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Friendship Edison Public Charter School Chamberlain Campus v. Smith

June 25, 2008

FRIENDSHIP EDISON PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL CHAMBERLAIN CAMPUS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
EBONY SMITH, AS NEXT FRIEND OF THE MINOR CHILD, L.S., ET. AL. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Deborah A. Robinson United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This action, brought pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., is pending before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for determination of Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Document No. 15) and Defendants' Cross Motion for Summary Judgment (Document No. 21). Upon consideration of the motions, the memoranda in support thereof and in opposition thereto and the entire record herein, including the Administrative Record (Document Nos. 14, 18), the undersigned GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Defendants' Cross Motion for Summary Judgment. Additionally, for the reasons set forth herein, the undersigned remands this action to the Hearing Officer for further consideration consistent with this memorandum order.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Friendship Edison Public Charter School ("FEPCS"), is a District of Columbia public charter school which has elected to be its own Local Education Agency ("LEA") pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), for special education issues. Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Pl.'s Motion") at 1. Defendant Ebony Smith is the legal guardian of Defendant L.S., her ten-year old son, and both are residents of the District of Columbia. Id. at. 1-2. Defendant L.S. attended FEPCS during the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years. Id. at 2. On January 26, 2005, Defendant Ebony Smith submitted to Plaintiff a written request to have L.S. evaluated for eligibility to receive special education services. Administrative Record Addendum ("AR Addendum") (Document No. 18) at 83. On July 15, 2005, Defendants filed an Administrative Due Process Complaint alleging that FEPCS failed to timely evaluate L.S.;*fn1 that FEPCS failed to provide written notification of its refusal to evaluate L.S.; and that the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"), as the State Educational Agency ("SEA"), was ultimately liable for the failure of the LEA to complete the requested testing.*fn2 Id. at 75-76. Defendants requested independent evaluations and compensatory education. Complaint, ¶ 19; Administrative Record ("AR") (Document No. 14) at 62. It is undisputed that FEPCS did not evaluate Defendant L.S. during the first 120 days after Defendants submitted a request for evaluation. FEPCS stated that during this period of time, FEPCS was undergoing transition and the correspondence between the student's teacher and the special education coordinator could not be accessed in the school's computer system.

Pl.'s Motion at 2. According to Plaintiff, on July 28, 2005, FEPCS sent a letter to Defendants requesting consent to evaluate L.S., but never received a response. Pl.'s Motion at 2; AR at 20. The parties convened for a resolution meeting on August 2, 2005. It is undisputed that during the resolution meeting, FEPCS informed Defendant Smith that if she consented, the requested evaluations would be completed within thirty days and a Multi-disciplinary Team ("MDT") eligibility meeting for the student would be conducted. Pl.'s Motion at 2; AR at 19-27; Defendants' Memorandum in Opposition to the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and the Defendant[s'] Cross Motion for Summary Judgment ("Defs.' Memorandum") at 2. FEPCS further informed Defendants that if the evaluations were not completed by September 2, 2005, FEPCS would fund independent evaluations for the child. Pl.'s Motion at 3. Defendants rejected the offer and continued to request independent testing for L.S. Defs.' Memorandum at 2-3. During the Due Process Hearing on September 15, 2005, counsel for Defendants moved to exclude documentary evidence regarding the resolution session and FEPCS' offer of settlement from the administrative record. AR at 5. Defendants contended that the rules of evidence prohibited the admission of settlement discussions at a due process hearing. Id. at 2. The Hearing Officer subsequently refused to allow into evidence the notes from the resolution meeting or any testimony regarding the resolution meeting, stating that the resolution session was a settlement discussion. Id. at 2-3. The Hearing Officer subsequently found that Plaintiff's "actions, or inactions . . . impeded the student's right to a [free appropriate public education]" and ordered Plaintiff to fund independent evaluations of L.S. AR at 7.

II. CONTENTIONS OF THE PARTIES

Plaintiff and Defendants cross-move for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, alleging that there are no genuine issues as to any material facts and that each is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. Plaintiff, in support of its motion for summary judgment, contends that the sole issue is "whether the Hearing Officer should have excluded considered [sic] evidence regarding the resolution meeting as confidential settlement discussions." Pl.'s Motion at 4. Plaintiff contends the Hearing Officer erred as a matter of law in refusing to admit documentary and testimonial evidence regarding the resolution meeting and that the Hearing officer's determination should be reversed because the error of law prevented Plaintiff from effectively defending its case. Id. at 4-10.

Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is accompanied by a statement of material facts as to which Plaintiff contends there is no genuine issue which includes references to the parts of the record on which Plaintiff relies to support the statement. Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts as to Which There is No Genuine Issue (Document No. 15).

In their Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and Cross Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendants submit that the Hearing Officer's decision should be upheld and that Plaintiff's motion should be denied. Defs.' Memorandum at 1. Defendants advance the following five assertions: (1) The Hearing Officer properly noted that the resolution session was not considered confidential; (2) The evidence from the resolution session was excluded from the record on the basis that it concerned settlement discussions and to admit such evidence in a due process hearing would be contrary to the congressional intent; (3) Plaintiff only sought to use the evidence from the resolution session to depict the parent as the party responsible for delaying the proceedings; (4) Plaintiff failed to complete an evaluation of L.S. within the prescribed time period, and failed to present evidence at the due process hearing to explain its delay; and (5) a parent is not obligated to accept any offer presented at a resolution meeting if it is not made to the parent's satisfaction. Defs.' Memorandum at 6-11. Defendants' Opposition and Cross Motion is accompanied by a statement as required by Local Civil Rule 7(h). Defendants' Statement of Material Facts; Defendants' Statement of Material Facts Identified by the Plaintiff as to Which There is a Genuine Dispute (Document No. 20).

FEPCS, in its opposition to Defendants' cross motion and reply to Defendants' opposition, asserts that Defendants failed to cite to any legal authority to support their opposition and cross motion. FEPCS maintains that (1) the Hearing Officer erred in refusing to admit documentary and testimonial evidence of "its attempts to resolve the complaint and mitigate possible harm to the student;" (2) This court has already determined that evidence, including testimony and notes, regarding the resolution session are admissible; and (3) While it is undisputed that FEPCS did not comply with the time frame to evaluate Defendant L.S., the Hearing Officer precluded the Plaintiff from presenting its defense at the hearing. Plaintiff's Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Reply to Defendants' Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and in Opposition to Defendants' Cross Motion for Summary Judgment ("Pl.'s Reply") (Document No. 22) at 1-6. On May 10, 2007, in accordance with the order of this court, FEPCS filed Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts Identified by the Defendant[s] as to Which There is a Genuine Dispute. (Document No. 25).

Defendants, in their reply to Plaintiff's Opposition, argue that the Hearing Officer's exclusion of evidence from the resolution meeting was pursuant to Rule 408 of the Federal Rules of Evidence and that the issue of confidentiality was not a factor in the decision. Defendants' Reply to Plaintiffs' [sic] Opposition to the Defendants' Cross Motion for Summary Judgment ("Defs.' Reply") (Document No. 24) at 3-4. Defendants further contend that FEPCS was not precluded from defending itself because the record reflects that FEPCS did not timely evaluate Defendant L.S. Id. at 5. Defendants argue that the Plaintiff's defense would not have been aided by the resolution session evidence, but that the evidence would have only demonstrated Plaintiff's "belated . . . offer of settlement to the parent and that [the offer] was rejected." Id.

III. STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ('IDEA') was enacted 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 [.]" 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (d)(1)(A). The IDEA requires state and local agencies to ensure that parents of each child with a disability have the opportunity to examine the child's records; participate in meetings regarding the child's identification, evaluation and placement; and have the right to obtain "an independent educational evaluation of the child [.]" See 20 U.S.C. §§ 1414 (f), 1415(b)(1).

A student's eligibility for a FAPE under the IDEA is determined by the results of tests and evaluations of the student, and the findings of a "Multi-disciplinary team" and/or "individualized educational plan team" ("MDT/IEP team"). The IEP team is required to "assess or evaluate a student, who may have a disability and who may require special education services, within 120 days from the date that the student was referred for an evaluation or assessment." D.C. Code § 38-2501(a).

Parents who object to their child's "identification, evaluation, or educational placement" are entitled to an impartial due process hearing," 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(b)(6), (f)(1), at which they have a "right to be accompanied and advised by counsel[.]" 20 U.S.C. §1415(h)(1). Under District of Columbia law, a "qualified impartial Hearing Officer" conducts the due ...


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