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CATLIN v. SOBOL

March 30, 1995

DANIEL CATLIN and DUNDEEN CATLIN, individually and as parents and natural guardians of DUNBAR ELLIOT, a/k/a "DELL" CATLIN, a handicapped child, Plaintiffs,
v.
THOMAS SOBOL, as Commissioner of Education of the State of New York, JOHN F. HOLDORF, as Superintendent of Schools of the Edmeston Central School District, and THE BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE EDMESTON CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendants.


Howard G. Munson, Senior United States District Judge


The opinion of the court was delivered by: HOWARD G. MUNSON

Plaintiffs move to reinstate the court's September 3, 1986 Memorandum-Decision and Order granting in part their cross-motion for summary judgment against defendants. In that decision, the court held that New York Education Law § 3202(4)(b), as applied to plaintiff Dunbar ("Dell") Catlin, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. See Memorandum-Decision and Order, Document ("Doc.") 12, reported as Catlin v. Ambach, 644 F. Supp. 161 (N.D.N.Y. 1986). Plaintiffs also seek leave to re-submit their application for attorney's fees as prevailing parties within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Defendants oppose plaintiffs' motions and cross-move for summary judgment.

 I. UNDISPUTED FACTS

 Plaintiff Dunbar Elliot ("Dell") Catlin was born in 1973. His biological parents are plaintiffs Daniel and Dundeen Catlin (the "Catlins"), who resided in Bedford, New York at the time of Dell's birth. The Catlins learned soon after Dell's birth that he suffered from Down's Syndrome, and would be mentally retarded his entire life. After consulting with various professionals and family members, the Catlins placed Dell in a family home in Edmeston, New York, owned and operated by Samuel and Elizabeth Conde (the "Condes"). Their decision to do so was based on the Condes' experience in operating a licensed foster home, in which approximately 25 Down's Syndrome children had been cared for and housed. Transcript of Daniel Catlin's Testimony of July 1, 1986 (hereinafter "Dl. Catlin T."), Doc. 48, at 22-23; Transcript of Elizabeth Conde's Testimony of July 1, 1986 (hereinafter "E. Conde T."), Doc. 48, at 43. The Catlins believed the Condes' experience and expertise could provide Dell with certain care and advantages which the Catlins themselves were unable to offer. Dl. Catlin T., Doc. 48, at 22.

 The Catlins always intended Dell to reside permanently with the Condes. Id. at 32. Dell was transported directly from the hospital where he was born to the Condes' Edmeston home. Id. at 24. He has never visited his biological parents' homes. Id. at 24-25; E. Conde T., Doc. 48, at 46. Nonetheless, the Catlins pay for the costs associated with Dell's care at the Condes'. Dl. Catlin T., Doc. 48, at 25-26. No part of those costs is borne by any social service agency. Id. at 26.

 The Condes' is the only home Dell knows and the people with whom he lives are, in most senses, his family. *fn1" Dell refers to the Condes as "Mama" and "Dad" and has longstanding, extended family relationships with two of the Condes' biological children who reside in the area. Dell shares a room with Seamus Varney. Seamus, one year younger than Dell, has Down's Syndrome and has lived with the Condes in Edmeston since shortly after his birth. Dell and Seamus consider themselves brothers. They attend school together, and have become virtually inseparable over the years. E. Conde T., Doc. 48, at 45-46. *fn2"

 Dell attends the Primary Trainable Mentally Retarded Program at the Board of Cooperative Educational Services - Mt. Vision School in Green County ("BOCES - Mt. Vision School"), within Edmeston Central School District ("Edmeston Central"). *fn3" Dell is friendly with his schoolmates and teachers, and has attended school since 1978. Throughout his school-age years, Edmeston Central has dealt exclusively with the Condes concerning Dell's day-to-day educational needs. For example, Edmeston Central contacts the Condes when school is cancelled for the day, when the school needs parental consent forms for Dell to attend school functions, and when Dell becomes ill while at school. Id. at 52. It is clear from these facts that the center of Dell's civic, social, and family life is in Edmeston, New York. Both the Catlins and the Condes believe that it would be extremely harmful for Dell to leave Edmeston and the home the Condes have provided him. Id. at 55-56; Dl. Catlin T., Doc. 48, at 32.

 Dell's attendance at the BOCES - Mt. Vision School was based upon the recommendation of the Edmeston Central School District's Committee on the Handicapped ("Edmeston COH"). From the time he started school in 1978 through the spring of 1985, the Edmeston COH and the Committee on the Handicapped from Bedford Central School District ("Bedford Central") jointly established and reviewed Dell's educational placement.

 In April of 1985, the Catlins moved from their home in Bedford, New York to Nantucket, Massachusetts. From the beginning of Dell's education in 1978, Bedford Central had financed Dell's education at Edmeston Central. As the district in which Dell's parents lived, Bedford Central believed it was responsible for Dell's education under New York Education Law § 3202(4)(b). Once the Catlins moved, however, Bedford Central promptly informed Edmeston Central that it would no longer pay Dell's tuition, and would not continue to be involved in reviewing Dell's educational placement. See July 17, 1985 Letter From Melvin Schwager, Ph.D., Director of Special Services, Bedford Central School District, Exhibit ("Exh.") 20, attached to Doc. 2. Since then the Edmeston COH has been solely responsible for Dell's placement. Bedford Central also advised the Nantucket Public School District of its belief that, because the Catlins' new residence was in Nantucket, the burden of educating Dell fell on the Nantucket Public School District. See October 4, 1985 Letter From Melvin Schwager, Exh. 21, attached to Doc. 2. Edmeston Central subsequently notified the Catlins that Dell could no longer attend public school in that district unless the Catlins, or the Nantucket Public School District, assumed financial responsibility for Dell's education. The Catlins appealed Edmeston Central's decision to the Commissioner of Education of the State of New York ("the Commissioner" or "Commissioner of Education"). In a written decision dated January 14, 1986, the Commissioner affirmed the decision of Edmeston Central. *fn4" The instant litigation ensued. *fn5"

 The New York State Constitution mandates that "the legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated." N.Y. CONST. art. XI, § 1. The state legislature fulfilled this mandate by enacting New York Education Law § 3202, the first subsection of which places the obligation to provide public schooling without payment of tuition on the school district in which a child resides. N.Y. Educ. Law § 3202(1). For children living in free family homes or family homes at board, as in the instant case, *fn6" the statute provides:

 
when such family homes shall be the actual and only residence of such children and when such children are not supported and maintained at the expense of a social services district or of a state department or agency, [such children] shall be deemed residents of the school district in which such family home is located.

 N.Y. Educ. Law § 3202(4)(b) (emphasis added). Children living in family homes at board which are not their "actual and only residence" are not entitled to have their education funded by the school district in which the family home at board is located. N.Y. Educ. Law § 3202(4)(b).

 In refusing to fund Dell's education, Edmeston Central took the position that the Condes' home was not Dell's "actual and only residence" for purposes of § 3202. See August 1, 1985 Letter From John P. Holdorf, Superintendent of Edmeston Central, Exh. 1 attached to Doc. 1. In upholding Edmeston Central's actions in his January 14, 1986 decision, the Commissioner of Education applied the common law presumption that a child resides with his biological parents even when the child is not physically present in the parents' home. According to the Commissioner, this presumption can be overcome only by a showing that the parents neither exercise control, nor maintain financial responsibility, over the child. The Catlins could not make such a showing, and therefore could not rebut the presumption that Dell resides with them. See Decision, Exh. A attached to Doc. 22, at 2. Hence, the Commissioner concluded, Edmeston Central's determination that the Condes' was not Dell's "actual and only residence" was not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable. Id.

 On February 27, 1986, plaintiffs filed their complaint in this court alleging that New York Education Law § 3202(4)(b), as interpreted by the Commissioner and enforced by Edmeston Central in this case, violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and also the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV, Section 2 of the United States Constitution. Damages were sought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act ("EHA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-85 (now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or "IDEA"), and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794.

 Defendants Edmeston Central and its Superintendent, John Holdorf, moved to dismiss the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, Pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, respectively. In the alternative, defendants moved for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. At plaintiffs' request, the court scheduled a factual hearing on July 1, 1986 addressing the question of Dell's residence. Daniel Catlin and Elizabeth Conde testified on behalf of plaintiffs. Defendants presented no witnesses. At the close of the hearing, plaintiffs orally cross-moved for summary judgment. The Commissioner also moved for summary judgment. The court granted plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, holding that New York Education Law § 3202(4)(b), as applied by the Commissioner and Edmeston Central to Dell Catlin, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Catlin v. Ambach, 644 F. Supp. 161, 166-68 (N.D.N.Y. 1986).

 The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated this court's decision without reaching the merits, noting that no state court had yet ruled on the meaning of "actual and only residence." Catlin v. Ambach, 820 F.2d 588, 591 (2d Cir. 1987). Citing R.R. Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 85 L. Ed. 971, 61 S. Ct. 643 (1941), the Circuit Court noted that a constitutional advisory opinion should be avoided where the dispute concerns an undecided but potentially controlling issue of state law. Id. Because a state court ruling that the Commissioner erred in his interpretation of "actual and only residence" might obviate the need for a constitutional ruling, the Circuit Court remanded with instructions to retain jurisdiction of the case pending resolution of the issue by the state courts. Id.

 Following the ruling by the Circuit Court, the Catlins commenced an action for declaratory judgment in New York State Supreme Court, Albany County. Meanwhile, Edmeston Central brought an action for unpaid tuition against the Catlins in New York State Supreme Court, Otsego County. The two actions were consolidated in the Albany County Supreme Court, and summary judgment was granted in favor of the Catlins. The court concluded that New York Education Law § 3202(4)(b) creates a class of children, including Dell, who are not subject to the common law presumption of residency with their biological parents. Catlin v. Sobol, 141 Misc. 2d 169, 172, 532 N.Y.S.2d 1006, 1008-09 (Albany Cty. S. Ct. 1988).

 On appeal, the Appellate Division, Third Department unanimously disagreed with the trial court's interpretation of § 3202, but nonetheless affirmed in a divided decision based on the statute's application to the facts of the case. Catlin v. Sobol, 155 A.D.2d 24, 28-32, 553 N.Y.S.2d 501, 503-06 (3d Dep't 1990). Emphasizing the absurdity that the Commissioner's interpretation and application of § 3202 required "nonresident parents to default on their obligation to support their child and relinquish their parental rights" in order to rebut the residency presumption, the Third Department held that this result was contrary to the intent of the state legislature. Catlin, 155 A.D.2d at 29, 553 N.Y.S.2d at 504. Rather than focusing exclusively on the Catlins' retention of legal control over Dell to determine his residency, the majority held that the Commissioner should have taken into account Dell's continuous physical presence in Edmeston and the unmistakable intent of the Catlins that Dell remain permanently with the Condes. Upon such facts, the majority held, the Commissioner could not rationally have concluded that plaintiffs failed to rebut the residency presumption. Thus the majority upheld the trial court's award of summary judgment to plaintiffs. Id. at 30-32, 553 N.Y.S.2d at 504-05.

 A divided New York State Court of Appeals reversed, agreeing with the Commissioner's interpretation of the statute and concluding that the Commissioner's application of the statute was not arbitrary, capricious, or without a rational basis. Catlin v. Sobol, 77 N.Y.2d 552, 558-62, 571 N.E.2d 661, 664-67, 569 N.Y.S.2d 353, 356-59 (1991). In so holding, the Court of Appeals expressly rejected plaintiffs' position that Dell's physical presence in the district is enough to satisfy the residency requirement. The Court highlighted that the Catlins maintain complete legal authority over Dell and have taken an active role in planning his educational program, concluding that those facts provided a rational basis for the Commissioner's decision. Catlin, 77 N.Y.2d at 561-62, 571 N.E.2d at 666-67, 569 N.Y.S.2d at 358-59. The Court reversed the entry of summary judgment for plaintiffs, granted summary judgment for defendants, and remitted the case to the Albany County Supreme Court to determine the tuition owed to Edmeston Central. Id. at 562-63, 571 N.E.2d at 667, 569 N.Y.S.2d at 359.

 Having lost in New York State's highest court, plaintiffs returned to this court, moving to reinstate the court's September 3, 1986 Memorandum-Decision and Order granting plaintiffs partial summary judgment and declaring New York Education Law § 3202(4)(b) unconstitutional as applied to Dell Catlin. Because the court finds no procedural provision addressing a motion to reinstate a vacated decision, it construes plaintiffs' papers as noticing a renewed motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.

 Defendant Commissioner of Education cross-moves for summary judgment dismissing the complaint. Defendants Holdorf and Edmeston Central cross-move separately for ...


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