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T.T. v. District of Columbia

July 23, 2007

T.T., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiffs T.T., a minor, and her mother, Norma Gales ("Gales"), have brought this action against defendants the District of Columbia and Clifford B. Janey, Superintendent of the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"), pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 ("IDEIA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1482 (Supp. 2007),*fn1 and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (1999). Plaintiffs appeal from an adverse administrative decision rejecting their claim that defendants violated the IDEIA by failing to provide T.T. with a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"). Presently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that defendants fulfilled their statutory obligation in providing a FAPE, and will accordingly deny plaintiffs' summary judgment motion and grant defendants' cross-motion.

BACKGROUND

T.T. was, at the time this case was filed, a nine-year-old emotionally-disturbed student receiving special education services provided by DCPS. Administrative Record ("A.R.") 3. On August 2, 2005, DCPS convened a multi-disciplinary team ("MDT") meeting for the purposes of assessing T.T.'s continuing eligibility for special education services and developing her Individual Education Program ("IEP"). A.R. 263. In attendance at the August 2, 2005, MDT meeting were Gales, T.T.'s educational advocate, a speech pathologist, a school psychologist, an IEP developer, a Local Education Agency ("LEA") special education coordinator, and a social worker. Id. At that meeting, the MDT determined that T.T. should receive full-time out-of-general education, equaling thirty-two hours per week of specialized instruction and therapeutic services. A.R. 248. Although the MDT believed that T.T.'s IEP could be implemented at Payne Elementary School, where she attended the previous two academic years, Gales and the educational advocate in attendance requested another placement. A.R. 270. They were disappointed in T.T.'s progress at Payne, and suggested that T.T. would benefit from a full-time setting with crisis intervention services and a psychologist on staff. A.R. 268. Moreover, Gales specifically recommended that T.T. be placed at Accotink Academy or the Kennedy Institute, both private educational entities offering services to students with disabilities. A.R. 270. The MDT agreed that T.T. would be placed somewhere other than Payne to better suit her needs.

A.R. 268.

The LEA special education coordinator then sent T.T.'s IEP and evaluations to DCPS's Site Review Committee ("SRC"), which was charged with identifying at least one available placement capable of implementing her IEP. A.R. 70, 327. The SRC identified two available, non-private, full-time placements options, Hamilton Center and Taft Center, the names of which were returned to the special education coordinator. A.R. 70.

On August 25, 2005, the MDT convened again to discuss the SRC's placement recommendations and make a determination as to T.T.'s placement for the 2005-2006 academic year. A.R. 69. Present at this second meeting were Gales, the educational advocate, the LEA special education coordinator, the school psychologist, the social worker, and a special education teacher. Id. The MDT informed Gales that both Hamilton and Taft were appropriate placements for T.T., A.R. 312, and briefly described the programs at Hamilton and Taft, noting the full-time social workers and psychologists on staff, crisis intervention services, small classroom settings, and certified special educators. A.R. 70. Furthermore, Gales was given the address and phone number for both Hamilton and Taft so that she could visit each site and determine which placement she would prefer for T.T. A.R. 307-09. Because Gales had not had a chance to visit either Hamilton or Taft prior to the August 25th MDT placement meeting, the MDT issued a Prior Notice of Placement ("PNOP") to Gales for both schools in preparation for T.T.'s arrival at either on the first day of the academic year, August 29, 2005. A.R. 72, 73, 309.

Gales, however, did not visit Hamilton or Taft, nor did she express a preference for one of the two schools. A.R. 309, 318. Instead, Gales told the special education coordinator that she would not visit Hamilton or Taft because she preferred to have T.T. placed by DCPS at Accotink Academy. A.R. 309, 314, 318. The special education coordinator contacted Gales, her educational advocate, and her attorney in an attempt to convene another MDT meeting in order to make a final determination as to T.T.'s placement, but another meeting was never held. A.R. 322-23. When Gales did not provide DCPS personnel with her choice between Hamilton and Taft before the start of the academic year, the special education coordinator determined that Hamilton was the most appropriate placement because the site could meet T.T.'s needs as stated in her August 2, 2005 IEP, and was also closest to T.T.'s home. A.R. 70, 321.

Instead of attending Hamilton on the first day of school, T.T. returned to Payne. A.R. 309. By that time, however, Payne was unable to implement the requirements of T.T.'s August 2, 2005 IEP. A.R. 309-10. On September 2, 2005, the special education coordinator issued a letter to Gales informing her that Hamilton had been chosen for T.T.'s placement, reminding Gales that T.T. had not yet been registered at Hamilton, and discussing arrangements for T.T.'s transportation to Hamilton. A.R. 46-47, 310. Four days later, while T.T. was still enrolled at Payne, Gales filed a due-process complaint with the Student Hearing Office asserting a number of procedural failures on the part of DCPS that allegedly constituted a denial of a FAPE. A.R. 31-35. Gales then removed T.T. from Payne and enrolled her at Washington Academy Public Charter School, a placement not discussed with the MDT, on September 8, 2005. A.R. 5. After an unsuccessful informal resolution meeting on September 20, 2005, A.R. 58, Gales's complaint proceeded to a due-process hearing on October 31, 2005. A.R. 29. The hearing officer concluded in his November 7, 2005 determination ("HOD") that, based on the evidence in the administrative record, "DCPS complied with IDEA and did not deny a FAPE to [T.T.]" in selecting Hamilton as the most appropriate placement. A.R. 6.

Plaintiffs bring this civil action to challenge the HOD, setting forth three counts in their Complaint: (I) defendants failed to provide a FAPE in violation of the IDEIA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act; (II) defendants violated the IDEIA by denying Gales an opportunity to participate meaningfully in the placement decision and by failing to consider Gales's school choice; and (III) defendants violated the IDEIA by failing to comply with procedural requirements regarding the issuance of a PNOP. Defendants oppose plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and cross-move for summary judgment, asserting that they fulfilled their obligations under the IDEIA. First, defendants contend that Gales meaningfully participated in the placement decision by playing an active role at the MDT meetings, one of which was convened specifically to assist Gales in making the final placement determination. Second, defendants argue that they complied with the IDEIA when they selected an appropriate placement for T.T. at a public site capable of implementing her IEP. For ease of organization, the Court will first analyze the meaningful-participation issue raised in Counts II and III.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under the IDEIA, "any party aggrieved by the findings and decision" rendered during administrative proceedings may "bring a civil action" in state or federal court without regard to the amount in controversy. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2), (i)(3)(A); 34 C.F.R. § 300.516(a) (2006). The reviewing court "(i) shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; (ii) shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and (iii) basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C); 34 C.F.R. § 300.516(c). On review of an HOD, the burden of proof falls upon the party challenging the administrative determination, who must "'at least take on the burden of persuading the court that the hearing officer was wrong.'" Reid ex rel. Reid v. District of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 521 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (quoting Kerkam v. McKenzie, 862 F.2d 884, 887 (D.C. Cir. 1988)).

The preponderance-of-the-evidence standard of review, the Supreme Court has held, does not authorize unfettered de novo review. Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982). Rather, consideration of the record impliedly requires courts to give "due weight" to the administrative proceedings, id., and "[f]actual findings from the administrative proceeding are to be considered prima facie correct," S.H. v. State-Operated Sch. Dist. of Newark, 336 F.3d 260, 270 (3d Cir. 2003). Therefore, courts may not substitute their own views for those of the hearing officer, see Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206; Shaw v. District of Columbia, 238 F. Supp. 2d 127, 135 (D.D.C. 2002), and a court upsetting a hearing officer's decision "must at least explain its basis for doing so," Kerkam, 862 F.2d at 887. At the same time, "the district court's authority to 'hear additional evidence at the request of a party,' and 'bas[e] its decision on the preponderance of the evidence' . . . 'plainly suggest[s] less deference than is conventional' in administrative proceedings." Reid, 401 F.3d at 521 (quoting Kerkam, 862 F.2d at 887). Where, as here, no additional evidence is introduced in a civil suit seeking review of an HOD, a motion for summary judgment operates as a motion for judgment based on the evidence comprising the record. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C); Heather S. v. Wisconsin, 125 F.3d 1045, 1052 (7th Cir. 1997).

DISCUSSION

A. IDEIA ...


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