Sparta law firm awarded $400K in legal fees

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Sparta law firm awarded nearly $400,000 in legal fees from Jackson Board of Education

By Mandy Coriston

John Rue & Associates, LLC, a firm which specializes in statewide educational law, was awarded a legal fee settlement of just under $400,000 in a court order handed down on April 30, 2019 by the Hon. Tonianne J. Bongiovanni, Magistrate Judge of the U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey. The court order is the latest action in legal wrangling between the law firm and the Board of Education of Jackson Township in Ocean County.

Since 2015, John Rue, the principal of the firm, has been representing a family who sued the Jackson Twp. School board for failing to provide proper safety precautions and an adequate learning environment for their special needs child. As early as 2016, a decision was reached by the Office of Administrative Law that the family needed to be compensated for the loss of 31 months of education, an order which the school board did not comply with nor appeal.

Federal suit was filed due to the school district’s noncompliance, and a 2018 ruling by Bongiovanni ordered the district to put $90,000 in trust for the student’s education; the court acts as a trustee and reviews how the money is spent for academics and occupational therapy services. Due to the delay between the original ruling and the 2018 court order, the student’s mother also filed federal suit to recoup their legal fees paid to Rue and his law firm.

“There are usually no ‘villains’ in these cases,” Rue said, “There are times when a school board must make difficult decisions between what’s good for one child and a whole group of students. But the system is supposed to be set up for the parents and the Board of Education to cooperate and collaborate. There was no need to get to this point. Our original legal fees by 2016 were only $20,000.”

Rue said that in most cases where a Board of Education makes a misstep, they try to rectify it immediately and in good faith. He called this case an outlier, and fears that the Jackson school board may continue to drag their feet on paying the fees even after the court order.

“The Board of Education was given a lot of off-ramps during these four years,” he said, “which they chose not to use. The latest out for them is this decision, and they still may appeal.”

While it’s unlikely that the court order will be reversed, Rue said he fears that the legal battle isn’t quite over.

“When school districts like Jackson choose to spend their money on lawyers instead of students,” Rue said “the people running those districts are sending a clear message to their communities about where their priorities truly lie. If they defy this court order, like the administrative order two years ago, that would force us to file sanctions for contempt. But that would just incur more attorneys’ fees.”

The April 30 court order mandates that the fees be paid by May 15, and so the firm is playing the waiting game to determine if any more action needs to be taken. At the heart of the matter to Rue, though, is that the student is currently receiving services, even while the back-and-forth over money continues.

“We’re gratified that the child has received the benefit of our legal victory since last summer,” Rue said, “This is very niche law specialty, and it can be hard for parents to find recourse. Many times, filing suit is their last resort and they can’t really afford to hire a lawyer. Sometimes, lost in the shuffle is the child. So we’re grateful the student is receiving resources now; what’s left is the less important matter of the legal fees.”



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