UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
July 17, 2006
BETTY LASTER ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge
Document No. 14
DENYING THE DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR RELIEF FROM JUDGMENT
This Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") case comes before the court on the defendants' motion for relief from judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b).*fn1 The plaintiffs, handicapped children and their parents and guardians, filed a motion for a stay put injunction to prevent the defendants, the District of Columbia and the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"), from unilaterally modifying the students' current school placement.*fn2 Because the defendants' proposed placements modified the students' Individualized Education Plans ("IEP"),*fn3 the court granted the plaintiffs' motion for a stay put injunction. The defendants now move the court for relief from judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). Because the court applied the correct legal standard in analyzing the plaintiffs' motion for a stay put injunction, because the court entered the stay put injunction after the defendants received adequate notice, and because the stay put injunction does not violate the defendants' statutory rights, the court denies the motion to relieve the defendants from the judgment.
A. Factual Background
The instant motion relates to two of the plaintiffs, T.L. and A.J.P., both special education students in the District of Columbia.*fn4 Mem. Op. (Sept. 28, 2006) ("Mem. Op.") at 2. T.L. is sixteen years old and brings suit through his grandmother and legal guardian, Betty Laster. Id. T.L.'s May 2004 IEP concluded that T.L. should attend Kingsbury Day School ("KDS") because he "requires small group instruction, individualized education and integrated related services." Id . On July 28, 2005, Laster and various school officials met to discuss T.L's IEP for the 2005-2006 school year. Id. At this meeting, DCPS changed "T.L's classification from 'learning disabled' to a primary classification of 'learning disabled' with a secondary classification of 'emotionally disturbed.'" Id . Because of the change in T.L.'s classification, KDS refused to admit him. Pls.' Mot. for Stay Put Inj. at 3. DCPS notified Laster that it was placing T.L. at the D.C. Alternative Learning Academy ("DCALA") as an alternative to KDS. Mem. Op. at 7. Laster informed DCPS that she disagreed with T.L's placement at DCALA. Id . On September 9, 2005, Laster filed an administrative due process complaint challenging the IEP and T.L.'s placement at DCALA. Id .
A.J.P. is four years old and brings suit through his mother, Leslie T. Jackson. Mem. Op. at 3. In August 2004, A.J.P.'s IEP for the 2004-2005 school year stated that he should attend the "inclusion nursery school program" at Stoddert Elementary School. Id . Stoddert Elementary School, however, no longer offers its inclusion program. Id . On August 10, 2005, DCPS issued a new IEP placing A.J.P. in the citywide autism program at Barnard Elementary School. Id . The IEP also changed A.J.P.'s classification from developmentally delayed to autistic. Id . Jackson disputes the classification change and the new placement at Barnard Elementary School. Id . As a result, she filed an administrative due process complaint on September 13, 2005. Id .
B. Procedural Background
After filing administrative due process complaints, the plaintiffs filed a civil suit alleging violations of their stay put rights on September 22, 2005. Mem. Op. at 4. In conjunction with their civil suit filings, the plaintiffs requested stay put injunctions to prevent the defendants from modifying the students' current IEP placements. Id . On September 23, 2005, the court ordered an expedited briefing schedule. Id . The court subsequently determined that the alternative placement facilities proposed by the defendants were not substantially similar to the children's current schools. Id . Because the defendants are required to find a substantially similar placement when an IEP placement becomes unavailable, the court granted the plaintiffs' motion for a stay put injunction on September 26, 2005. Id . In addition to granting the motion for an injunction, the court ordered the parties to meet on September 29, 2005 to discuss potential stay put placements, but the parties were unable to reach an agreement. On October 14, 2006, the defendants filed a motion for relief from judgment. The court now turns to that motion.
A. Legal Standard for Relief under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)
In its discretion, the court may relieve a party from an otherwise final judgment pursuant to any one of six reasons set forth in Rule 60(b). F ED. R. C IV. P. 60(b); Lepkowski v. Dep't of Treasury, 804 F.2d 1310, 1311-12 (D.C. Cir. 1986). First, the court may grant relief from a judgment involving "mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect." F ED. R. C IV. P. 60(b). Such relief under Rule 60(b) turns on equitable factors, notably whether any neglect was excusable. Pioneer Inv. Servs. Co. v. Brunswick Ass'n Ltd. P'ship, 507 U.S. 380, 392 (1993). Second, the court may grant relief where there is "newly discovered evidence" that the moving party could not have discovered through its exercise of due diligence. F ED. R. C IV. P. 60(b). Third, the court may set aside a final judgment for fraud, misrepresentation, or other misconduct by an adverse party. Id .; Mayfair Extension, Inc. v. Magee, 241 F.2d 453, 454 (D.C. Cir. 1957). Specifically, the movant must show that "such 'fraud' prevented him from fully and fairly presenting his case," and that "the fraud is attributable to the party or, at least, to counsel." Richardson v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 150 F.R.D. 1, 7 (D.D.C. 1993) (Sporkin, J.) (citations omitted). Fourth, the court may grant relief where the judgment is "void." F ED. R. C IV. P. 60(b). A judgment may be void if the court lacked personal or subject-matter jurisdiction in the case, acted in a manner inconsistent with due process, or proceeded beyond the powers granted to it by law. Eberhardt v. Integrated Design & Constr., Inc., 167 F.3d 861, 871 (4th Cir. 1999). Fifth, the court may grant relief if the "judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or a prior judgment upon which it is based has been reversed . . . or it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application." F ED. R. C IV. P. 60(b); Twelve John Does v. Dist. of Columbia, 841 F.2d 1133, 1138 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (noting that not all judgments having continuing consequences are "prospective" for the purposes of Rule 60(b)). Sixth, the court may grant relief from a judgment for "any . . . reason justifying [such] relief." F ED. R. C IV. P. 60(b). Using this final catch-all reason sparingly, courts apply it only in "extraordinary circumstances." Pioneer Inv. Servs., 507 U.S. at 393.
A party proceeding under one of the first three reasons must file his Rule 60(b) motion within one year after the judgment at issue. F ED. R. C IV. P. 60(b). A party relying on one of the remaining three reasons may file his Rule 60(b) motion within a reasonable time. Id . The party seeking relief from a judgment bears the burden of demonstrating that he satisfies the prerequisites for such relief. McCurry ex rel. Turner v. Adventist Health Sys./Sunbelt, Inc., 298 F.3d 586, 592 (6th Cir. 2002).
B. The Court Denies the Defendants' Motion
The defendants make a number of arguments in their motion for relief from judgment. First, the defendants argue that the court applied the wrong legal standard in granting the stay put injunction. Defs.' Mot. to Alter J. ("Defs.' Mot.") at 6. Second, the defendants contend that their due process rights were violated because they did not receive adequate notice of the plaintiffs' request for a stay put injunction. Id. at 8. Last, the defendants argue that the court's decision precludes them from participating in the IEP process. Id. at 13. For the following reasons, the court denies the defendants' motion for relief from judgment.
1. The Court Applied the Correct Legal Standard in Granting the Stay Put Injunction
The defendants argue that the court committed a mistake of law in treating the plaintiffs' request for a stay put injunction as an automatic injunction. According to the defendants, the court should have applied the four part test typically used in analyzing motions for preliminary injunctions. Defs.' Mot. at 7. The IDEA's stay put provisions, however, explicitly state that "during the pendency of any proceedings conducted pursuant to this section, unless the State or local educational agency and the parents otherwise agree, the child shall remain in the then-current educational placement of such child." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j) (emphasis added). Moreover, courts have consistently interpreted the stay put provision to be an automatic injunction.*fn5 Casey K. ex rel. Norman K. v. Saint Anne Cmty High Sch. Dist., 400 F.3d 508, 511 (7th Cir. 2005) (comparing a stay put injunction to an automatic stay in a bankruptcy case ); Drinker by Drinker v. Colonial Sch. Dist., 78 F.3d 859, 864 (3d Cir. 1996) (stating the stay put provision "functions, in essence as an automatic preliminary injunction"); Wagner v. Bd. of Educ. of Montgomery County, 335 F.3d 297, 301 (4th Cir. 2003) (noting that an "injunction is automatic").
The purpose of the stay put injunction is to prevent educational authorities from unilaterally moving a child from his or her current placement. Honing, 484 U.S. at 306, 308. If the court were to accept the defendants' interpretation of the rule, it would nullify Congress's purpose -- preventing unilateral action by school officials -- unless a plaintiff could make a favorable showing on the four preliminary injunction factors. Bd. of Edu. of Comm. High Sch. Dist. No. 218, Cook County, Ill. v. Ill. State, 103 F.3d 545, 549-550 (7th Cir. 1996) (noting that to impute the equitable factor test into the stay put provision would undermine the statutory framework).*fn6 In short, the court properly granted the plaintiffs' stay put injunction without requiring the plaintiffs to meet the four part test typically applied to motions for injunctive relief.
2. The Defendants Received Adequate Notice
The defendants also argue that the court should alter its judgment because they did not receive adequate notice of the plaintiffs' motion for a stay put injunction.*fn7 Defs.' Mot. at 8. Because a preliminary injunction may be unlimited in duration, notice to adverse parties is required. Granny Goose Foods, Inc. v. Bhd. of Teamsters & Auto Truck Drivers Local No. 70 of Alameda County, 415 U.S. 423, 432 n.7 (1974). Notice should be sufficient to give an opposing party an opportunity to respond and prepare an opposition to the motion for injunctive relief. Id . District court judges have substantial discretion in managing the timing of preliminary injunctions. Ciena Corp. v. Jarrad, 203 F.3d 312, 319 (4th Cir. 2000). Because injunctions are usually time sensitive, courts determine the length of notice needed based on the urgency of the factual circumstances and the time available. Id . at 319-320.
Because of the high risk of irreparable injury to the children involved, the court regarded the present case as particularly time sensitive, requiring expedited attention. Blackmun v. Dist. of Columbia, 277 F. Supp. 2d 71, 79 (D.D.C. 2003) (noting that each day students lack an appropriate education that is "sensitive to their particular disabilities, commensurate to their levels of understanding, and fulfilling their immediate needs constitutes irreparable harm"). Additionally, the present case involved atypical circumstances because both T.L. and A.J.P.'s current placements were unavailable and the parents of both students disagreed with the defendants' suggested substitute schools. Mem. Op. at 7. The unavailability of the students' last placement coupled with the parties' inability to agree on a substantially similar placement heightened the court's concern over the plaintiffs' right to a free and public education. Based on the circumstances of the case, and the potential harm to the children, the court allotted the amount of time it deemed sufficient to both parties.
The defendants further assert that "failure of the efile notification system" contributed to their denial of due process. Defs.' Mot. at 8-9. Specifically, the defendants contend that they did not receive e-mail notice of the court's September 28, 2005 memorandum opinion. Id . As a result, the defendants state that they arrived at the September 29, 2005 meeting unaware that an opinion had been issued the previous day and unprepared to express their opposing views. Id .
It is a party's duty to monitor the docket regardless of a lack of email notification. Fox v. Am. Airlines, Inc ., 389 F.3d 1291, 1294 (D.C. Cir. 2004). The excuse that the electronic case filing system was malfunctioning is unacceptable and unconvincing. Id . (analogizing a party's claim that counsel never received notice because the electronic case filing system malfunctioned to "an updated version of the 'my dog ate my homework' line"); see also McMillian v. Dist. of Columbia, 2005 WL 3370820, at *2-3 (D.D.C. Dec. 13, 2005) (quoting In re Mayhew, 223 B.R. 849, 856 (D.R.I. 1998) for the proposition that "it is the attorney's duty to monitor the docket and 'that an attorney may not simply sit back and rely on the court to keep him or her up to date'").
Moreover, aside from stating that they were only given a short period of time to respond to the plaintiffs' request for a stay put injunction, the defendants have not stated what effect, if any, the expedited briefing schedule had on their ability to oppose the plaintiffs' motion. Sparshott v. Feld Entm't, Inc., 311 F.3d 425, 433 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (stating a party arguing that time limits are unfair must show prejudice). Because the defendants received adequate notice and because the defendants do not show that the expedited briefing scheduled affected their ability to oppose the plaintiffs' motion, the court declines to alter or amend its judgment.
3. The Court's Order does Not Violate the Defendants' Statutory Rights
Last, the defendants argue that the court's order excludes them from participating in the selection of both children's alternative school placement, thus violating their statutory rights. Defs.' Mot. at 13-14. Here, however, the court did not deny the defendants the right to participate in the IEP process. Rather, the court compelled the defendants to comply with the statutory obligations of finding a substantially similar placement.
The creation of an IEP under the IDEA is a collective effort among parents, teachers, the school district and other professionals. Mem. Op. at 4. The parties involved have separate and important roles in the process. For instance, if a student's current educational placement becomes unavailable, it is the role of educational authorities to provide the student with a similar placement pending administrative and judicial approval of its alternative placement plans.*fn8 Knight by Knight v. Dist. of Columbia, 877 F.2d 1025, 1028 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (stating that DCPS must provide child with a similar placement pending administrative procedures); McKenzie v. Smith, 771 F.2d 1527, 1533 (D.C. Cir. 1985) (explaining that because DCPS disagreed with the alternative placement proposed by child's parents, it was obligated to provide a new, similar placement).*fn9
Although the defendants suggested alternative placement programs for T.L. and A.J.P., these programs were not substantially similar to the children's current placement. Mem. Op. at 8, 9. In the case of T.L., the placement suggested by the defendants substantially reduced or eliminated the related services and supplemental aids he received at his current placement. Mem. Op. at 7. With respect to A.J.P., the school board's proposed alternate placement in an autism program was much more restrictive than placement at an inclusion pre-school classroom in a language-intensive program. Mem. Op. at 8.
The defendants argue that the court's order violates their statutory rights because it permits the plaintiffs to unilaterally select a substitute school for the child without the defendants' input. Defs.' Mot. at 13-14. But, the defendants do not have a statutory right to violate their stay put obligations.*fn10 In light of the defendants' failure to propose any placement that met the requirements in either child's 2004-2005 IEP, the court determined that the plaintiffs' proposed placements did in fact comply with the children's 2004-2005 IEP.*fn11 Furthermore, the defendants do not present any evidence that the new placement is inconsistent with the school criteria stated in either of the children's 2004-2005 IEP.*fn12
Here the defendants failed to find a substantially similar placement, as required by the IDEA. The defendants do not present any new evidence or arguments to counter the court's conclusion that their proposed alternate placements do not comply with the IDEA. Accordingly, the court denies the defendants' motion for relief from judgment.
For the foregoing reasons, the court denies the defendants' motion for relief from judgment. An order consistent with this Memorandum Opinion is separately and contemporaneously issued this 17th day of July, 2006.