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Harris v. Dist. of Columbia

June 23, 2008

DENITA HARRIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Now before the Court comes plaintiff Denita Harris's Motion for Summary Judgment [12] and defendant District of Columbia's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment [13]. Upon consideration of the motions, plaintiff's reply [16], defendant's reply [17], the entire record herein, and applicable law, the Court will GRANT plaintiff's motion and DENY defendant's motion.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Denita Harris filed this suit under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act against defendant District of Columbia, seeking relief for defendant's alleged failure to provide a free appropriate public education for plaintiff's daughter, D.H. Plaintiff in her complaint seeks the following relief: (1) order compelling defendant to fund an independent functional behavioral assessment for D.H. and to subsequently develop an appropriate educational plan; and (2) attorneys' fees and costs. Subsequent to filing her complaint, plaintiff moved for summary judgment on all claims. Defendant responded by filing its own cross motion for summary judgment. Both motions are currently before the Court.

A. Factual Background

D.H. is an eleven-year-old girl currently attending school at Rock Creek Academy. (Pl. Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute ¶ 1.) She has been diagnosed with multiple disabilities, and the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") has accordingly determined that she needs to participate in a special education program. (Id. ¶ 3.)

In order to develop an appropriate education plan for D.H., and pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), DCPS performed a functional behavioral assessment ("FBA") on April 28, 2006. (Id. ¶ 4.) Plaintiff felt that the DCPS-sanctioned FBA was inadequate, so she requested funding on February 8, 2007 for an independent FBA in accordance with her rights under 34 C.F.R. § 300.502(b)*fn1 . (Id. ¶ 7.) DCPS failed to act on the request, and plaintiff in response filed an administrative due process complaint on March 2, 2007. (Id. ¶¶ 8-10.)

A hearing officer from the DCPS State Enforcement and Investigation Division heard the case and denied plaintiff's request that DCPS fund an independent FBA. (Compl. ¶ 12.) The hearing officer understood the issue before the court as focusing on whether an FBA may be considered an "educational evaluation" under 34 C.F.R. § 300.502. (R. at 4.) In a brief decision, the hearing officer determined that an educational evaluation is "an evaluation to confirm or rule out one of the disabilities setout [sic] at 34 C.F.R. § 300.8(c)" and asserted that an FBA could not be considered such an evaluation. (Id.) Plaintiff responded by filling this action, pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A), to overturn the hearing officer's 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. § 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 emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living." Id. § 1400(d)(1)(A).

The Supreme Court has recognized that "the primary vehicle for implementing these Congressional goals is the individualized education program, which the [IDEA] mandates for each child." Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311-12 (1988). An individualized education program ("IEP") is a "written statement for each child with a disability that is developed, reviewed, and revised . . . ." 20 U.S.C. § 1401(15). In view of the centrality of the role of the IEP in affording appropriate education to every child with a disability, Congress explicitly provided for frequent and thorough monitoring and revising of the program. See id. § 1414. The breadth of the IEP extends beyond purely academic concerns, including under its compass "the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports." Id. § 1414(d)(3)(B)(I).

The IDEA establishes a comprehensive framework of procedural safeguards in an effort to further the realization of its far-reaching goals. See id. § 1415. Parties may first raise grievances at an impartial administrative hearing conducted by a hearing officer. See id. § 1415(f). If unsatisfied with the results of the administrative hearing, parties may then appeal the hearing officer's decision in a civil action. Id. § 1415(g). To compensate parties for costs associated with seeking relief, the IDEA expressly gives courts the right to award attorneys' fees to a prevailing party provided the party is the parent of a child with a disability. Id. § 1415(i)(2)(B)(i)(I).

Of particular relevance to this case is the regulatory provision affording parents "the right to an independent [IEP] at public expense if the parent disagrees with an evaluation obtained by the public agency." Independent Educational Evaluation, 34 C.F.R. ยง 300.502(b) (2006). Faced with a parental request for such an independent educational evaluation, "the public agency must, without unnecessary delay, either (i) file a due process complaint to request a hearing to show that ...


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