’s rights under the IDEA, further reciting the right to appeal to court. There is no requirement that the decision address free, appropriate public education for it to be appealable: a dismissal could be on the basis of limitations or any of various procedural grounds and still be appealable to federal court. The court found the assertion of jurisdiction consistent with earlier caselaw that allowed a judicial action when a school district ignored a due process decision and the parent filing the case was considered aggrieved despite winning the case below.
Judge Phipps dissented, arguing that the complaint actually sounded in state law and that federal jurisdiction under the IDEA would apply only if the challenge to the hearing officer’s decision had been made on findings of specified procedural inadequacies or substantive grounds regarding denial or provision of FAPE. The dissent rejected the alternative argument that 28 U.S.C. § 1331 federal question jurisdiction applied, for the claim of invalidity of the agreement was a state law claim that did not implicate significant federal law issues. The majority responded in several footnotes that the ALJ found the agreement consistent with the IDEA, that waiver of IDEA rights is to be evaluated by totality-of-circumstances rather than ordinary contract law, and the decision was in reality substantive.
Matters of interpretation of § 1415(i) and federal jurisdictional principles aside, the case demonstrates that even when the impartial hearing officer makes serious efforts to ensure that settlements are knowing and voluntary, there may still be a judicial challenge to the agreement. Therefore, best practice would dictate that the impartial hearing officer on the record state the basis for finding the settlement was knowing and voluntary in the event there is a judicial challenge. After that, it is up to the courts on review to determine the agreement’s validity.