An Illinois federal trial court recently held that a school district breached a special education settlement agreement with a family by dis-enrolling a student for non-attendance at a private placement. Miksis v. Evanston Township High Sch. Dist. No. 202, 12 C8497 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 27, 2017). The District and the Miksis family had a long-running dispute about the proper placement for John M., who has Down syndrome, in high school.  During his fourth year of high school, the sides entered into a detailed written settlement agreement regarding John’s education for his post-high school special education programming. The parties agreed that for the 2009-2010 school year, John would attend Orchard Academy (“OA”) transition program at the District’s expense with IEP goals and services to be determined on the basis of OA’s assessment. The agreement further stated that, for the 2010-2011 school year and until John aged-out of IDEA eligibility, John would attend PACE at National Louis University, at District expense, if PACE accepted John into their program. If John was not accepted into PACE, or if the program terminated, the District and the family were obligated under the agreement to meet and determine another appropriate placement for John.

John enrolled at OA in the fall of 2009. John’s mother asked OA to provide John with supports to attend the local community college, unbeknownst to the District. OA provided the supports as requested. When the District learned about this, its new special education director (who was not part of the settlement discussions) requested that OA stop the practice. For the remainder of the semester, John attended OA part-time at the District’s expense and also attended community college at John’s parents’ expense.  Around this time, the special education director informed the family that the District would not pay for a PACE placement for the following year because it was not an ISBE-approved placement.

Eventually, John only began attending OA one day a week. When the special education director learned this in March 2010, she sent a letter to the family informing them that the District was dis-enrolling John from OA and the District. The letter also indicated that a meeting needed to be set-up to discuss John’s placement for the 2010-2011 school year. Sometime around this period, John applied for and was denied enrollment at PACE.  The family then unilaterally enrolled John at a different private placement for the 2010-2011 school year and sued the District for breach of contract and violation of IDEA, seeking reimbursement for its costs to enroll John at the private placement.

Both sides filed motions for summary judgment. In its decision, the court held that the District breached the settlement agreement when it dis-enrolled John from OA and the District. The court further held that the District committed an “anticipatory repudiation” meaning that its actions indicated that it was not going to comply the agreement in the future when it dis-enrolled John. Although both sides had an obligation to cooperate and set-up a meeting to discuss John’s 2010-2011 placement and beyond, neither side took the necessary actions to do so. And, the court found, the family had a reasonable belief that the District would not follow the agreement even if the family had tried to schedule a meeting because the District had said it would not pay for PACE.

The Court explicitly rejected the school district’s argument that the parents’ obstructive behavior had justified the school district’s actions.

Settlements of special education cases create multiple complexities for school districts; especially when the agreement covers multiple years.  The Miksis ruling underlines those complexities and emphasizes the need for clarity in settlement agreements.

Multi-year special education settlement agreements present many issues which must be carefully considered during drafting and implementation. Contact Pam Simaga with your inquiries.