G.W. et al v. RINGWOOD BOARD OF EDUCATION
OPINION. Signed by Judge John Michael Vazquez on 11/17/2020. (ams, )
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Not for Publication
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
G.W. and Mk. W.,
Civil Action No. 19-13734
Ringwood Board of Education,
John Michael Vazquez, U.S.D.J.
This matter is before the Court following the parties’ additional briefing as to whether the
Court has subject matter jurisdiction over the Plaintiffs’ claims. D.E. 18, D.E. 19, D.E. 20. The
Court reviewed the parties’ submissions and decided the motion without oral argument pursuant
to Fed. R. Civ. P. 78(b) and L. Civ. R. 78.1(b). For the reasons stated below, the Court dismisses
Plaintiffs’ Complaint, D.E. 1, for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
The Court incorporates by reference here the extensive factual background set forth in its
prior Opinion. D.E. 14 (the “Prior Opinion” or “Prior Op.”) at 2-6. This case concerns the parties’
settlement of a due process petition Plaintiffs filed under the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C § 1400 et seq., in the New Jersey Office of Administrative
Law (“NJOAL”). See generally D.E.1 (“Complaint” or “Compl.”). A three-day hearing on
Plaintiffs’ petition was set to begin on May 7, 2019, but the parties settled the matter before the
hearing began. Compl. ¶ 27. Now, Plaintiffs contend the settlement was the product of coercion
by the administrative law judge (“ALJ”). See e.g., id. ¶ 88 (“The Putative Settlement was procured
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through duress and coercion.”). Plaintiffs assert three counts: (1) reversal of the ALJ’s decision
approving the settlement under the IDEA; (2) a declaratory judgment that the settlement is void;
and (3) in the alternative, a declaratory judgment that the settlement’s waiver of attorneys’ fees is
void under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act and New Jersey public policy. Id. ¶¶ 87-134.
Defendant moved to dismiss the action, D.E. 5, but in the Prior Opinion, the Court
questioned whether it has subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs’ claims and thus denied
Defendant’s motion without prejudice and requested further briefing on the issue of subject matter
jurisdiction. D.E. 14 at 8-15. The Court ordered “both parties . . . to submit additional briefing on
the Court’s subject matter jurisdiction” within 30 days of the Order. D.E. 15. The Court further
ordered “[b]oth parties . . . to submit their opposition within fifteen days (15) thereafter.” Id. Both
parties then submitted additional briefing on the issue of subject matter jurisdiction. D.E. 18, D.E.
19. Defendant also filed its opposition brief – styled as a reply – D.E. 20, but Plaintiffs did not
file an opposition brief. Instead, and despite the Court’s Order, D.E. 15, Plaintiffs filed a letter
requesting the Court to either permit Plaintiffs to file a sur-reply or “strike” Defendant’s “so-called
reply.” D.E. 21. Defendant opposed this request. D.E. 22.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Defendant argues that the Complaint should be dismissed in its entirety pursuant to Fed.
R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(3), a
complaint must be dismissed whenever the Court determines that it lacks subject matter
jurisdiction. Iwanowa v. Ford Motor Co., 67 F. Supp. 2d 424, 437 (D.N.J. 1999). Consequently,
a Rule 12(b)(1) motion may be brought at any time. Id.
In deciding a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, a court must first determine whether the party presents
a facial or factual attack because the distinction determines how the pleading is reviewed. A facial
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attack “contests the sufficiency of the complaint because of a defect on its face,” whereas a factual
attack “asserts that the factual underpinnings of the basis for jurisdiction fails to comport with the
jurisdictional prerequisites.” Elbeco Inc. v. Nat’l Ret. Fund, 128 F. Supp. 3d 849, 854 (E.D. Pa.
2015) (quoting Moore v. Angie’s List, Inc., 118 F. Supp. 3d 802, 806 (E.D. Pa. 2015)). Where, as
here, the party bringing a 12(b)(1) motion attacks the complaint on its face and does not contest
the facts alleged by the non-moving party, the 12(b)(1) motion is treated “like a 12(b)(6) motion”
and the Court must “consider the allegations of the complaint as true.” T.L. by & through Latisha
G. v. Pennsylvania Leadership Charter Sch., 224 F. Supp. 3d 421, 429 (E.D. Pa. 2016) (citing
Hartig Drug Co. Inc. v. Senju Pharm. Co., 836 F.3d 261, 268 (3d Cir. 2016)). Regardless of
whether the attack is facial or factual, “the Plaintiff has the burden to prove that the Court has
jurisdiction.” Bd. of Trs. of Trucking Emps of N. Jersey Welfare Fund, Inc. v. Caliber Auto
Transfer, Inc., No. 09-6447, 2010 WL 2521091, at *8 (D.N.J. June 11, 2010) (quoting Petruska v.
Gannon Univ., 462 F.3d 294, 302 (3d Cir. 2006)).
Plaintiffs first argue that the ALJ’s order below, which ordered “the parties [to] comply
with the settlement terms,” confers federal question jurisdiction under the IDEA. D.E. 19 at 9-15
(citing Compl. Ex. A at 2). Plaintiff further contends this Court has jurisdiction over the ALJ’s
decision approving the parties’ settlement irrespective of whether a hearing on the substantive
issues raised by Plaintiffs’ petition took place. Id. at 17-19. In opposition, Defendant relies
primarily on the cases the Court cited in its Prior Opinion.
A federal court may exercise federal question jurisdiction over a settlement agreement
concerning an IDEA claim in one of two circumstances: (1) settlements reached in connection with
a mediation procedure, see 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e), or (2) settlements reached in connection with a
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“[r]esolution” process, see 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(B). See also S.T. v. Jersey City Bd. of Educ.,
No. CV 16-2663 (JLL), 2016 WL 4941993, at *2 (D.N.J. Sept. 14, 2016). A mediation under the
IDEA must be (1) “voluntary on the part of the parties”; (2) “not used to deny or delay a parent’s
right to a due process hearing under subsection (f), or to deny any other rights afforded under this
subchapter”; and (3) “conducted by a qualified and impartial mediator who is trained in effective
mediation techniques.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2)(A). Among other things, an IDEA “resolution”
session “shall [be] convene[d] . . . within 15 days of receiving notice of the parents’ complaint.”
20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(B)(i).
The allegations here do not indicate that the parties’ settlement was reached in connection
with either an IDEA resolution or mediation. Instead, the ALJ presided over the parties’ settlement
discussions, Compl. ¶ 3, rather than a “qualified and impartial mediator.”
20 U.S.C. §
Likewise, the settlement discussions did not constitute an IDEA resolution
proceeding because they took place more than 200, not 15, days after Plaintiffs filed their petition.
See D.E. 19-1, Ex. B (request for due process dated “August 16, 2018.”). Accordingly, this Court
finds that it does not have jurisdiction pursuant to the IDEA’s mediation and resolution provisions.
Based on the arguments raised in the briefing, it does not appear that Plaintiffs contest this finding.
The only remaining issue is whether the ALJ’s May 7, 2019 order, finding that the parties
“voluntarily agreed” to the settlement and that the settlement “fully disposes of all issues in
controversy between” the parties, confers jurisdiction on the Court. In addition to the exceptions
identified above, the IDEA confers federal question jurisdiction in the following circumstances:
(i) Administrative procedures
(2) Right to bring civil action
(A) Any party aggrieved by the findings and decision made
[during a due process hearing] . . . shall have the right to bring
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a civil action with respect to the complaint presented pursuant
to this section, which action may be brought in any State court
of competent jurisdiction or in a district court of the United
States, without regard to the amount in controversy.
(C) In any action brought under this paragraph, the court –
(i) shall receive the records of the administrative
(ii) shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party;
(iii) basing its decision on the preponderance of the
evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is
20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2) (emphases added). 20 U.S.C. § 1415(E)(1)(i), in turn, provides 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.”
In the Prior Opinion, the Court observed that Plaintiffs’ challenge to the ALJ’s order
appeared to be an attempt to void the parties’ settlement. Prior Order at 9. The Court therefore
likened the matter to a contract dispute over which the Court would not have jurisdiction. Id. The
Court now concludes that this observation was accurate. The ALJ’s decision was not based on
“substantive grounds”; rather, the decision was merely based on the ALJ’s finding that the parties
“voluntarily agreed” to the settlement and that the settlement “fully dispose[d] of all issues in
controversy between” the parties. Compl. Ex. A at 2. The parties do not dispute that the ALJ
never held a due process hearing.
Compl. ¶ 79. Moreover, Plaintiffs request the Court to void
or rescind the settlement agreement based on the common law contract defenses of duress and
coercion. Plaintiffs are, in effect, requesting this Court to determine whether the parties’ settlement
is enforceable. But such a dispute does not confer federal question jurisdiction to the Court. See
L.M. v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., No. CIV.A. 10-4855, 2011 WL 71442, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 7,
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2011) (“Many courts . . . have held that a settlement agreement related to an IDEA claim which is
reached outside the formal mediation or resolution process is not enforceable under the IDEA in a
district court of the United States.”); see also Miksis v. Evanston Township High Sch. Dist. # 202,
235 F. Supp. 3d 960, 978 (N.D. Ill. 2017), as amended (Feb. 2, 2017) (“A settlement agreement is
a type of contract, and it is well established that a claim for breach of contract generally does not
give rise to federal question jurisdiction even if part of the consideration for the agreement is
dismissal of an earlier federal suit alleging claims arising under federal law.”); see also T.L. by &
through Latisha G. v. Pennsylvania Leadership Charter Sch., 224 F. Supp. 3d 421, 429 (E.D. Pa.
2016) (“Every federal court that has interpreted 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(B)(iii) has found that the
precisely worded grant of jurisdiction to enforce settlement agreements reached ‘at’ resolution
meetings simultaneously deprives federal courts of jurisdiction to enforce settlement agreements
reached outside the context of these meetings.” (emphasis added)); see also S.T., No. CV 16-2663
(JLL), 2016 WL 4941993, at *2. Accordingly, because Plaintiffs have not proffered another basis
for federal question jurisdiction and the parties are not diverse, 1 the Court finds that it lacks subject
matter jurisdiction over this matter.
The cases that Plaintiffs cite in their supplemental brief, D.E. 19, do not alter this
conclusion. Plaintiffs reliance on Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375 (1994)
is misplaced. That case involved a “dismissal . . . issued pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 41(a)(1)(ii)” by a federal district court, not a dismissal by an administrative law judge.
Id. at 378. The Supreme Court acknowledged the possibility that a federal court could retain
jurisdiction over the enforcement of a settlement agreement by incorporating the terms of the
agreement into a dismissal order, such that a breach of the settlement would also be a breach of
See Compl. ¶¶ 11-14 (alleging all parties are citizens on New Jersey).
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the Court’s order. Id. at 381. But nothing about the Court’s ruling states or implies that an ALJ
can confer jurisdiction upon a federal district court by incorporating the terms of a settlement into
an order, as Plaintiffs urge. The Supreme Court’s opinion also does not indicate that the parties’
settlement here somehow became an IDEA-defined “decision and finding” of the ALJ merely by
virtue of the ALJ’s order that the parties comply with the settlement. For the same reason,
Transtech Indus. v. A&Z Septic Clean, 270 F. App’x 200 (3d Cir. 2008), is inapposite. That case
dealt with a federal district court’s incorporation of a settlement agreement’s terms into an order
administratively closing a case, not an order by an ALJ. Id. at 208.
Plaintiffs reliance on P.N. v. Clementon Bd. of Educ., 442 F.3d 848 (3d Cir. 2006), as
amended (Apr. 27, 2006), as amended (May 16, 2006), and A.R. ex rel. R.V. v. New York City
Dep’t of Educ., 407 F.3d 65 (2d Cir. 2005) is also misplaced. Those cases evaluated whether the
court-approved settlements between the parties were “judicially sanctioned” for purposes of
determining whether the plaintiffs were prevailing parties under the fee shifting analysis discussed
in Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Virginia Dep’t of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S.
598 (2001). See P.N., 442 F.3d at 854 (“[A] settlement of administrative proceedings that is
judicially enforceable meets the Buchkannon requirements . . . [b]ecause the consent orders entered
here were enforceable through an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and under state law, these consent
orders . . . satisfy Buckhannon.”); A.R., 407 F.3d at 77 (“[W]e agree with the Parents’ position that
M.L. and M.S. are also entitled to ‘prevailing party’ status in the IHO proceedings in connection
with which they each obtained an administrative analog of a consent decree.”) P.N. and A.R. did
not discuss whether the orders approving the settlements constituted substantive ALJ decisions
under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2), let alone whether such settlement agreements are enforceable in
federal court. W.B. v. Matula, 67 F.3d 484 (3d Cir. 1995) is similarly off point. See D.E. 19 at 17.
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The question there was whether the release and waiver provisions in a settlement agreement,
reached during IDEA proceedings, barred the plaintiff’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims. Id. at 496-99.
The Matula court determined that an action pursuant to Section 1983 to enforce IDEA was
permissible. Id. at 495. Yet, the Third Circuit later abrogated this ruling in A.W. v. Jersey City
Pub. Schools, 486 F.3d 791, 803 (3d Cir. 2007).
The Court also finds that the district court cases 2 cited by Plaintiffs distinguishable. Estate
of S.B. by & through Bacon v. Trenton Bd. of Educ., CV1707158FLWLHG, 2018 WL 3158820,
(D.N.J. June 28, 2018) did not involve a claim under the IDEA. There the “[p]laintiffs br[ought]
claims under the ADA and Section 504” of the Rehabilitation Act, not the IDEA. See id. at *5.
The remaining cases cited by Plaintiffs did not discuss subject-matter jurisdiction and did not
involve claims seeking to enforce or void a settlement agreement, let alone a settlement agreement
reached outside IDEA-defined mediation and resolution sessions.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court finds that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction in this
D.E. 19 at 18-19 (citing McLean v. Eastampton Sch. Dist., No. CV1911009RBKKMW, 2020
WL 728816, at *4 (D.N.J. Feb. 13, 2020); Estate of S.B. by & through Bacon v. Trenton Bd. of
Educ., CV1707158FLWLHG, 2018 WL 3158820, at *5 (D.N.J. June 28, 2018); M.C.I. on behalf
of M.I. v. N. Hunterdon-Voorhees Reg’l High Sch. Bd. of Educ., CV 17-1887, 2018 WL 902265,
at *4 (D.N.J. Feb. 15, 2018) ; H.L. o/b/o V.L. v. Marlboro Twp. Bd. of Educ., CV169324FLWDEA,
2017 WL 5463347, at *1 (D.N.J. Nov. 14, 2017); Mittman v. Livingston Twp. Bd. of Educ., CIV.
09-4754 DRD, 2010 WL 3947548, at *2 (D.N.J. Oct. 7, 2010)).
The Court also denies Plaintiffs request to file a sur-reply, D.E. 21. The Court ordered “both
parties . . . to submit additional briefing on the Court’s subject matter jurisdiction” within 30 days
of the Order. D.E. 15. The Court further ordered “[b]oth parties . . . to submit their opposition
within fifteen days (15) thereafter.” Id. Thus, the Court expressly permitted Plaintiffs the
opportunity to respond to Defendants’ arguments in support of dismissal. Plaintiffs failed to take
advantage of that opportunity and instead filed a letter – without attaching a proposed sur-reply as
an exhibit – incorrectly accusing Defendants of non-compliance with the Court’s order. While
Defendants mislabeled their opposition as a reply, Defendants substantively submitted an
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For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiffs’ Complaint is dismissed for lack of subject-matter
jurisdiction. An appropriate Order accompanies this Opinion.
Dated: November 17, 2020
John Michael Vazquez, U.S.D.J.
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