J.T. v. Dumont Pub. Sch., C-139-12 (N.J. Super. Ct. Dec. 20, 2012)
Abstract: A Bergen County Superior Court has ruled that a school district had not failed to provide disabled students receiving special education services with reasonable accommodations in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) when the district assigned those students to one school, rather than assigning each to their neighborhood school. Relying on the same analytical framework used to examine reasonable accommodation claims under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Superior Court found that the plaintiffs were unable to show that they were “denied a cognizable benefit or program.” It concluded that the students were receiving all the programs, activities, and benefits to which they are entitled as a result of their disabilities.
Facts/Issues: J.T., the mother of A.T. who suffers from autism, filed a class-action suit on behalf of her child and all students similarly situated against Dumont Public Schools (DPS) in state court. J.T. had previously filed a similar suit in a New Jersey federal district court against DPS, claiming violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504). That suit was dismissed on the grounds J.T and the other plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit and failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. The federal suit is currently on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (PA, NJ, DE, VI).
The plaintiffs’ state law claim alleged that DPS was violating the NJLAD by requiring all disabled students eligible for special education services to attend class at one school in order to receive those services. They sought an order from the court requiring DPS to educate the students whenever possible in their neighborhood schools. The plaintiffs also argued that DPS’ has failed to even give good faith consideration to provide supplementary aides and services that could make placement in a regular kindergarten class in the neighborhood school an option for disabled students.
Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. DPS argued that it was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law because “its policy of ‘centralization’ of special education services is not discriminatory: it is a common policy in educational circles; it is expressly permitted by federal decisions construing comparable federal law and it is implemented for the legitimate, non-discriminatory reason of providing the student with an educational environment appropriate to his or her needs.”
The plaintiffs, on the other hand, contended that DPS had failed to “reasonably accommodate the students’ disabilities by failing to make special education services available in all four schools at which DPS provides kindergarten services. According to the plaintiffs, DPS’ “failure to provide these services at each of the four district schools – or even to consider it – is a discriminatory failure to accommodate each special education kindergartner who needs [special education] placement, in his or her neighborhood school.”
Ruling/Rationale: The Superior Court granted summary judgment in favor of DPS “because the evidence did not support a finding that DPS failed to reasonably accommodate A.T.’s disability within the district, not because DPS has proven it would be an undue burden to grant the specific accommodation plaintiffs request.” It found there was ”no evidence of any actual harm suffered by A.T. as a result of attending kindergarten at a school other than his neighborhood school.” The court also found there was no evidence of any actual harm suffered by any of A.T.’s classmates, or by any putative class members.
The court pointed out that the NJLAD relies on the same analytical framework as the ADA. Under that framework, in order to establish a reasonable accommodation claim, a plaintiff must prove he/she: (1) has a disability; (2) is otherwise qualified to participate in a program; and (3) was denied the benefits of the program or discriminated against because of the disability.
While the court found that the plaintiffs had satisfied the first two elements of the test, it concluded that they failed to “show the deprivation of a benefit” and, therefore, stated a valid reasonable accommodation claim under the NJLAD. Noting that the plaintiffs’ claim was not deprivation of a benefit, but rather that the benefit should be made available at neighborhood schools, the court rejected the contention that “the failure to make it available [at neighborhood schools] constitutes an unlawful failure to accommodate his disability.”
The court countered that “[c]entralization is lawful under the IDEA and the preference for neighborhood schooling is but one factor among many − including expense and ease of administration − which the administering school district is entitled to weigh.” It found the plaintiffs’ reliance on Oberti v. Bd. of Educ. of Clementon, 801 F. Supp. 1392 (D.N.J. 1992), aff’d, 995 F. 2d 1204 (3d Cir. 1993), for the proposition that “a legal presumption in favor of a neighborhood school − a presumption requiring rebutting” was misplaced.
The court found that Oberti could be distinguished on the grounds that the special education student was removed from a general classroom and then placed in an out-of-district self-contained classroom. It stated: “Oberti, then, is not authority for the proposition that the failure to provide all appropriate in-district special education services, in each kindergarten in the school district, is prima facie evidence of discrimination.” It concluded that A.T.’s “placement was fully ADA-compliant, and comports with the requirements of the IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act.”
Having concluded that the reasonable accommodation claim failed, the court noted, “for purposes of completeness,” “that the record would not support a finding that providing the accommodation of ICR kindergarten in all four districts would unduly burden the district. The evidence simply was not assembled, either at the time the centralization decisions were being made, or during the course of this litigation.”
On an alternate basis, the court found that GPS was entitled to summary judgment because there was no proof of damages, i.e., actual harm to A.T. or any members of the class.
J.T. v. Dumont Pub. Sch., C-139-12 (N.J. Super. Ct. Dec. 20, 2012)
[Editor's Note: In August 2012, Legal Clips summarized a decision of a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in R.T. v. Board of Educ. of Scott Cnty., which vacated a Kentucky federal district court’s decision granting summary judgment to a school board, but affirmed summary judgment in favor of the district’s superintendent, in a suit by a diabetic student claiming that the board’s refusal to allow him to attend his neighborhood school violated Section 504, the ADA, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.]