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Abarca v. Dist. of Columbia

June 19, 2007

MARIA ABARCA, FOR C.A., A MINOR, 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 & ORDER

Four minors, A.B., D.E., A.W. and J.H. seek compensation for fees associated with administrative hearings conducted in regards to their disability status under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) and 42 U.S.C. §1983. Defendants have filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss all claims of plaintiffs A.B. and D.E. and the § 1983 claims of all remaining plaintiffs under Federal Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. For reasons articulated herein, the defendants' motion is GRANTED.

I. Statutory Background

In 2005, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act in order to make certain that children with learning disabilities are able to fully utilize the public educational system. Specifically, the Act is meant to ensure that, "all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education (FAPE) that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living." 20 U.S.C. §1400(d)(1)(A). If a child is found to have special needs, the Act requires that the child be enrolled in a special education program at public expense. 20 U.S.C. § 1401(9)(A). In order to determine the specifics of the child's special education and whether special education is even necessary, the child must undergo a full evaluation. This evaluation is used to develop the child's "individualized education program" (IEP). 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d). If the parents of the child are dissatisfied with the results of the evaluation, e.g. the child was not found to have a disability; he or she may challenge the evaluation findings in an administrative hearing. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6). If the parent prevails at such hearing, he or she may recover reasonable attorney's fees under the IDEIA. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). Further, even though the Hearing Officer only provides administrative rather than judicial relief, parents may still obtain attorney's fees associated with obtaining a favorable administrative order. "It is well-established in this Circuit that section 1415(i)(3)(B) also authorizes a parent who prevails in an IDEA administrative hearing to recover attorney's fees by filing suit for the fees in federal court. Kaseman v. District of Columbia, 329 F.Supp.2d 20, 23 (D.D.C. 2004). See also, Moore v. Dist. of Columbia, 907 F.2d 165, 176 (D.C.Cir.1990); Holbrook v. Dist. of Columbia, 305 F.Supp.2d 41, 44 (D.D.C.2004).

II. Procedural Background

On July 12, 2006, this case was filed with the court citing 60 named plaintiffs asserting that they were "prevailing parties" entitled to attorney's fees and costs pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). On October 5, 2006, plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed all of plaintiffs' claims except those of A.B., D.E., T.F., J.H., and A.W. On November 9, 2006, plaintiffs voluntarily withdrew the claims of T.F. Plaintiffs D.E., A.B., A.W., and J.H. remain in the action. Defendants now challenge the IDEIA claims of D.E. and A.B., and the § 1983 claims of all remaining plaintiffs. Defendants have not filed an answer or otherwise responded with respect to the IDEIA claims of A.W. and J.H. Plaintiffs have taken no further action to prosecute the claims of A.W. and J.H.

III. Factual Background

A.B. and D.E. are both students in the District of Columbia Public School's Special Education Program. Compl. at 17, 27. On October 14, 2005, plaintiff A.B. sought a hearing order compelling DCPS to provide several special services on account of A.B.'s supposed denial of a FAPE. Specifically, plaintiff asked the HO to order DCPS to place and fund the student in a private special education program for students classified with Other Health Impaired and mental retardation, draft an IEP indicating the student's identified special education disability classifications, and provide the student with compensatory one-on-one tutoring. Compl. at 17-18. On February 21, 2006 the Hearing Officer ordered an exit evaluation on A.B.'s OHI/mental retardation classification, an evaluation within 15 days to determine if the child should still be classified as OHI disabled, a MDT/IEP meeting to review all current evaluations, and a review and revision of the child's IEP to determine if the child's multiple classification was still appropriate. Compl. at 18.

D.E. filed a hearing request on October 4. 2005 to compel DCPS to perform a full evaluation of the student (including an audiological assessment), to hold an IEP meeting to review all findings, to conduct a review and revision of the IEP to include speech/language services, to remove the student from an open-spaced school, and to provide compensatory oneon-one tutoring. Compl. at 28. Before the hearing, DCPS and D.E. entered into a settlement agreement in which DCPS agreed to convene a MDT/IEP meeting within 30 days of the hearing, conduct a review and revision of the child's IEP and discuss and determine future placement. The Hearing Officer entered this settlement agreement into the record. Id. The complaint does not allege that the Hearing Officer made a determination that the student was denied access to a free appropriate public education. Id.

IV. Legal Standards

Defendants have moved for dismissal for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule 12(b)(6). Rule 8(a)(2) requires only, "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." While this is a fairly lenient standard, the Supreme Court held, "[A] plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitlement to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements will not do. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atlantic, Corp., v. Twombly, No. 05-1126, slip op. at 8 (May 21, 2007).

The court may use its discretion to award reasonable attorney's fees to parties who prevail in an action brought under the IDEIA. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(R)(I). To obtain "prevailing party" status, the plaintiff must show first that there was a court-ordered change in the legal relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant; second, that the judgment was rendered in the claimant's favor; and third, that the claimant was not a prevailing party merely by virtue of having acquired a judicial pronouncement rather than judicial relief. Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W.V. Dept. Of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, (2001).*fn1 Further, there must be an "alteration in the legal relationship of the parties" that has been given some judicial imprimatur in order to qualify as a "prevailing party" under fee-shifting statutes. Armstrong v. Vance, 328 F.Supp.2d 50, 57 (D.D.C. 2004) (quoting Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W.V. Dept. Of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, (2001)). This approach has been endorsed by other courts despite the silence of a definition of "prevailing party" in the IDEIA. See e.g, T.S. ex rel. Skrine v. D.C., 2007 WL 915227 (D.D.C., 2007); Abraham v. D.C., 338 F.Supp.2d 113 (D.D.C. 2004),

V. Analysis

The factual allegations stated in the plaintiff's complaint do not amount to a claim upon which the court can grant relief. While the plaintiffs do not need to obtain judicial relief in a court of law to recover attorney's fees under the IDEIA, they still need to prove that they were the prevailing parties in an administrative hearing. See, Abraham v. D.C., 338 F.Supp.2d 113 (D.D.C. 2004). In the hearings of both A.B. and D.E., the Hearing Officer did not find a denial of a free appropriate public education, and the relief that was granted to them was at most, "de minimis." This combination of ...


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