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Massey v. District of Columbia

November 3, 2005

WARNER MASSEY, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth, United States District Judge,

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter comes before this Court on Plaintiffs' Motion for Preliminary Injunction. Upon being served with a complaint from the Superior Court for the District of Columbia, defendants removed the case to this Court. The parties appeared before this Court for oral argument on two occasions: the first, on October 18, 2005 ("October 18 Hearing"), at the conclusion of which this Court denied plaintiffs' motion for a temporary restraining order; and the second, a hearing on the preliminary injunction, on October 27, 2005 ("October 27 Hearing"). In the interim, defendants filed a Response [7] to Plaintiffs' Motion for Preliminary Injunction on October 26, 2005.

At the October 27 Hearing, this Court ordered defendants to supplement their Response with evidence on two key questions of fact, which defendants did in their Addendum [8] filed on October 28, 2005. Upon plaintiffs' request, this Court granted plaintiffs leave to file any addenda supporting their motion, which they did in a Reply [9] filed November 1, 2005. After a thorough review of the parties' filings, the applicable law and the entire record herein, this Court concludes that plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction shall be GRANTED.

I. BACKGROUND

This case centers on the education of a troubled teenager. Tiffany, a resident of the District of Columbia, has been diagnosed with learning disabilities and emotional disturbances. (Pls.' Mem. P. & A. 1.) Under federal law, District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") must provide children with disabilities the same services it provides to other children: a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C.A. § 1400 et seq. (1970) ("IDEA"), amended by Pub. L. No. 108-446, 118 Stat. 2647 (2004). The IDEA requires school districts to follow specified procedures to determine a child's needs and then place that child in an appropriate public or private facility at no charge to the student's family. Until recently, DCPS appeared to be fulfilling its legal obligation to Tiffany. Over approximately the past two months, however, Tiffany's parents claim that DCPS has failed to appropriately place her, leaving her without any school to attend.

For approximately the past year, Tiffany resided in Riverside Hospital, a residential treatment facility. (Pls.' Mem. P. & A. 1.) As a resident of the hospital, she attended the adjacent school, Riverside Academy, which DCPS had authorized as a placement for her. (Id. at 2.) On September 8, 2005, Tiffany was discharged from the hospital. (Id.) Since Riverside Academy is only available for children who are current residents of the hospital, she was no longer eligible to attend. (Id.) Tiffany therefore was in need of a new school placement.

Tiffany's parents, Warner and Kathy Massey, notified DCPS of Tiffany's impending release three weeks in advance. (Id.; id. Attach. B.) Upon her release, the Masseys had not received any indication that DCPS had taken any action on her case. The Masseys had already begun their own research into appropriate school placements for Tiffany, and four days after Tiffany's release, she and her parents interviewed with one promising possibility: Leary School, a private institution in Maryland for children with disabilities. Tiffany was accepted, but Leary School notified the Masseys that it would not enroll her without DCPS authorization. (Pls.' Mem. P. & A. Attach D.) Accordingly, on September 16, 2005, Mr. and Mrs. Massey requested that DCPS place Tiffany at Leary School. (Pls.' Mem. P. & A. 2; id. Attach. C.)

Five days later, on September 21, 2005, the Masseys participated in an Individual Educational Plan ("IEP") meeting convened by DCPS to begin the process of determining an appropriate placement. (Pls.' Mem. P. & A. 2.) DCPS advised the Masseys that it could not authorize Leary School, or propose any placement for Tiffany, until it received a signed medical release. (Id.) Mrs. Massey signed the release at the meeting. (Id. at 3.) DCPS requested a copy of the Leary School admission letter, and indicated that DCPS would provide a proposed placement no later than September 26, 2005. (Id.)

September 26 came and went with no word from DCPS. (Id.) The Masseys, through their attorneys, forwarded the Leary School acceptance letter and renewed their request for a placement there on September 29, 2005. (Id.; id. Attach E.) Nearly two weeks later, on October 11, 2005, the Masseys made a request for a due process hearing, a remedy provided under the administrative scheme of the IDEA. The next day, October 12, 2005, DCPS spoke to the Masseys' counsel and offered two possible placements, MM Washington Center and the DCALA Center.*fn1 (Defs.' Resp. 4.) The Masseys did not respond to DCPS' suggestions, but rather filed the instant complaint in District of Columbia Superior Court on October 13, 2005, requesting that DCPS be required by temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to place Tiffany at Leary School. (Id.) The basis of the complaint is that DCPS' failure to observe statutory deadlines and to provide a timely appropriate placement for Tiffany was in violation of the IDEA and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C.A. § 12132 et seq. (1980) ("ADA").

DCPS then issued an official placement for Tiffany on October 14, 2005, placing her at MM Washington Center ("October 14 Prior Notice"). (Defs.' Resp. 4; id. Ex. 3.) This was communicated to the Masseys via facsimile to their attorney three days later, on October 17. (Defs.' Resp. 4.) The Masseys did not respond to the placement, but argued to this Court that neither placement was appropriate for Tiffany. (October 18 Hearing.) Based on information obtained from the schools' Internet sites, they noted that DCALA is inappropriate for Tiffany because it does not offer her current grade level. (Id.) MM Washington is not a match for Tiffany for two reasons: (1) its student to faculty ratio is too high; and (2) it is described as a school for children with emotional disturbances, while Tiffany needs attention to learning disabilities as well. (Id.) After DCPS placed Tiffany at MM Washington Center, defendants further supplemented their argument that it is inappropriate after visiting the school, along with Tiffany's counselor and counsel (Massey 10/30/05 Aff.; Walters Aff.), and with an affidavit of Tiffany's Case Manager, (Mendelsohn Aff.), who also visited the school.*fn2 On the basis of their findings, the Masseys continued to insist that Tiffany be placed at Leary, or at another school that satisfies her needs as contained in the IEP. (Id.) DCPS contends that either school would provide Tiffany with a FAPE. (Ludwick Decl. ¶¶ 5-6.)

In addition to failing to place Tiffany in an appropriate school, plaintiffs claim that DCPS further violated the IDEA by failing to abide by the statutory deadlines. (Pls.' Reply 1-6.) When the Masseys filed their request for a due process hearing on October 11, 2005, the school district was required to respond within ten days. § 1415(c)(2)(B). Plaintiffs claim that DCPS made no reply. (October 27 Hearing.) The next deadline was to hold a resolution conference within 15 days of the filing. § 1415(f)(1)(B). Again, plaintiffs allege, DCPS made no attempt to schedule the conference until this legal action was well underway, nine days after the statutory deadline. (Pls.' Reply 6.)

DCPS argues that it did, in fact, meet the first deadline to respond to the due process hearing. It issued the Prior Notice placing Tiffany at MM Washington Center on October 14, and transmitted it to plaintiffs on October 17, 2005, six days after their request for the due process hearing. (Addendum Defs.' Resp. 2.) The October 14 Prior Notice, DCPS contends, satisfies the IDEA's requirement that DCPS respond. (Id.) As to the next deadline, DCPS asserts that the only reason it failed to hold the resolution conference is because the Masseys did not return its telephone calls. (Id. at 3; Scales-Johnson Decl. passim.) In an effort to schedule a mutually convenient time for the meeting, the DCPS Resolution Session Scheduling Coordinator allegedly called Mr. Massey on four separate occasions within the ten days following receipt of the due process hearing request. (Scales-Johnson Decl. ¶ 3.) There was no answer, and she received no response to her messages. (Id.) Finally, on October 25, 2005, she scheduled the hearing for November 4, 2005 and notified the Masseys thereof. (Id. ¶ 4.)

On the basis of the foregoing, plaintiffs conclude that DCPS has acted in bad faith. Plaintiffs argue that they should not be required to continue through DCPS' administrative process, which has been revealed as inadequate. Therefore, plaintiffs request that this Court issue a preliminary injunction requiring DCPS to place Tiffany at Leary School.

DCPS counters that it is the Masseys who have impeded the administrative process, and that DCPS, for its part, has satisfied its obligations under the IDEA; thus, it contends, there is no basis for a finding that its administrative resolution procedures are inadequate. The Masseys, DCPS argues, must give the administrative ...


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