You might be wondering whether an IDEA claim waiver you made in the past is legally binding in court. This very issue came up in the case of W.B. v Matula, an influential 1995 Third Circuit decision that has been cited in nearly 500 cases. Specifically, the case dealt with whether a waiver of claims in a settlement agreement was sufficiently clear that the courts would enforce it. The Matula court held that for a waiver of IDEA rights in a settlement to be legally binding, the agreement has to be clear and specific, as well as voluntary, deliberate and informed.
The facts in the case are straightforward. W.B. was the parent of a child, E.J., who exhibited disruptive behaviors in class from his first year, such as fighting with other students, failing to remain seated and difficulty starting tasks. The school district took an unreasonably long amount of time to determine he was eligible for s504 and IDEA services, and resisted authorizing what turned out to be an insightful independent evaluation in E.J.’s third year. The independent evaluation, authorized by the Board of Education, revealed that E.J. had severe forms of OCD, Tourette’s Syndrome and ADHD.
W.B. brought an administrative claim, which was later settled in the disputed settlement agreement. The agreement held that the district would classify E.J. as neurologically impaired (instead of the less costly ‘perceptually impaired’), provided for an IEP, and $14,000 for attorneys fees and costs.
Seeking punitive and compensatory damages, W.B. brought suit in district court claiming that school officials persistently refused to evaluate E.J. and provide services that E.J. needed. When WB sued in district court under §1983 for violations of Due Process, Equal Protection, section 504 and the IDEA, the Defendants argued that the waiver in the settlement agreement barred the action.
Fortunately for W.B., the court held that they would interpret the waiver using the higher standard of a waiver of civil rights claims instead of the less-scrutinized waiver in regular contracts. It reasoned that parents who seek special services for their disabled children might find the drawbacks of a trial-length delay in services to be too harmful to their child. Implicitly, this would amount to a form of situational coercion that should not easily be held against the parents in the future.
As a rule, courts impose a higher standard for waivers of civil rights claims. These waivers must be voluntary, deliberate and informed. In determining whether an IDEA claim waiver is voluntary, deliberate and informed, the court will look at the ‘totality of circumstances’ surrounding the execution of the agreement. The six factors used in the totality of the circumstances test include whether:
Although not every factor weighed in favor of W.B., the six factors taken as a whole weighed towards a finding of no civil right waiver.
Specifically, the court made the following findings: the agreement did not specifically mention damages and merely covered the issues brought up in the due process petitions, namely the evaluation and classification of E.J. The court additionally found that there was little consideration or benefit given for the waiver, for the classification and evaluation provided for in the agreement was treatment that E.J. was already statutorily entitled to.
In regards to the last three factors, which require that the waiver be voluntary, deliberate and informed, the court found that W.B. only understood that she was waiving the right to pursue administrative remedies, not damages in a civil action. Although W.B. was represented by counsel at the time (the third factor) and had time to reflect upon the settlement agreement (the fifth factor), the court balanced the factors and found that it was disputed that the waiver in dispute was made on a voluntary and knowing basis.
It must be noted that the Matula court was tasked with deciding whether the waiver was enforceable on a summary judgment motion, which has a lower threshold than a final judgment matter. This is because the threshold is whether there is a genuine dispute of fact that must be resolved with a trial, and not whether a party’s claim is more probable than the other.
What this means to you: in IDEA post-settlement civil actions, the district now carries a heavier burden to prove that you waived your right to pursue additional claims. The court will look at whether the settlement stated the type of claim waived, that you knew what rights you were waiving, and that making the settlement was in your favor at the time.