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FISHER v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA


June 2, 1993

ELIZABETH FISHER, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: STANLEY SPORKIN

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

 Plaintiff Elizabeth Fisher is a disabled child residing with her parents, Plaintiffs Frederick and Rebecca Fisher. Elizabeth is eligible for special education services pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. ยงยง 1400 et seq. Plaintiff Bryan Stamm is a disabled child residing with his parents, Plaintiffs Mr. and Mrs. Geoffrey Stamm. Bryan also is eligible for special education services under the IDEA. Defendants are the District of Columbia and Franklin L. Smith, Superintendent of the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"). The District of Columbia is required by law to provide such eligible students with the special education services they need, and this obligation is not in dispute. Elizabeth is currently placed at the Chelsea School, located in Silver Spring, Maryland. Bryan is currently placed at the Ivymount School, located in Rockville, Maryland.

 The dispute involved in this case concerns the level of funding the District is required to provide for D.C. special-needs students placed at private facilities. Plaintiffs seek an order from this Court requiring the District of Columbia to pay the full amount of the tuition charged by the Chelsea and Ivymount Schools for the special education services provided by those schools to Elizabeth and Bryan, respectively, during the 1992-93 academic year. *fn1" Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' action. An evidentiary hearing was held on May 24 and May 25, 1993. As all evidentiary issues have been tried and the record is complete, this case is currently ripe for a final disposition on the merits. Accordingly, this Memorandum Opinion and Order represent the final judgment of this Court in this case.

 The Court finds that the District's actions in this case are without justification. The District is attempting to transfer its budgetary shortfall to the parents of these special education students. Indeed, it has literally turned them into beggars, making them "beg" for the money needed to educate their children. They have been forced to file suit in federal court in order to assure that their children obtain the special education which their children so desperately need and to which they are legally entitled. For the reasons discussed more fully below, the Court will order the District to pay the Chelsea and Ivymount Schools the full tuition and charges for related services billed by them. The cases of Elizabeth and Bryan will be discussed in turn.

 A. Elizabeth Fisher

 Prior to the 1992-93 academic year, in conformance with D.C. regulations, the Fishers had their daughter Elizabeth undergo educational testing, which revealed that she needed to be enrolled in a special education program. The Fishers first sought to enroll Elizabeth in the Lab School, which is located in the District of Columbia. Because enrollment at the Lab School was full, the District had to find another qualified educational institution for Elizabeth to attend.

 The District having failed to locate another appropriate placement for Elizabeth to meet her special education needs, the Fishers requested that the District place Elizabeth at the Chelsea School, located in Silver Spring, Maryland. Because the District would not voluntarily agree to this placement, the Fishers instituted administrative proceedings against the District. An administrative hearing was held on November 16, 1992. *fn2"

 The hearing officer's decision states:

 

Where there has been a finding of denial of special education and an order by a hearing officer to DCPS to take action by a date certain and DCPS fails to do so, . . . DCPS can be ordered to place and fund the student in the parent's proposed placement until such time that DCPS can demonstrate that they have an appropriate placement. Those conditions have been met in this case. Accordingly DCPS is hereby ordered to place and fund Elizabeth Fisher at Chelsea School from September 8, 1992 until such time as they can demonstrate that they have an appropriate placement.

 Hearing Officer's Determination In the Matter of Elizabeth Fisher, at 4 (November 24, 1992). The District has not appealed this decision, nor proposed an alternative placement.

 Pursuant to the hearing officer's decision, Elizabeth is attending the Chelsea School, and the District is required to pay the school's tuition cost. While the District has made some payments to Chelsea for Elizabeth's tuition for the months of September 1992 through March 1993. *fn3" it has refused to pay the full amount of the tuition charged by Chelsea. Instead, the District has paid Chelsea at a rate set arbitrarily by the District.

 The following facts are not in dispute:

 (1) Elizabeth Fisher is entitled to receive special education services at Chelsea, which is a qualified and appropriate school for the delivery of special education services to D.C. students.

 (2) The District is required to pay for the tuition and the related special education services provided to Elizabeth by Chelsea.

 (3) The District has unilaterally determined to pay a tuition rate lower than the tuition charged by the school and paid by the school's other students.

  (4) There is no written contract between Chelsea and the District governing the provision of special education services to Elizabeth and the payment Chelsea is to receive for providing such services during the 1992-93 school year.

 The key issue is whether the District is required to pay the full amount of the tuition charged by Chelsea, or whether the District can pay the tuition rate it has determined it will pay. *fn4" The District argues that by accepting the payment tendered by the District, Chelsea agreed to accept that rate. It is clear to this Court, however, that Chelsea did not accept the District's payments as representing the total amount due. *fn5" For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the District must pay Chelsea the tuition charged by Chelsea for all its students.

 The hearing officer's decision requires the District to "place and fund" Elizabeth at the Chelsea School. The hearing officer did not order the District to fund Elizabeth's placement in part, or at the rate it determined to pay. The decision clearly states that the District is to fund Elizabeth's placement at the school. *fn6"

 It is important to remember that the Fishers petitioned the hearing officer to order Elizabeth's placement at Chelsea only after the District failed to locate an appropriate placement for Elizabeth, as it was required to do. If the District does not wish to pay the tuition charged by Chelsea, it can locate an alternative appropriate placement for the child. *fn7" If the District has no alternative placement, it must pay the full cost of her education at Chelsea. *fn8" To hold otherwise and permit the District to unilaterally determine the rate it will pay would defeat the mandate of the IDEA and the order of the hearing officer.

 Because there is no contract between Chelsea and the District governing the tuition Chelsea is to receive for the special education services it has provided to Elizabeth during the 1992-93 school year, the payment to which Chelsea is entitled is governed by the principle of quantum meruit. In other words, Chelsea is entitled to receive from the District the reasonable value of the services provided.

 The Court finds that the tuition rate charged by Chelsea is reasonable. While the District argues that it can unilaterally determine the rate at which it will pay the Maryland school, it does not argue that the rate charged by Chelsea is unreasonable or contest the method by which Chelsea's rate is determined. *fn9" Even if the District did so argue, it is clear that the method used to determine the rate is fair and reasonable.

 Chelsea is a not-for-profit institution. The members of its Board of Directors are unpaid. Chelsea pays its teachers, approximately 95% of whom are fully certified, a salary substantially less than that paid by the municipalities in the surrounding area, including the District. The tuition Chelsea receives covers only approximately 80% of the cost to educate a student at the school. In short, there is no suggestion of any excess "fat" in the operation of the school which could be cut to reduce its costs.

 Moreover, although Chelsea is a private school, it must submit the tuition it proposes to charge each year to the Maryland Department of Education for approval, and the rate Chelsea is charging has been so approved. Finally, municipalities in Virginia and Maryland which have placed special education students at Chelsea have paid the full amount of the tuition charged, as has the D.C. Department of Human Services ("DCDHS") for children placed by DCDHS at the school. Clearly, the tuition charged by Chelsea is reasonable. The District must therefore pay that amount.

 Accordingly, the District will be ordered to pay the difference between what it has paid and Chelsea's full tuition rate for the September 1992 through March 1993 months of the 1992-93 academic year. The District is also ordered to pay the full amount of the tuition charged by Chelsea, or $ 1,508 per month, for the remaining April, Ray and June 1993 months of the 1992-93 academic year, for which the District has not yet paid any sums.

 B. Bryan Stamm

 The situation faced by Bryan Stamm is virtually identical to that faced by Elizabeth. Although Bryan is eligible for special education services, the District failed to locate an appropriate placement for him. As a result, the Stamms instituted administrative proceedings against the District to compel it to place Bryan at the Ivymount school.

 In September 1992, an administrative hearing officer ordered that the District enroll and fund Bryan at the Ivymount School, located in Rockville, Maryland, effective retroactively to the beginning of the school year. The District has not appealed this decision, and it has made payments to Ivymount for Bryan's tuition for the 1992-93 school year. The District, however, has not paid the full amount of the tuition charged by Ivymount.

 The following facts are not in dispute.

 (1) Bryan Stamm is entitled to receive special education services at Ivymount, which is a qualified and appropriate school for the delivery of special education services to D.C. students.

 (2) The District is required to pay for the tuition and the related special education services provided to Bryan by Ivymount.

 (3) The District has been paying a tuition rate lower than that charged by the school.

  (4) There is no written contract between Ivymount and the District governing the provision of special education services to Bryan and the payment Ivymount is to receive for providing such services during the 1992-93 school year.

 Here again, the issue is whether the District is required to pay the amount charged by Ivymount for Bryan's tuition and related educational services, or whether the District can pay the rates it has determined it will pay. *fn10" The District argues that by accepting the payment tendered by the District, Ivymount agreed to accept that rate.

 The discussion of the District's obligation with regard to Elizabeth Fisher is equally applicable to Bryan Stamm. It is clear that, as is the case with Chelsea, Ivymount did not accept the District's payments as representing the total amount due, and that no such contractual agreement for 1992-93 exists. *fn11"

 As is the case with the Fishers, the Stamms petitioned the hearing officer to order Bryan's placement at Ivymount after the District failed to locate an appropriate placement for Bryan, as it was required to do. The hearing officer's decision requires the District to place and fund Bryan at the Ivymount School. If the District does not wish to pay the tuition charged by Ivymount, it can locate an alternative appropriate placement. However, if the District has no alternative placement, it must pay the full cost of Bryan's education at Ivymount.

 Because there is no contract between Ivymount and the District governing the tuition Ivymount is to receive for the special education services it has provided to Bryan during the 1992-93 school year, the payment to which Ivymount is entitled is governed by the principle of quantum meruit. The Court finds that the tuition rate charged by Ivymount is reasonable. The reasonableness of the rate has not been challenged by the District; it is the same rate charged to every other student at Ivymount, including those placed by other school districts in Virginia and Maryland, and was approved by the Maryland Department of Education. The District will be ordered to pay the difference between what it has paid Ivymount for Bryan's tuition and related services and the amount Ivymount charges for the 1992-93 academic year.

 An appropriate order accompanies this Opinion.

 Date: June 2, 1993

 Stanley Sporkin

 United States District Court

 ORDER - June 3, 1993, Filed

 Plaintiffs seek relief against Defendants, who have filed a motion to dismiss. A hearing on the merits was held on May 24 and May 25, 1993 and this Order represents the final judgment of this court in the above-captioned proceedings.

 Upon consideration of the parties' motions and after conducting an evidentiary hearing, for the reasons stated in the foregoing Memorandum Opinion, it is hereby

  ORDERED that the District of Columbia pay the Chelsea School the difference between what it has paid Chelsea and Chelsea's full tuition rate for the services provided by Chelsea to Elizabeth Fisher during the September 1992 through Marsh 1993 months of the 1992-93 academic year within 10 days from the date of this Order. It is

 FURTHER ORDERED that the District pay the full amount of the tuition billed by Chelsea for the remaining months of the 1992-93 academic year within 30 days after the District is billed for such sums; it is

 FURTHER ORDERED that the District of Columbia pay the Ivymount School the difference between what it has paid Ivymount and the amounts charged by Ivymount for tuition and related services provided to Bryan Stamm during the 1992-93 academic year. For all such sums past due, the District shall make such payments within 10 days from the date of this Order. And it is

 FURTHER ORDERED that, with regard to all sums not yet paid, the District pay the full amount of the amounts billed by Ivymount for tuition and related services provided to Bryan Stamm during the 1992-93 academic year within 30 days after the District is billed for such sums.

 Date: June 2, 1993

 Stanley Sporkin

 United States District Court


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