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Artis v. District of Columbia

March 20, 2008

SHARON ARTIS, FOR S.A., A MINOR, 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

Twenty-five parents, on behalf of their minor children, initiated this action against the District of Columbia and Clifford Janey in his official capacity as Superintendent of D.C. Public Schools (collectively, "the District"). Plaintiffs seek to obtain reimbursement of attorney's fees incurred in administrative hearings conducted pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as amended, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. The District has now filed a motion for partial dismissal of the complaint, arguing that fifteen students were not "prevailing parties" in the underlying administrative hearings and that they are therefore not entitled to attorney's fees. After the District's motion was filed, plaintiffs voluntarily withdrew the claims of seven minors, and hence the "prevailing party" status remains contested for only eight students.*fn1 Upon careful consideration of the District's motion, the parties' memoranda, plaintiffs' complaint and exhibits,*fn2 the applicable law, and the entire record, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant in part and deny in part the District's motion.

BACKGROUND

I. Statutory Background

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA" or "the Act"), all states that receive federal educational assistance must establish policies and procedures to ensure that "a free appropriate public education is available to all children with disabilities residing in the State . . . ." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). A free appropriate public education is provided through the development and implementation of an Individualized Education Program for each disabled student, which describes the student's present academic level, determines the student's educational goals, and sets out required educational and related services, including the extent of the student's participation in a regular classroom. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A). If a parent objects to the educational placement of their child, they have a right to a "due process hearing" before an impartial hearing officer, which shall be conducted by a State or local educational agency. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1).

If the parent prevails at the administrative hearing, he or she may be entitled to an award of reasonable attorney's fees. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B); see Moore v. District of Columbia, 907 F.2d 165, 166 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (en banc) (IDEA authorizes parent who prevails in administrative hearing to recover attorney's fees). "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." Abarca ex rel. C.A. v. District of Columbia, 2007 WL 1794101, at *1 (D.D.C. June 19, 2007) (quoting Kaseman v. District of Columbia, 329 F. Supp. 2d 20, 23 (D.D.C. 2004)).

II. Factual Background

Because a determination of prevailing party status is dependent upon a review of the administrative hearings, the Court will briefly describe the relevant facts related to the claims of the seven students remaining at issue.*fn3

A. S.A.

S.A. is a fifteen-year old District of Columbia resident who is currently enrolled at the Mamie D. Lee School. Compl. Ex. A, Decision and Order at 3.*fn4 In a January 13, 2006, administrative due process complaint, S.A. argued that she "had been denied access to free and appropriate education when [the District] failed to complete a neuropsychological evaluation." Pls.' Opp. at 6. For relief, she asked the hearing officer to order the District to fund an independent neuropsychological evaluation and to reconvene a meeting to review her placement. After the due process hearing, the hearing officer determined that the District had sustained its burden of proof on the "essential issue [of] whether [it] failed to perform a Neuropsychological Evaluation for this student." Ex. A, Decision and Order at 5. The hearing officer determined that "a preponderance of the evidence supports the contention of [the District] that a Neuropsychological Evaluation was not warranted for this student, as the student was extensively evaluated and she did not manifest any significant or traumatic brain injury." Id. Accordingly, the hearing officer concluded that the District had not denied S.A. a free appropriate public education. Id. Notwithstanding these conclusions, however, the hearing officer ordered the District to fund an independent neuropsychological evaluation of S.A. and to reconvene a team meeting to review her placement for the 2005-2006 school year. Id. at 5-6.

B. R.F.

R.F. is a seventeen-year old student at Spingarn Senior High School in the District of Columbia. Ex. H, Decision and Order at 2. On August 7, 2006, he filed a due process complaint alleging that he was denied a free appropriate public education based upon the District's failure to perform a triennial reevaluation. Id. at 3. His student evaluation plan indicated that a Vineland Adoptive Scales evaluation and a vocational assessment should have been conducted, but the evaluations were never performed. Thus, the hearing officer determined that the District "did not meet its procedural obligations" under IDEA. Id. at 5. However, the hearing officer also took into account the fact that the violation was procedural. He noted that R.F. did not challenge the appropriateness of his current Individualized Education Program, and that he had already received the maximum allowed thirty-two hours of specialized instruction. Thus, the hearing officer concluded that R.F. had not been denied a free appropriate public education. The officer also ordered the District to perform the two assessments within thirty days and to convene a team meeting to revise R.F.'s Individualized Education Program, if necessary. Id. at 5-8.

C. A.H.

A.H. is a nine-year old student who filed his due process complaint after he transferred to the Moten Center from Webb Elementary School. Ex. M, Hearing Officer's Determination at 1. A compensatory education plan had previously been developed for him establishing that he was entitled to "255 hours of specialized instruction and 8.5 hours of counseling services. The services were to begin during summer school 2005-2006. Remaining hours were to be provided in one on one tutoring during the 2006-2007 School Year." Id. at 2. When A.H. filed his due process complaint on July 5, 2006, he argued that the District had failed to implement his compensatory education plan.

The hearing officer determined that the District had provided the counseling services and specialized services that were owed during summer school, but that the District had not yet started to provide the required one-on-one tutoring during the academic year. Id. Because A.H. had recently transferred to the Moten Center, the District requested additional time to provide the tutoring and represented that it could begin to provide the services in two weeks at the student's home. The hearing officer ...


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