Approved Class Action Settlement Aims to Eliminate NJ Special Education Hearing Delays

On April 11, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey approved a class action settlement that requires the State to fix its broken special education dispute resolution system within 18 months. The settlement resolved litigation that has been underway since 2019 between more than 5000 New Jersey parents of children with disabilities and the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE).  Education Law Center serves on the counsel team representing the parent plaintiffs.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that states operate a due process hearing system that resolves special education disputes within 45 days of receiving a case, unless specific extensions of time are requested by a party and granted by a hearing officer. The NJDOE relies on Administrative Law Judges at the Office of Administrative Law to conduct special education hearings, but the system has long been plagued by delays.

Under the settlement, the NJDOE agrees to comply with the 45-day rule and accepts the Court’s appointment of a Monitor, who is charged with developing a compliance plan by July 10, overseeing its implementation, and issuing public reports every four months.

“If, by the end of 18 months, the NJDOE has not sustained a 95% compliance rate with the 45-day rule over a four-month period of time, then the class can initiate contempt proceedings before the Court and seek further relief, such as appointment of a Special Master to run the due process hearing system,” said Gregory Little of Education Law Center, who served as lead trial counsel for the class. “Of course, our hope is that further litigation in New Jersey will not be necessary and that this groundbreaking case will send a strong message to other states that are systemically failing to comply with IDEA.”

Elizabeth Perry and Marcia Podsiadlo, parents of children with disabilities who have gone through the New Jersey hearing process, testified at the settlement approval hearing. After the hearing, Ms. Podsiadlo said, “Time is critical to the education of children with disabilities. Unnecessary delays in resolving disputes with the school district cause tremendous harm.”

“The settlement gives hope to New Jersey families that their children will receive the help they need before it is too late,” Ms. Perry emphasized.

The class is represented by Catherine Merino Reisman and Judith Gran of Reisman Carolla Gran & Zuba LLP; Gregory Little, Elizabeth Athos, and Jessica Levin of Education Law Center; David Giles of the Law Office of David R. Giles; Denise Lanchantin Dwyer of the Law Office of Denise Lanchantin Dwyer LLC; Robert Thurston of Thurston Law Offices LLC; and Jeffrey Wasserman of Wasserman Legal LLC.

“As the Court aptly noted at the outset of this case, time is precious and, once lost, cannot be recovered,” said lead class counsel Catherine Merino Reisman. “This settlement will make a difference in the lives of thousands of children in the future who otherwise would suffer irreparable harm from delayed access to educational services.”

“To ensure accountability, class counsel and the State will work closely with the compliance monitor, as well as with amici curiae in this case,” Ms. Reisman added.

Jennifer Rosen Valverde of Rutgers Education and Health Law Clinic represented several non-profit advocacy organizations that served as amici curiae (“friends of the court”) throughout the litigation. As counsel for amici, Ms. Valverde played an instrumental role in making the court aware of the harms caused by hearing delays and in pressing the parties to delineate the role, authority, and duties of the compliance monitor in the settlement agreement.

Amici worked hard to ensure that the monitor not only determines compliance but has access to the data and information needed to identify and address the root causes of the longstanding noncompliance,” said Professor Valverde. “The settlement provides a good structure, and amici expect to provide continuous feedback to the monitor through class counsel with the goal of fixing the system.”

Families injured by past 45-day rule violations have been given two years from settlement approval to file a legal claim against the NJDOE. Additional information about the lawsuit and settlement is available on a website operated by class counsel, which will be updated with implementation news.

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