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T.S. v. Dist. of Columbia

March 27, 2007

T.S., A MINOR CHILD, THROUGH JOHANNA SKRINE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

T.S., a minor child, through his mother and next friend, Johanna Skrine, brings this suit against the District of Columbia and Clifford Janey, the Superintendent of the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"), in his official capacity, seeking review of a hearing officer's decision and attorneys' fees, pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Before the court are plaintiff's motion for summary judgment [#10], and defendant's motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, cross-motion for summary judgment, and for attorneys' fees [#13]. Upon consideration of the motions, the oppositions thereto, and the record of the case, the court concludes that plaintiff's motion must be granted in part and denied in part, and that defendant's motion must be granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Statutory Background

Under the IDEA, each disabled student is entitled to a "free appropriate public education," or a "FAPE," which requires that appropriate special education services be "provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge." 20 U.S.C. § 1401(9)(A). To ensure that each eligible student receives a FAPE, the IDEA requires that an individualized education program ("IEP") be developed to provide each disabled student with a plan for educational services tailored to that student's unique needs. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d); 34 C.F.R. § 300.300(a)(3)(ii). A full evaluation of a child is an integral part of developing such a program. Therefore, the IDEA requires public education providers to "conduct a full and individual initial evaluation . . . before the initial provision of special education and related services to a child with a disability." 20 U.S.C. § 1414(a)(1)(A). The educational agency may also conduct a reevaluation if it appears that the student's needs, "including improved academic achievement and functional performance, . . . warrant a reevaluation," or such a reevaluation is requested by the student's parents or teachers. Id. § 1414(a)(2)(A). If a parent objects to the results of an evaluation, she is entitled to an "independent educational evaluation" of the student at public expense. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(1); 34 C.F.R. § 300.502.

A parent who is dissatisfied with her child's evaluation or placement may request an impartial due process hearing before an administrative hearing officer. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1). A hearing officer's decision may be challenged in federal district court by an "aggrieved party." Id. § 1415(i)(2). The prevailing party in an action under the IDEA is entitled to recover reasonable attorneys' fees. Id. § 1415(i)(3)(B).

B. Factual Background

T.S. is a 10-year-old boy residing in the District of Columbia. In 2003, DCPS determined that he was eligible to receive special education services because he was classified as mentally retarded. In 2004, DCPS administered a number of tests to re-examine T.S.'s classification, including a psycho-educational evaluation. Plaintiff objected to the evaluation because, inter alia, the evaluation did not include an I.Q. test and erroneously compared T.S. to students in the first grade (the grade he was in after being held back) when it should have compared him to students in the second grade (which was the norm for his age). A.R. at 69.*fn1

On January 5, 2006, plaintiff sent a letter to the DCPS Office of Special Education requesting an independent psycho-educational evaluation for T.S., pursuant to 34 C.F.R. § 300.502. The letter was addressed, "To whom it may concern." A.R. at 2. DCPS did not respond to the request. At an IEP meeting on January 11, 2005, DCPS changed the T.S.'s classification to learning disabled based in part on the results of a psycho-educational evaluation. Id. at 191. On January 19, 2005, Plaintiff filed a request for a due process hearing regarding, inter alia, DCPS's failure to provide an independent evaluation. Plaintiff asserted other claims which were ultimately withdrawn. Id. at 2 n.2.

At the hearing on April 1, 2005, the hearing officer determined that the only issue for review was whether T.S. was denied a FAPE by DCPS's failure to "reply to and/or grant the parent's request for an independent psychological evaluation." A.R. 2. In reciting his findings of fact, the hearing officer stated that T.S. "has been determined to be eligible for special education and related services with a disability classification of mental retardation." Id. The hearing officer then explained that this classification was changed by DCPS in 2004 to learning disabled. The hearing officer found that plaintiff had filed a request for a hearing two weeks after initially sending the letter requesting the independent evaluation, that the letter was "addressed . . . to no one in particular" at DCPS, and that plaintiff had not made any follow-up calls regarding the request. Id. at 3. Observing that the applicable regulations require an independent evaluation to be provided "without unnecessary delay," see 34 C.F.R. § 300.502, the hearing officer determined that an "inordinate [amount of] time had not yet passed" from the time of the request for the independent evaluation to the time plaintiff requested the due process hearing. A.R. 3. Thus, the hearing officer concluded that DCPS had "sustained its burden of proof," id. at 3,"there was not denial of FAPE," id. at 4, and that DCPS was the prevailing party in the matter, id. Finally, the hearing officer ordered DCPS to fund an independent evaluation and hold a new IEP meeting within fifteen days of receiving that evaluation to review T.S.'s placement. Id.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Standing

When reviewing a hearing officer's decision in an IDEA case, a district court shall review the administrative record, hear additional evidence if so requested by the parties, and, based "on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C).*fn2 In making this assessment, the district court is to undertake an independent review of the evidence, while giving the hearing officer's decision "due weight." Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982) (holding that this provision "carries with it the implied requirement that due weight shall be given to [the administrative] proceedings."). The "due weight" standard of review does not rise to the level of de novo review, however, because "courts must be careful to avoid imposing their view of preferable educational methods upon" the local education agencies. Id. at 207. This standard is also "less deferential than that applied under the traditional substantial evidence test used in ordinary administrative review cases." Scorah v. Dist. of Columbia, 322 F. Supp. 2d 12, 18 (D.D.C. 2004). The "party challenging the administrative determination must at least take on the burden of persuading the court that the hearing officer was wrong." Kerkam v. McKenzie, 862 F.2d 884, 887 (D.C. Cir. 1988).

Plaintiff contends that the hearing officer's decision must be reversed because he abused his discretion and exceeded the scope of his authority when he (1) ruled that DCPS sustained its burden of proof; (2) ruled that DCPS was the prevailing party; (3) introduced additional arguments, facts, and law, into the record; and (4) found that T.S. is classified as mentally retarded. Plaintiff requests that the court require DCPS to change T.S.'s IEP to reflect a classification of mental retardation pending the results of all completed testing; require DCPS to place and fund T.S. at the Kennedy Institute, with transportation; and award plaintiff attorneys' fees and costs of this action.*fn3 DCPS contends that plaintiff has no ...


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