In A.S., R.S. and S.S. v. Office for Dispute Resolution, Quakertown Community Unit School District, a Pennsylvania school district, signed off on a settlement agreement in a special education related dispute without reviewing the copy of the agreement it received from the student’s parents only to discover later that the parents had amended the settlement to include additional school board financial obligations.
The school district’s counsel had emailed a copy of the settlement agreement to the parents’ counsel and requested that the parents sign two copies and return the originals to her office. Upon the parents’ request, their counsel made modifications to the agreement.
The parents signed the modified agreement and the student’s mother hand-delivered it to the district’s administrative office. She did not inform the district that their attorney had modified the settlement agreement. Nor did the parents’ counsel inform the district’s counsel that the parents disagreed with the terms of the agreement and that modifications were made.
The district’s Director of Pupil Services, who received the agreement, believed that this was the same agreement that was negotiated and did not have any reason to believe that the parents changed the terms. The district did not become aware of the modifications until it received an invoice for reimbursement for educational services that had been denied during negotiations.The district filed a due process complaint with the Pennsylvania Office of Dispute Resolution to determine whether a valid settlement agreement existed and a Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer found that no settlement agreement existed between the parents and the district. On appeal, the parents argued that the approval of the settlement agreement by the School Board was the result of negligence on the part of the district rather than fraud on the part of the parents.
The court agreed with the parents and explained that the district could have easily discovered the changes by asking its counsel to review the document. The court further explained that the district’s counsel did not request to review the agreement after it was delivered. The Director of Pupil Services only skimmed the agreement; and neither the Superintendent nor the Board president read the agreement before it was approved and executed by the School Board.
Therefore, the court held that there was a unilateral mistake by the district which resulted in the approval and execution of the settlement agreement and that this agreement, as modified by the parents, was valid and enforceable.
As school districts regularly enter into “settlement agreements” of special education related disputes, the A.S. ruling stands as a stark warning about the consequences of lack of communication between school districts and their legal counsel. Contact Nancy Krent with your special education settlement related inquiries. To read the full text of the court’s opinion, click here:http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Commonwealth/out/1140CD13_1-24-14.pdf?cb=1