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Giannini v. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education

Superior Court of Rhode Island

January 13, 2017

SUSAN GIANNINI as parent and natural guardian on behalf of G. DOE, a minor
v.
COUNCIL ON ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION, EVA-MARIE MANCUSO, AMY BARETTA, COLLEEN A. CALLAGHAN, KARIN L. FORBES, JO EVA GAINES, PATRICK A. GUIDA, LAWRENCE PURTILL, MATHIES J. SANTOS, JOYCE STEVOS, in their official capacities as members of the RHODE ISLAND BOARD OF EDUCATION, COUNCIL ON ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION, and CUMBERLAND SCHOOL DEPARTMENT

         Providence County Superior Court.

          For Plaintiff: Veronika Kot, Esq.; Nora Salomon, Esq.

          For Defendant: Paul V. Sullivan, Esq.; Stephen Adams, Esq.

          DECISION

          CARNES, J.

         Before the Court is a request for fees and costs under Chapter 92 of title 42, entitled "Equal Access to Justice Act" (EAJA) filed by Plaintiff Susan Giannini as parent and natural guardian of G. Doe, her minor son. Previously, this Court ruled in her favor with respect to an appeal from the denial of her request for a waiver of fees for summer school classes. Jurisdiction is pursuant to the EAJA.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         The following is a summary of the facts and travel of this case. A more detailed recitation may be found in Giannini v. Council on Elementary and Secondary Educ., No. PC 2014-5240 (Decision, Mar. 30, 2016).

         At the end of the 2011-2012 school year, Plaintiff's son, G. Doe, needed three credits in core courses to advance into the tenth grade at Cumberland High School. As a result, G. Doe was faced with a Hobson's choice: repeat ninth grade or make up the missing credits during the summer. G. Doe decided to make up the credits through the Cumberland Learning Academy for School Success Credit Recovery Program (summer school) at a cost of $700.

         Being of limited means, Plaintiff sent a request to the Superintendent of the Cumberland School Department for a waiver of the summer school fees so that her son could attend the classes. While awaiting a response to her request, Plaintiff paid the fees. In the meantime, she contacted Rhode Island Legal Services (Legal Services) for assistance in her quest for fee reimbursement. It was at this point that Plaintiff, through Legal Services, questioned the legality of summer school fees in the first instance by asserting that they were violative of the free nature of a public school education. The School Department ultimately refused, without explanation, to reimburse Plaintiff the cost of her son's summer school classes.

         The Plaintiff appealed the School Department's decision to the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education. In doing so, Plaintiff sought a determination that school committees do not have any legal authority to charge fees for summer school.

         At the hearing, the parties agreed that the issue on appeal was purely a legal matter because the underlying facts were undisputed. Plaintiff took the position that the fee was illegal because G. Doe had to attend summer school in order to pass into the tenth grade. In response, the School Department alleged that the fee was not mandatory because G. Doe could have chosen to repeat ninth grade or to attend a different, Department-approved summer program.

         Thereafter, rather than addressing the legality of summer school fees, the Commissioner ordered the taking of evidence on a matter not raised by Plaintiff. The Plaintiff appealed the Commissioner's decision to the Rhode Island Board of Education (Board), which later remanded the matter to the Commissioner to determine whether school districts could charge fees for summer school. In doing so, the Board observed that an unresolved factual issue existed as to whether summer school classes were mandatory or optional.

         On remand, the Commissioner found that Cumberland's summer school program was discretionary and outside the scope of the school year because it was not subject to the requirements set forth in the Rhode Island Department of Education's Basic Education Program (BEP) Manual. As a result, the Commissioner concluded that the Cumberland School District had authority to legally charge a fee for summer school classes. Defendant Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, in its capacity as the Board's successor-in-interest, affirmed the Commissioner's decision. The Plaintiff timely appealed ...


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