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Gellert v. District of Columbia Public School

May 18, 2006

CHARLES GELLERT, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA PUBLIC SCHOOLS, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gladys Kessler United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiffs are Jesse Gellert, a minor, and his parents, Charles and Susan Gellert. Plaintiffs bring suit under 20 U.S.C. § 1415i(2)(A) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") against Defendant, District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"). This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment, [#14], and Defendant's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment, [#18]. Upon consideration of the Motions, Oppositions, Replies, and the entire record herein, Plaintiffs' Motion is granted, and Defendant's Motion is denied.

I. Background*fn1

Jesse Gellert is a fifteen year-old*fn2 resident of the District of Columbia who qualifies for free appropriate public education ("FAPE") under the IDEA.

Jesse attended public schools in the District of Columbia through the 2002-2003 school year, when he was an eighth grade student at Deal Junior High School ("Deal"). At the end of the sixth grade, after Jesse's performance in school had deteriorated, his parents requested that DCPS evaluate him for special education services. Pls.' St. of Material Facts at ¶ 4. DCPS determined that Jesse was ineligible for such services.

Jesse's emotional state and academic performance continued to worsen, and in January 2003, his parents requested a re-evaluation to determine if he was qualified for special education services. Again, DCPS concluded that he was ineligible. By letter dated March 17, 2003, Jesse's parents notified DCPS that they were withdrawing him from Deal and enrolling him at the Kingsbury Day School ("Kingsbury"), a private school specializing in disabled students, at public expense. Id. at ¶ 5. Jesse began at Kingsbury for the 2003-2004 school year, and remained there for the 2004-2005 school year. Id.

Since enrolling at Kingsbury, Jesse has shown significant improvement in his academic performance. Id. at ¶ 14; see AR, Hearing Tr. at 30-35; Testimony of Dr. Spector, filed July 8, 2005, Dkt. #15 ("While at Deal, in large classes, Jesse exhibited extremely poor academic motivation and received poor grades, despite having the ability to earn As and Bs as he has demonstrated at Kingsbury").

On August 25, 2003, Jesse's parents requested a due process hearing to seek reimbursement for the costs of his attendance at Kingsbury for the 2003-2004 year, arguing that he was entitled to special education services, and DCPS's refusal to find him eligible for such services resulted in a denial of FAPE under the IDEA. Id. at ¶ 6. The due process hearing began on November 18, 2003. After some testimony was provided, the Hearing Officer issued an interim order, requiring DCPS to fund evaluations of Jesse.

Evaluations were completed by the Spring of 2004. They included a psychological report by Rolando J. Diaz, PhD., which discussed Jesse's many emotional issues, including anxiety produced by crowded settings and depression. Id. at ¶ 8.

On May 19, 2004, DCPS held a Multi-Disciplinary Team meeting to review the evaluations, and determined that Jesse was eligible for special education under the IDEA. He was classified as emotionally disturbed "due to his anxiety and stresses impacting his ability to succeed in school, to be available emotionally to teach." Id. at ¶ 9.

Kingsbury held a meeting on June 3, 2004 to develop an individualized education plan ("IEP") for Jesse for the 2004-2005 school year. Id. at ¶ 10. The IEP stated that Jesse required a full time special education placement and "a small class environment with a low student-teacher ratio, specialized instruction and related services . . . ." Id. DCPS was not represented at this meeting.

On July 14, 2004, another IEP meeting was held at Deal. The meeting was attended by several representatives of DCPS, Jesse's parents, their lawyer, and representatives from Kingsbury who were personally familiar with Jesse. Id. at ¶ 11. The participants agreed on annual goals and short term objectives for Jesse's IEP, but disagreed as to whether Jesse needed a small class size to benefit from the educational services. Id. at ¶ 12. DCPS maintained that a small class size was not required, and that therefore Woodrow Wilson High School ("Wilson") was an appropriate placement.

Wilson's student body exceeds 1,400 students. Its special education program services students whose primary disability is learning disabled. Id. at ¶ 21. The school has approximately 125 special education students, with five or six students who are also emotionally disturbed. Special education class sizes range from nine to twenty students. At Wilson, Jesse would attend some regular education classes, which have up to thirty students, and which do not have teaching aides. On some days, all of his classes would be regular education classes. Id. at ¶ 22.

Jesse's parents and the Kingsbury representatives did not agree to the IEP that was developed because it did not contain a requirement for a small class size. They likewise objected to the placement recommendation at Wilson, because nobody at the meeting could describe Wilson's program to them.

Jesse's parents subsequently requested a resumption of the due process hearing to add a request for tuition reimbursement for the 2004-2005 school year at Kingsbury, arguing that Wilson was an inappropriate placement. Id. at ¶ 13. The due process hearing resumed on November 18, 2004 before a different Hearing Officer. At the hearing, DCPS agreed to reimburse the Gellerts for Jesse's 2003-2004 tuition at Kingsbury. Thus, the only issue remaining was Plaintiffs' request for tuition reimbursement for the 2004-2005 school year. Id. at ¶ 16.

The Hearing Officer heard testimony from Marlene Gustafson, Director of Kingsbury, Charles Gellert, Jesse's father, and Charles Williams, Interim Coordinator of Special Education at Wilson. This testimony will be discussed more thoroughly herein.

In a decision dated December 6, 2004, the Hearing Officer denied Plaintiffs' request and dismissed the case.

II. Standard of Review

Summary judgment will be granted when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with any affidavits or declarations, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A fact is "material" if it might affect the outcome of the action under the governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The nonmoving party then must "go beyond the pleadings and by [its] own affidavits, or by depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324 (internal quotations omitted). See Laningham v. U.S. Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1242 (D.C. ...


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