Longmeadow Public School District – BSEA # 07-2866
COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS
BUREAU OF SPECIAL EDUCATION APPEALS
In Re: Longmeadow School District
BSEA # 07-2866
RULING ON LONGMEADOW’S MOTION TO DISMISS
This Ruling addresses Longmeadow School District’s (Longmeadow) Motion to Dismiss . The underlying issue is whether an agreement, entered into by both parties for the purpose of addressing “all claims,” requires that Parents’ hearing request be dismissed. The parties filed memoranda of law supporting their positions and on July 22, 2008, the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) held a telephonic hearing on the motion.
This Ruling is issued pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 USC 1400 et seq .), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 USC 794), the state special education law (MGL c. 71B), the state Administrative Procedure Act (MGL c. 30A), and the regulations promulgated under these statutes.
The following facts are not in dispute.
On April 9, 2008, Parents and a representative of Longmeadow, together with Parents’ former attorney1 and Longmeadow’s attorney, attended a settlement conference with BSEA assistant director Reece Erlichman. At the end of the settlement conference, Longmeadow’s attorney handwrote a “settlement agreement”2 memorializing her understanding of the parties’ agreement. Both Parents as well as a representative of Longmeadow signed the settlement agreement.
The settlement agreement, in its entirety, reads as follows:
1. […]3 compensatory speech/language/pragmatic skills services w/ […]. Or if not available, with another qualified provider. [….] This obligation will continue only so long as [Student] is a resident of Longmeadow and in a public school/day school.
2. [….] reimbursement.
3. A complete release of all claims up to the execution of the complete agreement.
4. Withdrawal of the hearing request with prejudice.
[Signatures of Parents and the Longmeadow representative]
Although not specifically stated in the settlement agreement, it is apparent from the document and not disputed by the parties that Longmeadow was responsible for paragraphs one and two, and Parents were responsible for paragraphs three and four.
Subsequent to the April 9, 2008 settlement conference, Parents’ former attorney drafted a typewritten document entitled “Settlement Agreement and Release” (Parents’ exhibit C). The typewritten version included substantially the same provisions as are contained in paragraphs one, two, and four of the handwritten settlement agreement. With respect to paragraph three (release of claims), the typewritten version substituted new language, which stated that Parents were releasing Longmeadow “from any and all claims … , whether or not now known, suspected, or claimed, … including but not limited to, the provision of special education and/or related services, or lack thereof, to and on behalf of [Student].” This language made clear that the release of claims did not apply to claims arising subsequent to the signing of this agreement and that Parents were waiving any claim for attorney fees. The typewritten version also added some prefatory language describing the context of the agreement, as well as other generic or general provisions – for example, in the event that part of the agreement is held invalid, the remaining portions of the agreement would continue to be valid.
Parents refused to sign this typewritten document and instead prepared their own version of the typewritten settlement agreement, marked as “revised” (Parents’ exhibit C). For purposes of the instant dispute, the only substantive difference between the settlement agreement drafted by Parents’ former attorney and the revised settlement agreement prepared by Parents themselves is the scope of the Parents’ release of claims. The revised agreement preserved for Parents the right to raise claims against outside consultants and indicated that Parents released Longmeadow from claims related only to the provision of special education and related services.
Longmeadow did not accept Parents’ proposed revised agreement. When it became clear that the parties were unable to resolve their differences informally, new hearing dates were requested by Parents, and the BSEA scheduled five days of Hearing in mid-September and early October 2008 for the purpose of addressing all of Parents’ claims. Parents then filed a request to amend their original hearing request, which request Longmeadow opposed.4 Longmeadow then filed the Motion to Dismiss that is the subject of the instant Ruling.
It is not disputed that Student is an individual with a disability, falling within the purview of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)5 and the Massachusetts special education statute.6
As discussed above in the Facts section of this Ruling, the parties voluntarily entered into a handwritten settlement agreement relevant to Student’s special education and related services. It is also not disputed that when the parties entered into the handwritten settlement agreement, they intended to be bound by its provisions.7 It is also not disputed that the handwritten settlement agreement provides that Parents release “all claims” against Longmeadow and further provides that Parents are to withdraw their hearing request with prejudice. A withdrawal by the moving party automatically closes the case before the BSEA.
With respect to this Ruling, the dispute between the parties focuses on the phrase “complete release of all claims” as that phrase appears within paragraph three of the handwritten settlement agreement. Parents take the position that the settlement conference with Ms. Erlichman addressed only Parents’ compensatory and reimbursement claims and that this is reflected in the fact that the only substantive claims explicitly addressed by the handwritten settlement agreement pertain to Parents’ compensatory and reimbursement claims (see paragraphs one and two of the settlement agreement).
Parents state in their affidavit, which I accept as true for purposes of this Ruling,8 that they were advised by their former attorney that by signing the handwritten settlement agreement, they were releasing only their claims against Longmeadow with respect to compensatory services and reimbursement. Parents intended only those claims to be released and believed that by signing the handwritten settlement agreement, only these claims would be released. In their opposition to Longmeadow’s Motion to Dismiss , Parents take the position that because there was a material misunderstanding with respect to the scope of release of claims, the handwritten settlement agreement is null and void, and Parents should be allowed to proceed to hearing before the BSEA relative to all of their past and prospective claims against Longmeadow.
Longmeadow responds that through the handwritten settlement agreement, Parents released all of their claims without limitation and this matter should be dismissed.
Federal case law makes clear that I have the authority and responsibility to consider the parties’ settlement agreement in the instant dispute.9 In general, the BSEA has a substantial interest in considering the legal implications of a settlement agreement that purports to resolve a dispute before the BSEA. If an agreement is binding upon the parties and settles all claims, it would undermine the integrity and efficacy of the settlement process if either party were allowed to avoid their obligations under the agreement, proceed to an evidentiary hearing before the BSEA, and have the BSEA issue a decision on the merits.
For these reasons, I will review the handwritten settlement agreement and consider its implications on Parents’ right to proceed to a BSEA hearing on the merits.
When determining the scope of a release of claims, Massachusetts courts look to the plain language used in the release.10 “Where, as here, the releases were absolute and unequivocal in their terms, they … must be construed according to the language that the parties have seen fit to use.”11 “As is often the case, a release may be prompted by the settlement of a specific dispute or resolution of a specific issue, but broad wording in the release operates to settle all other, unrelated matters ….”12 This rule applies even when the subject matter of the disputed release is wholly unrelated to the subject matter which initially gave rise to the release.13
Where, as in the instant dispute, “the wording of the contract is unambiguous, the contract must be enforced according to its terms.”14 Parents’ intent to agree to a more limited release is irrelevant. “If exceptions to the release were intended, they should have been stated.”15
I also note, and it is not disputed, that through the handwritten settlement agreement, Parents agreed to withdraw their hearing request with prejudice. It would be inconsistent to construe the settlement agreement to mean that Parents have given a release for some, but not all, of the claims in their hearing request while, at the same time, Parents have agreed to withdraw with prejudice their hearing request.
For these reasons, I find that the phrase in the handwritten settlement agreement “ complete release of all claims” should be read broadly so as to include all of Parents’ claims against Longmeadow, including but not necessarily limited to all of Parents’ claims in their hearing request, regardless of Parents’ intent to the contrary.
Parents’ misunderstanding of their release of “all claims” does not permit them to avoid their contractual obligations pursuant to the legal doctrine of unilateral mistake.16 Parents cannot prevail under this doctrine because they bore the risk of their mistake,17 enforcement of the settlement agreement is not unconscionable,18 Longmeadow had no reason to know of Parents’ mistake, and Longmeadow did not cause the mistake. “If the misunderstanding is due to the fault of one party and the other party understands the transaction according to the natural meaning of the words or other acts, both parties are bound by that meaning.”19 It makes no difference that Parents’ misunderstanding was the result of a miscommunication between Parents and their attorney.20
I conclude that the parties entered into a binding settlement agreement, which released all of Parents’ claims as of April 9, 2008 when the agreement was signed. This precludes Parents from asserting these claims before the BSEA.21 In addition, through the settlement agreement, Parents agreed to withdraw their hearing request with prejudice. Consequently, Longmeadow’s Motion to Dismiss will be allowed, and this case will be dismissed with prejudice.
Longmeadow’s Motion to Dismiss is ALLOWED . This case is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE .
By the Hearing Officer,
Date: August 14, 200822
Dismissal by the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA or Bureau) is a final action and is not subject to further review by the BSEA. Because 20 U.S.C. s.1415(i)(1)(A) requires the BSEA decision to be final and subject to no further agency review, the BSEA cannot permit motions to reconsider or to re-open a BSEA decision once it is issued. Any party aggrieved by a decision of the Bureau of Special Education Appeals may file a complaint in the state superior court of competent jurisdiction or in the District Court of the United States for Massachusetts, for review of the Bureau decision. 20 U.S.C. s. 1415(i)(2). An appeal of a Bureau decision to state superior court or to federal district court must be filed within ninety (90) days from the date of the decision. 20 U.S.C. s. 1415(i)(2)(B).
The attorney who filed Parents’ original hearing request and who represented Parents with respect to the settlement conference no longer represents Parents. Parents have retained another attorney.
Although the document is untitled, Parents, through their attorney, refer to it as a “settlement agreement.” See Parents’ opposition to Longmeadow’s Motion to Dismiss .
Since the terms of Settlement Agreements are usually confidential, those terms not relevant to the instant Ruling have been redacted.
In light of the instant Ruling, I find it unnecessary to rule on Parents’ request to amend their original hearing request.
20 USC 1400 et seq .
MGL c. 71B.
See Parents’ opposition to Longmeadow’s Motion to Dismiss . I note, however, that, as discussed above, subsequent to entering into the handwritten settlement agreement, Parents and their former attorney prepared typed, more formal versions of the settlement agreement, possibly indicating that they did not intend to be bound by the handwritten agreement. See Rosenfield v. United States Trust Co., 290 Mass. 210, 216, 195 N.E. 323 (1935) ( “Normally the fact that parties contemplate the execution of a final written agreement effects a strong inference that the parties do not intend to be bound by earlier negotiations or agreements until the final terms are settled.”). However, Parents have not taken this position. Also, case law makes clear that if, as in the instant dispute, all the material terms that will be included in the final agreement have been agreed upon, then the final agreement may be seen merely as memorializing the agreement made at the time of the first version, and the first version may be considered binding upon the parties. In addition, if the parties did not wish to be bound by the handwritten settlement agreement, they would have been expected to indicate this clearly in the document; and this was not done in the instant dispute. See Fecteau Benefits Group, Inc. v. Knox , 72 Mass.App.Ct. 204, 211-12, 890 N.E.2d 138 (2008); McCarthy v. Tobin, 44 Mass.App.Ct. 274, 279 n. 10, 690 N.E.2d 460 (1998); Goren v. Royalty Investments, Inc., 25 Mass.App.Ct. 137, 140, 516 N.E.2d 173, 177 (1987).
See, e.g. , Christopher v. Harbury , 536 U.S. 403, 406 (2002) (when reviewing a ruling on motion to dismiss, court must accept non-moving party’s factual allegations and take them in the light most favorable to him).
Because the parties’ settlement agreement relates to rights and responsibilities that fall within the purview of the BSEA (which are defined within the IDEA as the “ the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child” ( 20 USC 1415(b)(6)(A) ), a BSEA Hearing Officer has the authority and responsibility to consider the agreement and determine whether and to what extent the agreement alters the rights and responsibilities of the parties with respect to Student’s special education services and related procedural protections. See, e.g., J.P. v. Cherokee County Bd. of Educ. , 218 Fed.Appx. 911 (11 th Cir. 2007 ) (claims regarding alleged breach of contract involving special education issues must be addressed through administrative due process remedies prior to consideration by the court); R.K., ex rel. T.K. v. Hayward Unified School Dist. , 2007 WL 2778702 ( N.D.Cal. 2007) ( exhaustion is required for claims concerning breaches of agreements settling due process complaints, especially where the alleged breach relates to the student’s receipt of a FAPE); S.G. v. District of Columbia , 2007 WL 2257585 ( D.D.C. 2007) (prior to consideration by the court, the hearing officer must first consider settlement agreement that is relevant to student’s special education rights); Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School Dist. v. Michigan Dept. of Educ. , 2007 WL 2219352 ( W.D. Mich. 2007) (“Court concludes that the reasoning of the above cases requiring exhaustion of claims alleging breach of a settlement agreement, especially where such claims relate to the provision of a FAPE, is sound. Because the District’s breach of contract claims concern educational and medical evaluations of the minor as well as her educational placement, these are issues that may be addressed through the administrative process.” ); Sarah Z. v. Menlo Park City Sch. Dist., 2007 WL 1574569 (N.D.Cal. 2007) (court lacked jurisdiction to hear breach of contract claim relating to plaintiff’s special education services because claim was not exhausted before administrative law judge); Pedraza v. Alameda Unif. Sch. Dist., 2007 WL 949603, *6 (N.D.Cal. 2007) (alleged violation of settlement agreement was, in effect, an allegation of denial of FAPE; court indicated that the California Office for Administrative Hearings could have taken jurisdiction over the dispute); Chardon Local School District Board of Education v. A.D. , 45 IDELR 182 (N.D.Ohio 2006) (“this Court agrees with the IHO [impartial hearing officer] that it is wholly appropriate to treat alleged violations of the terms of the instant Mediation Agreement [which was attached to the IEP and therefore part of the educational record] within the scope of [the hearing officer’s] due process review”); Linda P. v. State of Hawaii, Dep’t of Education, 106 LRP 45612 (D. Hawaii 2006) (“hearing officer correctly found and concluded that the claims were covered by a binding and enforceable settlement agreement”); In Re: Boston Public Schools , BSEA # 06-3836, 12 MSER 161 (2006) (“Hearing Officer’s jurisdiction may include consideration of the legal implications of an agreement with respect to parents’ special education rights”) (collecting authorities). Although the First Circuit has not squarely addressed the question of a Hearing Officer’s authority to consider an agreement, the Court has concluded that an agreement between the parties may alter their rights and responsibilities under the IDEA, thereby implicitly requiring a Hearing Officer to consider an agreement in order that he or she aligns his or her decision with a federal court’s understanding of the rights and responsibilities of the parties. Alison H. v. Byard , 163 F.3d 2 (1 st Cir. 1998) (court determined that an agreement extinguished parent’s otherwise viable claim for attorney fees under the IDEA).
Lisciotti v. Lattanzio , 2006 WL 2848675, *5 ( Mass.Super. 2006).
Tupper v. Hancock, 319 Mass. 105, 108, 64 N.E.2d 441 (1946) . See also Naukeag Inn, Inc. v. Rideout , 351 Mass. 353, 356, 220 N.E.2d 916 (1966) ( “general release … is to be given effect, even if the parties did not have in mind all the wrongs which existed at the time of the release”); Chatham Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Angier Chemical Co. , 347 Mass. 208, 211, 196 N.E.2d 852 (1964) (absent limiting language, the expression of one (the whole) constitutes an exclusion of the others (individual types of claims)).
Eck v. Godbout , 444 Mass. 724, 728, 831 N.E.2d 296 (2005) (citations omitted).
Atlas Tack Corp. v. Crosby, 41 Mass.App.Ct. 429, 433, 671 N.E.2d 954 (1996), rev. denied, 424 Mass. 1101, 674 N.E.2d 1084 (1996).
Alison H. V. Byard , 163 F.3d 2, 6 (1 st Cir. 1998), quoting Edmonds v. United States, 642 F.2d 877, 881 (1st Cir.1981).
Sword & Shield Restaurant, Inc. v. Amoco Oil Co. , 11 Mass.App.Ct. 832, 833, 420 N.E.2d 32 (1981) . See also Naukeag Inn, Inc. v. Rideout , 351 Mass. 353, 356, 220 N.E.2d 916 (1966).
First Safety Fund Nat’l Bank v. Friel , 23 Mass.App.Ct. 583, 588, 504 N.E.2d 664, 667 (1987) (“There are limited circumstances in which a party may avoid a contract on the basis of a unilateral mistake: ‘if he does not bear the risk of mistake …, and (a) the effect of the mistake is such that enforcement of the contract would be unconscionable, or (b) the other party had reason to know of the mistake or his fault caused the mistake.’”), quoting Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 153.
It is appropriate to allocate the risk of mistake to Parents because they were represented by counsel, Parents had an opportunity to discuss the settlement agreement with counsel prior to signing it, and the parties’ attorneys had the opportunity to discuss the provisions with each other to ensure that they had the same understanding as to the implications of the settlement agreement. In addition, it is apparent from the draft typewritten settlement agreement prepared by Parents’ counsel that he did not misunderstand the legal implications of the release of Parents’ claims within the handwritten settlement agreement. See Parents’ exhibit C, discussed in Facts section, above.
To be unconscionable, a bargain must be an obvious departure from that which a reasonable person would engage. See Covich v. Chambers, 8 Mass.App.Ct. 740, n. 13, 397 N.E.2d 1115 (1979) . See also First Safety Fund Nat’l Bank v. Friel , 23 Mass.App.Ct. 583, 588, 504 N.E.2d 664, 667 (1987) ( contract is considered unconscionable if “the sum total of its provisions drives too hard a bargain for a court of conscience to assist”), quoting Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 208. This is not the case in the present dispute.
Nissan Automobiles of Marlborough, Inc. v. Glick , 62 Mass.App.Ct. 302, 306, n.2, 816 N.E.2d 161 (2004), quoting 13 Williston, Contracts § 1578, at 513 (3rd ed.1970). See also Tiffany v. Sturbridge Camping Club, Inc. , 32 Mass.App.Ct. 173, 175, n.5, 587 N.E.2d 238 (1992) (“ Although the Tiffanys contend that their lack of understanding is an essential factual element of at least one of their claims, which accordingly should not have been dismissed, their plea is unavailing. In the absence of fraud, not here alleged, a person who signs a written agreement is bound by its terms whether he reads and understands them or not.”).
Nissan Automobiles of Marlborough, Inc. v. Glick , 62 Mass.App.Ct. 302, 816 N.E.2d 161 ( 2004) (not material that attorney’s error caused final wording of the contract not to match party’s intent).
See, e.g., S.A.S. ex rel. W.S. v. Hibbing Pub. Schs., 2005 WL 1593011 (D.Minn. 2005) (plain language of settlement agreement prevents plaintiffs from raising any waived claims in an administrative or judicial forum).
I note, with appreciation, the assistance of BSEA legal intern Stephanie Singer in the research and drafting of this Ruling.