Public Schools Have Made Your Child the Enemy and You, the Taxpayer, Are Funding Their Battle – Part II (A Case Study)

An Open Letter to the Williamson County (TN) School Board and Williamson County (TN) Commission from a Concerned Parent . . .

[Reprinted with permission.  Names withheld to protect the identity of the child.]

 

Dear County Commissioners and School Board Members,

I am writing regarding a resolution that both the Williamson County School Board and the County Commission are being asked to approve. The resolution includes amending the 2017-2018 general purchase school budget so that $575,000 can be used for legal fees for special education due process cases The resolution is attached. I am asking the School Board and the County Commission to ask two important questions before voting on this resolution:

1) How many special education due process cases is this $575,000 in legal fees being used for?

2) What was the total amount of money that these parents were asking Williamson County Schools to pay in their due process claim(s)?

If the $575,000 in legal fees surpasses the amount that Williamson County Schools was asked to pay the parents in the first place, as a taxpayer, I encourage you to ask district leaders additional questions.

I am a parent of one of the current special education due process cases against Williamson County Schools and because of this know information that you may not be aware of. Over the years of raising four children there have been times where one of them was struggling but wasn’t ready to talk about it. In some of those instances I remember encouraging them to share with me and telling them that I can’t help what I don’t know. I too believe that people who are elected to serve the community can’t help what they don’t know and it is with that in mind that I write to you today.

In the last five years Williamson County Schools used $570,000 of the taxpayer’s money to pay The Law Office of Melinda Jacobs to fight special education due process cases. As a taxpayer, I am alarmed at the amount of money I see Williamson County Schools spending in our one small claim. I believe that Williamson County Schools is easily on their way to spend more in legal fees with The Law Office of Melinda Jacobs and their expert witnesses to fight our claim prior to the first day of trial than the amount of money I am asking to be reimbursed. My claim is only for the special education services I paid for and not a penny more. Here are just a few of many examples that make me concerned about how tax dollars are being spent.

There is a large amount of taxpayer money being spent on unnecessary depositions. The Law Office of Melinda Jacobs is spending more days doing depositions than the total number of days allotted for our entire trial. They are deposing at least 21 of our people and are flying to New York, California and Missouri to depose providers that only spent a few hours with my child. Some of the people they are deposing didn’t even provide services during the time period of this due process claim so are irrelevant to the case.

There is a large amount of taxpayer money being spent on unnecessary expert witnesses. Williamson County Schools hired two expert witnesses which will likely cost the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. They hired David Rostetter to observe my son in his private school in April of 2018 even though our case is for the 2015/2016 and 2016/2017 school years. If Mike Looney and Carol Hendlmyer expect you to approve this they should have to explain to you how an observation in April of 2018 is relevant and necessary especially when there were already reports from a Williamson County School psychologist and a Williamson County School special education teacher who observed my child in this private school when developing the 2015/2016 IEP.

I encourage you to ask Mike Looney and Carol Hendlmyer how much money Williamson County Schools have paid their expert David Rostetter in the past and how much they anticipate paying him in our case and compare that figure alone to the amount of our claim. I think you will find it alarming. In addition, you might want to ask if there are any concerns with David Rostetter’s ability to conduct an observation being that he has been legally blind since the age of 12.

There is a large amount of taxpayer money being spent on other unnecessary attorney fees. Williamson County Schools paid for THREE attorneys from The Law Office of Melinda Jacobs as well as several school employees to go to a mediation for our case when they had zero intentions of settling the case that day. Did the taxpayers really need to pay for three lawyers and several Williamson County School employees that day when they already knew that they were not going to even attempt to settle the case

In addition, I would encourage the School Board or the County Commission to speak to Melinda Jacobs or another attorney special education attorney about the merits of the special education due process cases before approving this money.

In closing, over the last five years Williamson County Schools used $570,000 of taxpayer’s money (126 pages of invoices) to pay The Law Office of Melinda Jacobs to fight special education due process cases. More money may have been paid to other law firms as well. Now, they are asking you, us, for $575,000 more.

Last month Williamson County taxpayers, 8,155 of them, voted for a sales tax increase to fund Williamson County Schools. I would have to think that a large number of them would not have voted the way they did if they were aware of the amount of money that is being wasted on special education due process legal fees. Mike Looney and Carol Hendlmyer have not been good stewards of taxpayer dollars in regards to these legal fees and your oversight is needed to avoid the mistakes that other districts have made. Take a look at the actions of another Tennessee county in the Deal v Hamilton County TN Bd of Ed (6th Cir 2004) where the district spent $2.3 million to fight and lose a special education due process case that they could have settled for $150,000:

http://www.chattanoogan.com/2005/3/14/63675/Atlanta-Law-Firm-Charges-To-County.aspx

At one point, Melinda Jacobs, the attorney Williamson County Schools is using against us, worked for The Weatherly Law Firm who was the law firm for the school district in this case. David Rostetter, the expert witness Williamson County Schools is using against us was one of the expert witnesses in this case and was paid $74,632.47 for his testimony. Melinda Jacobs who has practiced in Knoxville since 1999 opened up a second location here in Franklin on August 15, 2016.

How much more of Williamson County taxpayer’s money is she expecting to make this second location worth her while? Would her other clients pay to put her up in expensive hotels like the Franklin Marriott as Williamson County Schools does? Again, your oversight is needed.

Who is on the IEP Team?

Perhaps one of the most confusing parts of special education law for parents (and some schools) is who is on the IEP team.  There are both “mandatory” members of the IEP team as well as “permissive” members.  IDEA makes this very clear.

Mandatory Members of the IEP Team

There are five (5) mandatory members of the IEP team set forth in IDEA.  They are (in order as the statute lists them):

  1. The parent(s);
  2. At least one regular education teacher who interacts with the child in a general education setting;
  3. At least one special education teacher or provider who interacts with the child;
  4. A representative of the school district (“local educational agency”) who meets certain requirements (see below); and
  5. “an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results” (who may be also #2-4).

20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(B); 34 C.F.R. §300.321(a).

Before moving on to the permissive members, let me clarify some things about the mandatory members.  The word “and” is underlined above, because that means ALL five are required.  If Congress meant that only 3 or 4 of those persons were necessary, they would have used the term “or”.  Remember Conjunction Junction from School Kids Rock?

The Parent(s)

At least one parent must be present at an IEP meeting. If there are two parents, both are not required to be there – one can act for both.  But, notice the parent(s) are listed first.

One of the key Procedural Safeguards is “an opportunity for the parents of a child with a disability . . . to participate in meetings with respect to the identification, evaluation, and educational placement of the child.” 20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(1); 34 C.F.R. §300.501(b)(1) . The parents of a child with a disability are mandatory members of the IEP Team. 20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(B)(i); 34 C.F.R. §300.321(a)(1) (emphasis added.)

Indeed, “the concerns of the parents for enhancing the education of their child” is critical in developing the child’s IEP. 20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(3)(A)(ii); 34 C.F.R. §300.324(a)(1)(ii); see also Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305 (1988); Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 53, 126 S.Ct. 528, 163 L.Ed.2d 387 (2005) (Parents play “a significant role” in the development of each child’s IEP.)

Parental participation in an IEP meeting is so vital, it is set forth twice in the IDEA regulations. 34 C.F.R. §§300.322(a), (c) and (d) ; 34 C.F.R. §300.501(b)(1).

The LEA Representative

The representative of the school district can’t be just anyone.  Often the school will send a case manager or principal or other administration staff member as the representative, but such person might not meet the requirements of IDEA.

The LEA representative must be:

  • qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of, specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities;
  • knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and
  • knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the local educational agency (school district).

20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(B)(iv); 34 C.F.R. §300.321(a)(4).

In other words, this person must have supervisory capabilities over special education curriculum and services, know the general education curriculum, and know the services available as well as placement options within the district.  If the person the school district sends to the IEP meeting is constantly having to check with someone else about whether the school district can provide such services, the wrong person is in the meeting.

The Evaluation Interpreter

While the fifth mandatory member is only stated as “an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results”, IDEA is no more specific and doesn’t define who this is.

Typically, this person is the school psychologist because that person’s role is to translate evaluation reports into special education and services to be provided to meet the needs of the child.  Most parents don’t know how to interpret evaluation reports.  Heck, even some highly skilled teachers don’t know how either.

Make sure someone is in the meeting who can put testing results into actions and services for your child.

Permissive Members of the IEP Team

IDEA allows other persons to be on the IEP Team.  Specifically,

  • “at the discretion of the parent or the agency, other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate”
  • “whenever appropriate, the child with a disability.”

These are “permissive” members because they are not required to be there and are only there if the other IEP team members think it is appropriate or necessary.

The first of these options has been interpreted to include “education advocates” for parents; social workers or therapists contracted by the school district; or, anyone else who might have valuable input into the formation of an IEP.  There is no restriction on the number of these individuals so long as they have the requisite knowledge about the child or services and it doesn’t bog down development of the IEP.

The second option is at the discretion of the parent(s).  Whether you bring your child to an IEP meeting is up to you and most agree that the child should only attend if (a) he/she is emotionally capable of hearing about areas where the boy or girl is struggling; and (b) he/she has valuable input to offer, such as when or where he/she is having difficulties (e.g. “I struggle in math class because of the classroom noise.”)

Is it a properly assembled IEP meeting?

The most important lesson of this article is for both parents and school districts to understand when an IEP meeting is properly constituted.  As stated above, all of the mandatory members must be present [especially the parent(s)].  Without all of the mandatory members present, the proposed IEP may either be improperly designed (because not all of the necessary input was received) or not implemented (because the district does not have the necessary resources) or both.  If there are no permissive members, the meeting can still go forward.

Parents have the motivation to make sure that an IEP meeting is properly assembled so their child receives a FAPE.  School districts have the motivation to ensure that the IEP cannot be challenged on these grounds.  All of this is intended to benefit the child with a disability.

So, if the law is followed on the IEP team, it is a win-win-win.

 

 

 

Relentless – A Michigan Man

I’m going to tell you something about myself, but first I’m going to tell you a story.  You’ll wonder for a paragraph or two where this is going, but stick with me.  You will learn why this post is on my special education law blog.

What is a “Michigan Man”?

There are many articles and blog posts and other sources that try to explain this undefinable quality.   In “What Does It Mean To Be a ‘Michigan Man’?”, author John U. Bacon (a frequent writer about things Michigan, including the football team), admitted that “ultimately, to define it, I have to resort to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of pornography: ‘I know it when I see it.’”

He’s right.  And you have to be a Michigan Man to understand why he’s right.  First, you need a deep association with the University of Michigan (no, not that silly green and white agriculture college in East Lansing, but the Maize and Blue Wolverines of Ann Arbor).  [Note: I hate when after telling people where I graduated, they say “Oh, yeh, Michigan State.” Grrrrr.]

Not this!

Second, you need a passion about doing good work.  That passion requires hard work, sound ethics, and a focus unmatched by competitors.  This quality could be no better demonstrated than in the Amazon Show “All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines”.  [Outstanding television if you haven’t seen it yet.]

You strive to be a champion in everything you do, but you are not arrogant or presumptuous in that effort.  Perhaps, most importantly, you must be RELENTLESS.  Opponents always want to take you down and if you let your guard down for a moment, they will defeat you.  [Much like Michigan’s loss to Division II Appalachian State in 2007.]

You must be relentless to be a Michigan Man.

What Has This Got To Do With My Law Practice?

I am a very proud 1984 graduate from the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science & the Arts.  I received a Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major and a double minor.  I guess even in my undergraduate studies I was eager.

I don’t pretend to satisfy all of the qualities of a Michigan Man, but I will admit that is my goal.  That is where the practice of law, especially in the area of special education, comes into play.

I am relentless – in my search for justice; in representation of my clients; and in enforcing special education legal rights.

To my clients: Know that I will be relentless on behalf of you and your child with a disability.  If a school district is not meeting the requirements of the law, I will fight to change that so they come into compliance.

To my adversaries: Know that I will be relentless against your tactics.  I have been in litigation for nearly all of my 30 years of practice.  I have witnessed every strategy and method by opponents to try to get clients to back down.  [Some lawyers call this a “Scorched Earth” approach, because the lawyer will try anything – including burning everything – in order to get a favorable result.]  It won’t work with me.  I won’t give up.

Why?

Because I’m relentless.  Because I strive to be a Michigan Man.

 

 

Public Schools Have Made Your Child the Enemy and You, the Taxpayer, Are Funding Their Battle

You pay federal taxes.  You have schools in your town.  Those schools have special education programs.  If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a parent of a child with special needs.

Well, guess what?  If you have a dispute with your school about your child’s IEP or otherwise not meeting your child’s special education needs, YOU are paying for the school to fight against you and your child.

Guess what else? Even if you don’t have a child with special needs or don’t even have a child in the school district, YOU are still paying to have the school fight against the child with a disability and his/her family.

Yes, you heard that right.  YOU are paying to fight against children with disabilities in your community – maybe your own child.

Let me explain this in greater detail and why the system should change.

Federal Funding For Schools

The federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§1400 et seq. or “IDEA” protects students with disabilities and guarantees they receive an appopriate education from their local schools.  This is accomplished and enforced through a federal funding mechanism within IDEA.  If a state receives federal funding for its schools, it must provide special education and related services to children with disabilities in its public schools.  20 U.S.C. § 1412.

In other words, some of the federal taxes you pay goes to fund special education and related services for students with disabilities.  You probably don’t object to ensuring a wheelchair-bound child can access the school via ramps or a child with diabetes having access to the school nurse to administer insulin shots.  You also likely don’t object to a chid with a learning disability receiving extra help in the classroom so they can achieve with their non-disabled peers.

YOU don’t object . . . but the schools are.

Where Does the Funding Go?

Those federal funds for special education – your tax dollars – are supposed to be used to assess if children have disabilities and evaluate their needs, prepare Individualized Education Programs or “IEPs” with special education adn related services to meet those needs, and decide the best location to provide those services for the child.  20 U.S.C. §1414.  Just as non-disabled children can get their education at their local public school for free, the goal of IDEA is to provide the same for children with disabilities, called a Free Appropriate Public Education or “FAPE”.  20 U.S.C. §1401(9).

Still sounds pretty reasonable, right?

How Does A School Make Sure It Provides a FAPE?

Schools are supposed to ensure a child with a disability provides a FAPE via two main mechanisms: (1) assembling an IEP team; and (2) ensuring that the rights of the child are protected and the parents are active participants in enforcement of those rights.  Tax dollars pay for schools to assemble an IEP team, which consists of the child’s parents (and the child if appropriate) and several key school personnel, to discuss how best to provide FAPE for the child with a disability.  20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1).  States and schools must also put procedures in place to secure the legal rights of the child with a disability and his/her parents.  20 U.S.C. §1415.

This is where the system usually breaks down.  Because the parents and the school staff don’t alawys agree on how the IEP is developed or what services are provided to the child with a disability.  Thereby, a dispute arises.

How IDEA Addresses Special Education Disputes – The Problem

IDEA provides mechanisms to address these special education disputes between parents and schools.  If a school wants to do something with which the parents don’t agree or if the school doesn’t want to do something the parents have suggested, the school can issue a Prior Written Notice or “PWN”.  20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(3) and (c)(1).  Parents can review their child’s education records kept by the school as a check on whether the school is providing a FAPE.  20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(1).

There are other “Procedural Safeguards” in IDEA, but none that causes as many problem as a party’s right to file a complaint challenging the “identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child” a/k/a a “Due Process Complaint.”  20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(6) and (f).

Why is this a problem?  Well, anytime lawyers get involved, there’s a problem, right? [He says half-jokingly, half-seriously.]  Each party to a Due Process case has “the right to be accompanied and advised by counsel.”  20 U.S.C. §1415(h)(1).

Still not a bad thing until you realize who is paying the school district’s lawyer’s bill.  The answer is . . . you probably guessed it . . . YOU ARE!

Paying For The School District’s Lawyer

That’s correct.  Whether attorney’s fees are paid directly by the school district’s Board of Education or through insurance (which is purchased using school budget money), the source of the money paid to the lawyers fight against your child with a disability is tax dollars.  YOUR tax dollars.

Schools are misdirecting funds intended to provide education to children with disabilities by spending it on legal bills or insurance to fight special education cases.

So what does that mean?  It means YOU, the taxpayer, are paying for the attorney sitting across the table from you and representing the school district.  The harder the school district lawyer fights, the more YOU are paying him/her.  The school district never has the incentive to resolve the dispute because they’re not truly paying the bill.

Now, I don’t know if you have ever been in a lawsuit before, but if you have, you know what a financial burden it is to pay a lawyer.  You have the incentive to get it over as quickly as possible because, in all likelihood, you are not Bank of America (or Citibank or Goldman Sachs or some other big bank).  But if you didn’t have to pay for your lawyer, you’d fight to the ends of the Earth, right?  That’s how the school district views it.

Not What IDEA Was Designed To Do

IDEA was not set up to favor the school districts.  In fact, IDEA was designed by Congress to “level the playing field” so that parents had a stronger role in the education of their child with a disability.  Specifically, Congress stated: “The purposes of [IDEA] are to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living; to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected; and to assist States, localities, educational service agencies, and Federal agencies to provide for the education of all children with disabilities” among other goals.  20 U.S.C. §1400(d)(1).

IDEA was meant to improve collaboration and cooperation between schools and parents to help children with disabilities receive better education.  Certainly, Congress did not intend for states and schools to use federal funds to wage bitter lawsuit wars against parents and their children with disabilities.

But that is what it has become.  Ask any of my colleagues at COPAA.

So What Can You Do About It? – TAKE ACTION!

If you are like me and fed up with this system of injustice and abuse of taxpayer money, you can take action.  What school districts and their attorneys don’t want you to know is that because the source of funds paying the lawyer fees is public tax money, they MUST disclose such payments to the public who are paying those taxes.

In other words, if you live in a school district that is waging a special education war against a child with a disability, you have the RIGHT to know how much the school is paying its lawyers.

How do you find this out?  You make a Freedom of Information Act or “FOIA” request (or your state’s version of FOIA; for example, in New Jersey it is called the Open Public Records Act or OPRA).

Each state has a website for FOIA requests (I’ve listed a few below as examples) and usually a form to fill out.  On the form ask to see “All fees and costs paid to lawyers by XYZ Schooll District for special education disputes or legal disputes under IDEA for the last 5 years” or something similar.  Prepare for a fight, but you have the lawful right to that information as long as you live in XYZ School District.

New Jersey OPRA Records Request Website and Form

Florida Public Records Act Website and Forms

Texas Open Records Requests Website and Forms

Pennsylvania Open Records Request Website and Forms

For those not listed here, Google “[Your state] FOIA request” and look for an official state website URL.

Go get ’em!

Audio Recording IEP Meetings – Is It Allowed?

Having an audio recording of what happens in an IEP meeting is powerful evidence, especially when school districts deny what was said or fail to put a service in writing into the IEP.   For example, an audio recording can prove or disprove what was actually discussed during the meeting, whether the parents were given proper opportunity to participate, and what decisions or objections were made.   For those reasons, parents often wonder if they are permitted to record an IEP meeting.

So, can you do it?

Federal Law

There is no federal law prohibiting a parent or school official from recording IEP meetings.  IDEA and the other special education laws are silent on that specific issue.

However, IDEA does say a few things that are relevant to the discussion:

  • Parents are critical members of the IEP team
  • Parental participation in IEP meetings is vital and if a school blocks such participation, it is a denial of FAPE
  • Parents have the legal right to understand the IEP and, if necessary, have it explained to them

Audio recording an IEP Meeting, when the IEP Team is aware and consents to it, is not a violation of federal privacy law.

So that means you can do it, right? Not so fast.

The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has issued a letter opinion and Policy Memorandum on this subject in June 4, 2003 (PDF file).  The bottom line of the analysis is that it is a local policy issue and depends on several factors.

When a federal law is silent on an issue, the individual states can decide or legislate on the issue.

State Privacy Laws

The next hurdle to overcome is what state law says on privacy and audio recordings.  Each state has its own laws regarding the consent required to audio record events, even if they are ‘public’ events.

Some states are known as ‘dual consent’, which means both parties must know about and agree to the recording.  Some states are ‘single consent’ which means that only one of the interested parties (usually the parent who wishes to record the IEP meeting) has to agree to it.

While not exhaustive of every state’s law, the Digital Media Law Project collected links to some state’s laws on this issue.  This site is not being kept up to date, so make sure you check your own state’s law on recording or consult with a local attorney.

School District Policies

It is therefore left to the State Educational Agency (SEA) or Local Educational Agency (LEA) to determine the policy on audio recording these sessions.

The SEA or LEA (local school district) may issue a policy requiring, prohibiting, limiting or in any other way regulating audio recording of IEP Meetings.  If the public agency has a policy that prohibits or limits the use of recording devices at IEP meetings, the policy must have exceptions necessary to protect parental rights, such as the ability to understand the IEP or the IEP process. Any such policy on tape recording IEP meetings must be uniformly applied.

Protecting Access to Recordings

Any recording of an IEP meeting maintained by a public agency is an “education record,” within the meaning of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)[1] and would be obtainable by the parents through a written request.  It would also be subject to the protections of FERPA prohibiting its release to anyone not authorized under that law.

So what do you do?

Parents wishing to use audio or video recording devices at IEP meetings should consult state laws or local school policies for further guidance or consult with a local education attorney.

——————–

[1] 20 USC §§1232g and 1232h; Regulations 34 CFR §99.1 et seq.

New special ed case involving charter schools and attorney’s fees

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit handed down an excellent decision on October 11, 2017 for parents of children with disabilities.  In the case of H.E., et al.  v. Walter D Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, et al., the Court held and reaffirmed its prior ruling that “success on a claim for procedural relief can constitute a victory ‘on the merits’ that confers ‘prevailing party’ status” allowing the parents an award of attorney’s fees.

Parents had children with disabilities enrolled at Walter D Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School.  The parents had alleged that the charter school was not providing a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to their children.  The parents entered into a settlement agreement with the charter school whereby the school was to provide the children with compensatory education and contribute towards the parents’ attorney’s fees, but before the school could deliver on the agreement, it closed in 2014.

The parents filed a Due Process complaint against both the charter school and the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PADOE), alleging that PADOE as the state agency was responsible to make good on the charter school’s agreement.  However, the administrative hearing officer dismissed the parents’ case and held that the parents could not go after PADOE and had to get their relief through the charter school’s settlement claims process.

Parents filed an appeal in the federal district court seeking reversal of the administrative hearing officer’s decision plus attorney’s fees and costs for having the fight the battle.  The federal court vacated the hearing officer’s decision and sent the case back to the hearing officer on the issue of compensatory education, but denied the parents’ claim for attorney’s fees because it was a victory on purely procedural matters, not a substantive claim, and therefor they were not “prevailing parties”.

The federal appeals court reversed the federal district court on that basis and said that parents were indeed prevailing parties and entitled to reimbursement of their attorney’s fees and costs.

Thankfully courts are beginning to recognize that these battles are difficult and expensive for parents to bear and their statutory right to be reimbursed for the costs and fees paid to fight these cases when they win should be honored.  It is a re-balancing of the playing field.

The full decision can be downloaded from the Third Circuit Court of Appeal’s website here.  (It is a PDF file)

Guardianship Affidavits – Revised NJ Law

NOTE: This change applies to the appointment of a guardian for a person receiving services from the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD).  It does not change the requirements for guardianship of a person outside the DDD system.

I was recently asked if Nurse Practitioners (“NPs”) or Physician Assistants (“PAs”) are qualified to complete affidavits to support the guardianship of a disabled adult in New Jersey.  The short answer is YES because of recent amendments to the law, specifically the required documents to be submitted to the court when you file a petition for guardianship.

Here is the longer answer:

NJ Court Rule 4:86 governs guardianship.  The rule used to read: “Affidavits or certifications of two physicians having qualifications set  forth in N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.2t, or the affidavit or certification of one such physician and one  licensed practicing psychologist as defined in N.J.S.A. 45:14B-2, in such form as  promulgated by the Administrative Director of the Courts.”  R. 4:86-2(b)(2).  Thus, the old law for a petition for guardianship required two affidavits from either a licensed doctor or psychologist.

The statute was revised in 2015 on the issue of who constitutes a “physician”. The language was changed to:

The moving papers shall include: (1) a verified complaint; (2) an affidavit from a practicing physician or a psychologist licensed pursuant to P.L.1966, c.282 (C.45:14B-1 et seq.) who has made a personal examination of the alleged incapacitated person not more than six months prior to the filing of the verified complaint; and (3) one of the following documents: (a) an affidavit from the chief executive officer, medical director, or other officer having administrative control over the program from which the individual is receiving functional or other services provided by the Division of Developmental Disabilities; (b) an affidavit from a designee of the Division of Developmental Disabilities having personal knowledge of the functional capacity of the individual who is the subject of the guardianship action; (c) a second affidavit from a practicing physician or psychologist licensed pursuant to P.L.1966, c.282 (C.45:14B-1 et seq.); (d) a copy of the Individualized Education Program, including any medical or other reports, for the individual who is subject to the guardianship action, which shall have been prepared no more than two years prior to the filing of the verified complaint; or (e) an affidavit from a licensed care professional having personal knowledge of the functional capacity of the individual who is the subject of the guardianship action.

Thus, accompanying the petition for guardianship (complaint) must be one affidavit from a doctor or psychologist and one of the following:

  • Another affidavit from doctor or psychologist
  • An affidavit from the director of an appropriate facility
  • An affidavit from an approved person from the NJ Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD)
  • An IEP
  • An affidavit from a “licensed care professional”

“Licensed care professional” is defined as “a duly certified or licensed advanced practice nurse, board certified assistant behavior analyst, board certified behavior analyst, clinical nurse practitioner, licensed practical nurse, family counselor, nurse, occupational therapist, physical therapist, physician assistant, professional counselor, registered nurse, social worker, or speech language pathologist.”  N.J.S.A. 30:4-165.8(2)(b).  So, that includes NPs and PAs, among other professionals.

This makes the required documentation for a guardianship petition a bit easier to obtain, although not less stringent.  But in this modern age of healthcare, NPs, PAs, counselors, RNs, social workers, and other professionals may be the people who know the disabled individual best.  That is what courts are looking for, namely, credible evidence to support the guardianship.

If you have questions about guardianships in NJ or PA, contact us via one of our websites: http://schoolkidslawyer.com or http://thurstonlawpc.com or call us at 856-335-5291.

Beast of Burden

You may look at the title and think you’ve accidentally wandered onto a blog about pack animals.  No, don’t worry, you’re in the right spot.  I’m not talking about actual beasts of burden, but rather the beast of the burden of proof in special education disputes and how to overcome the beast that it is (or how school districts and hearing officers interpret it to be).

IDEA does not say who bears the burden of proof (“BOP”) in special education disputes between parents and school districts.  However, BOP is a critical legal issue in litigation.  In simplest terms, the BOP means who has to prove their case and how strong the proof needs to be.  Most people are familiar that in criminal cases, the prosecution has to prove the guilt of the alleged defendant “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  In civil cases, the standard of proof is not that high and is typically “by a preponderance of evidence.”

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Schaffer v. Weast.  That case says that when a parent challenges an IEP, the parent has the burden to prove that the IEP is not appropriate for the child with a disability in the special ed context.  So, this means the parent must put on a strong case to convince the administrative hearing officer that the IEP is either poorly designed or improperly implemented for the child.  This is a difficult proof.

As a result of the Schaffer v. Weast case, most people in the special education legal arena assume that the parents always have the BOP, probably because it is usually the parents challenging an IEP.  But the BOP is not always on the parents and recently this has become a very important issue.  One example is when parents demand an Independent Educational Evaluation (“IEE”) of the child with a disability at the public school’s expense after rejecting the school’s evaluation, the school has two options: (1) pay for the IEE or (2) file a Due Process case.  If the school files for Due Process to defeat an IEE, the school district bears the BOP.

Another example is placement of a child with a disability and here is the recent critical trend.  A school district always bears the BOP that it is in compliance with IDEA.  A Prior Written Notice (“PWN”) is required whenever a school proposes to change the placement of a child with a disability.  20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(3).  A PWN must include at least a description of the proposed change in placement by the school district, an explanation of why the school proposes to change the placement and the basis for such explanation, and a statement that the parents of a child with a disability have the right to challenge such action. 20 U.S.C. §1400(c)(1).

Now, if parents seek to change placement of the child with a disability (usually from the public school to a private school that the parents believe is more appropriate), the parents are always entitled to pay for such private placement out of their own pocket.  If the parents want the school district to pay for the private placement, they will have to file for Due Process and prove that the public school did not provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) to the child and that the private school is more appropriate.  34 C.F.R. §300.148(c); see also Forest Grove Sch. Dist. v. T.A., 557 U.S. 230, 129 S.Ct. 2484, 2493, 2496, 174 L.Ed.2d 168 (2009).

Here comes the tricky part to which I want you to pay close attention.  Let’s say the parents have done that.  They’ve taken on the school district and met their BOP that the school did not provide FAPE to their child with a disability and that placement in the private school is appropriate, so the administrative hearing officer or judge has said the public school has to pay for the private school.  Let’s assume that a week after the parents have won that case, the school calls another IEP meeting and wants to change placement of the child back to the public school.  Do the parents now have to bear that beast of burden of proving once again that the school does not provide FAPE and the child should remain at the private school?  Is that fair?

Well, I argue it is not.  And in my brief recently filed in the 9th Circuit case of J.M. v. Department of Education, State of Hawaii, Case No. 16-17327, I argue that the parents in that exact scenario should not again have the BOP immediately after they have won the private placement case.  Cross your fingers that this becomes good law for parents who are fighting this same tactic by school districts across the country.

If you have questions about burden of proof in special education cases or need any assistance with your child with a disability, please contact us via our website schoolkidslawyer.com or via email at info@schoolkidslawyer.com.

Don’t go to a heart surgeon for a broken arm . . .

If you fell and broke your arm, would you go to a heart surgeon?  Of course not.  You would go to an orthopedic doctor who could determine whether you need a cast, sling, surgery, etc.

The same principle applies in law.  If someone has sued you for cutting down the tree on their property, you wouldn’t hire a tax attorney to represent you.  Similarly, if you have a special education law issue, you shouldn’t hire an attorney who focuses on wills.

Perhaps people don’t realize that lawyers focus their practices on certain areas.  We do this so we can become ‘experts’ in those areas.  The days of the ‘general practice’ lawyer who handles any and every legal problem are long gone.

However, hiring the wrong lawyer is exactly what happened in the case Z.Z. v. Pittsburgh Public School Dist. (PA Commonwealth Ct., Nov. 30, 2016).  The Pittsburgh, PA firm that represented parents, Steele Schneider, consists of primarily employment law and business law attorneys.  While they do list special education law as one of their practice areas, I don’t believe they are members of COPAA (special education advocates and attorneys organization) or any other special education law group nor have I heard of them before this case (and I practice a fair amount of special education law in Pennsylvania).

I believe the Z.Z. case was correctly decided by the court in favor of the school district and against the parents.  I also believe the reason for that is the parents (and perhaps also their attorneys) were overzealous in this case and jumped the gun, specifically seeking legal remedies through Due Process before even completing the IEP process.  The Hearing Officer found (and confirmed by the Commonwealth Court) that the IEP process had not even been completed and parents had not fully cooperated with the process before filing for the lawsuit, thus the school district had not violated IDEA.  Good special education lawyers would have counseled the parents against filing a lawsuit until the IEP process was completed and, if the case was already filed, would have advised the clients not to pursue it further.

There is an ethics rule that states that an attorney should withdraw from representing a client if “the client insists upon taking action that the lawyer considers repugnant or with which the lawyer has a fundamental disagreement.” PA Rule of Professional Conduct 1.16(b)(4).  I’m also concerned that the lawyers involved in the Z.Z. case had the wrong motive for representing the parents.  (I’ll leave that up to your imagination as to what that motive might be.)

Unfortunately, a similar thing occurred in the case Batchelor v. Rose Tree Media School Dist., (3rd Cir. 2014).  In that federal court appeal, Frank Schwartz, Esq., a commercial / employment law litigator from the firm Lamm Rubenstone LLC, created horrible special education law for parents.  That case ruled that parents have to exhaust every legal remedy against a school before a hearing officer prior to going to court, even including anti-discrimination laws like Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which say you can go directly to court.  How did this happen? Simply, Schwartz based his argument using an old version of the law that was no longer applicable (specifically, relating to exhaustion.)  This is much less likely to happen if the clients had selected an attorney that focused his/her practice on special education law (or Schwartz had referred the case out to a special education lawyer).

Thus, my conclusion is that lawyers who don’t truly practice in special education law on a regular basis should not take these cases because they end up creating bad precedent for parents and children with disabilities.  These cases also harm the public’s perception of special education lawyers and advocates.  This frustrates attorneys whose true motive is to assist these clients.  My advice to special education clients is do your research and make sure your attorney focuses his/her practice on special education law.

 

Press Release: NEW BOOK ON SPECIAL EDUCATION LAW PUBLISHED

Amazin Blue Press LLC is pleased to announce publication of its new title:

SchoolKidsLawyer’s Step-By-Step Guide to Special Education Law: Workbook for Parents, Advocates and Lawyers

by Robert C. Thurston, Esq.

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This 266 page book is a user-friendly guide to assist families of children with disabilities, complete with forms, helpful tips, and links.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 2.8 million school-aged children have a disability.  In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) identified 1 in 68 children in the U.S. as being on the Autism Spectrum.  Yet, most of these children are not getting equal access to education and most of their families don’t even know they have legal rights available.

This book not only makes special education more accessible to students with disabilities, but also explains in non-legal terms how to enforce their legal rights within the public school systems.  The guide is applicable to all 50 U.S. states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and U.S. territories.

About the Author: Rob Thurston is a well-respected attorney that focuses his law practice on special education law.  He has published numerous articles and lectures widely on the subject.  He has two sons, the older of which has Autism and is a major inspiration for writing this book.

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For more information about the book, go to http://schoolkidslawyer.com/book or contact Robert C Thurston, Esq., via email at rthurston@schoolkidslawyer.com.