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D.W. v. Dist. of Columbia

June 23, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth


Now before the Court comes plaintiffs D.W. and Marian Murphy's Motion for Summary Judgment [14] and defendants District of Columbia and Michelle Rhee's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment [17]. Upon consideration of the motions, plaintiffs' reply [26], defendants' reply [29], the entire record herein, and the applicable law, the Court will GRANT plaintiffs' motion and DENY defendants' motion.


Plaintiffs D.W. and Marian Murphy filed this suit under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act against the District of Columbia and Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools, seeking relief for defendants' alleged failure to provide D.W. with a free appropriate public education. Plaintiffs in their complaint seek the following relief: (1) reversal of the administrative ruling of April 11, 2007; (2) reinstatement of the administrative ruling of September 1, 2005; and (3) award of attorneys' fees and costs. Defendants responded by filing a cross motion for summary judgment. Both motions are currently before the Court.

A. Factual Background

In the latest episode evincing its utter inability to heed the directives of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") has forced plaintiffs to commence five separate actions and engage in two rounds of settlement negotiations in a vain attempt to force it to comply with Congressional mandates. Plaintiffs have still not received complete relief and seek redress before this Court.

D.W. is an eighteen-year-old male who has been classified as learning disabled by DCPS, pursuant to the IDEA. (Compl. ¶ 2.) Experiencing difficulties coordinating an individualized education program ("IEP") for D.W., plaintiffs and DCPS signed a settlement agreement on February 28, 2002, which called for DCPS to perform a variety of evaluations and then convene a multi-disciplinary team ("MDT") meeting to develop an appropriate plan for D.W. (R. at 44.) In an administrative hearing on August 23, 2002, a hearing officer issued a hearing officer's determination ("HOD") recognizing the settlement agreement as binding between the parties (Id.)

D.W. subsequently attended Backus Middle School, an institution for which DCPS is responsible, from the fall of 2002 until the spring of 2004. (R. at 3-4.) Since DCPS had still not taken the necessary steps to comply with the requirements enunciated in the IDEA, plaintiffs once more engaged in discussions with the District, culminating on June 24, 2004 in a second settlement agreement. (R. at 16.) DCPS agreed to conduct evaluations of D.W. and then convene an MDT meeting to update D.W.'s IEP. (Id.) DCPS further pledged to discuss with plaintiffs the possibility of developing a framework for compensatory education, if such a step was warranted under the circumstances. (Id.)

D.W. left Backus Middle School and began attending Friendship Edison Public Charter School ("FEPCS") (R. at 3-4.). FEPCS operates as its own Local Education Agency under the IDEA, and hence DCPS is not responsible for any shortcomings. (Id.) While D.W. was attending FEPCS, plaintiffs filed an administrative due process complaint, alleging DCPS had violated the second settlement agreement by failing to convene an MDT meeting to develop a new IEP. (R. at 77.) The resulting HOD ordered DCPS to place D.W. at High Road Academy, convene an MDT to coordinate an updated IEP, and discuss with plaintiffs the possibility of compensatory education. (R. at 79.)

DCPS failed to comply with the latest HOD, and plaintiffs were forced to file yet another due process complaint. (R. at 126-27.) The hearing officer agreed with plaintiffs' contentions, and he issued an HOD on September 1, 2005 requiring DCPS to perform two evaluations of D.W. and then convene an MDT team to develop a revised IEP. (Id.) Furthermore, the HOD ordered DCPS to provide two years of compensatory education, including one-on-one tutoring, to atone for its failure to abide by the IDEA. (Id.) In an unrelated hearing, plaintiffs filed a complaint against FEPCS and received relief on September 28, 2005 in the form of an award of compensatory education resulting from that school's failure to provide appropriate services to D.W. during his enrollment there. (R. at 163.)

Though DCPS complied with part of the September HOD, it failed altogether to provide D.W. with compensatory education. (R. at 3-4.) Plaintiffs again were left with no choice but to file a due process complaint to seek another order compelling DCPS to develop a program of compensatory education. (Id.) Noting that he was "not a potted plant" and "not just [there] to rubber stamp what somebody else does," (R. Supp. at 19-20), the hearing officer on April 11, 2007 overruled the September 1, 2005 HOD. (R. at 4.) He reasoned that FEPCS, not DCPS, owed D.W. compensatory education, and that the HOD stating the converse was "on its face wrong." (R. Supp. at 20, 26.) The hearing officer further noted that an award of compensatory education would be superfluous, since plaintiffs could not show D.W. had been deprived of a quality education since enrolling at High Road Academy. (R. Supp. at 24.) The hearing officer subsequently issued an HOD illustrating the reasons supporting his decision to overturn the September 1, 2005 HOD. (R. at 4.) Plaintiffs responded by filing this action, pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A), to overturn the hearing officer's 2007 decision.

B. Statutory Background

In enacting the IDEA in 1970, Congress recognized that "improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities." Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400(c)(1) (2005). Before passage of the legislation, Congress contended that disabled children's needs were not being met because they "did not receive appropriate educational services," and "undiagnosed disabilities prevented the children from having a successful educational experience." Id. § 1400(c)(2).

Almost thirty-five years after the initial enactment of the IDEA, Congress reaffirmed its commitment to providing quality educational services to children with disabilities through its 2005 amendments. See id. ยง 1400(c)(4). The impetus for revising the statute stemmed from the observation that "the implementation of this chapter has been impeded by low expectations and an insufficient focus on applying replicable research on proven methods of teaching and learning for children with disabilities." Id. In response to this perceived hindrance to maximal progress under the statute, Congress stressed that it remained committed to "ensur[ing] that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that ...

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