Judge rules Jackson school board must pay $388K for parent’s attorney fees

JACKSON – The Jackson School District Board of Education has been ordered to pay $388,837 to the attorney who represented a parent in a legal matter that involved the district.

U.S. Magistrate Judge for the District of New Jersey Tonianne J. Bongiovanni issued her ruling in favor of the parent on April 30.

Bongiovanni ordered the board to pay the money upon ruling it wasted six months by not complying with a legal order that required it to provide education services to the child, who has autism and is now 14, according to John Rue, the attorney who represented the parent.

The child’s parent filed a federal lawsuit seeking to enforce an administrative law judge’s order and subsequently incurred almost $400,000 in attorneys’ fees.

Rue said the case started because the school district did not propose a placement for the child.

“He was specially excluded from school for over two years,” Rue said, adding that the parent’s grievance was not with a specific school.

“(The child) never actually attended (the Jackson School District). His mother went and tried to get him placed into a special education program after she moved to town and they did not do it, they did not make an offer,” he said.

Rue said a child is entitled to a free and appropriate education in the eyes of the law.

“The administrative law judge in the case said if the district did not propose an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) … and if you do not even propose one then you cannot have offered a free and appropriate education and that was what the question was,” Rue said.

He said the administrative law judge ruled the child was not being provided with the education to which he was entitled for 31 months, between March 2013 and October 2015. He said the mother provided homeschooling for her son during that time.

During the time the child was not in school, the mother received $90,000 from the school district to use for supplemental services such as therapy and social skills classes.

“The compensatory education was awarded for the period when the boy was excluded from school without an appropriate program, held by the court to be 31 months. The fund granted by the court has allowed the family to supplement the boy’s education (which they have been providing themselves, without help from Jackson, since the end of 2012) with needed clinical services the family could not otherwise afford. In short, after the district stonewalled this family for years, the court finally required Jackson to make it up to the boy, giving him extra education services to compensate for his losses from the past,” Rue said.

Rue said at one point the state provided a mediator.

“The mother made three different offers on how this could be worked out for the child’s future placement and waiving everything from the past, and the district did not counter with anything. They just said no,” he said.

Rue said he has been “living this case for four years” and said, “it did not have to be this way.”

“There was no good reason for the school board to waste this time. Had the board not delayed following the (initial) legal order, the federal lawsuit (where most of the fees were incurred) would have never been filed. What’s more, if the board had negotiated with the parent in good faith at mediation before the lawsuit took off … the parent would have only spent about $20,000 in attorney’s fees,” Rue said.

Attorney Robert J. Pruchnik, of the firm Campbell and Pruchnik, LLC, is the special education counsel to the Jackson School District. He said the administrative law judge who awarded the student 31 months of compensatory education did not define what compensatory education should be comprised of.

“Typically, compensatory education is comprised of just that, educational services for a certain period of time. Since that issue was not really resolved at the state level, ultimately the parent of the student filed a complaint at the District Court of New Jersey,” he said. “It was that second part that resulted in the decision to award the parent reimbursement in the approximate amount of $400,000.”