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District of Columbia v. Doe

August 28, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Emmet G. Sullivan United States District Judge


Plaintiff District of Columbia brought this action against Jane Doe, the parent and next friend of John Doe, a minor child, appealing a June 4, 2004, District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") Hearing Officer's Decision ("HOD"), issued pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1415. Pending before the Court are plaintiff's and defendant's Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment, brought pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Upon consideration of the motions, the responses and replies thereto, and the applicable law, plaintiff's motion is GRANTED and defendant's motion is DENIED.

I. Legal Framework

A. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Material facts are those that "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Tao v. Freeh, 27 F.3d 635, 638 (D.C. Cir. 1994). In considering whether there is a triable issue of fact, the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Id.

In reviewing cases under the IDEA, courts will review the records of the administrative proceeding, hear additional evidence at the request of a party, and make a decision based on the preponderance of the evidence. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (i)(2)(C). Judicial review under IDEA is more rigorous than in typical agency cases. Reid v. District of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 521 (D.C. Cir. 2005). However, "a party challenging the administrative determination must at least take on the burden of persuading the court that the hearing officer was wrong, and the court upsetting the officer's decision must at least explain its basis for doing so." Id. (citing Kerkam v. McKenzie, 862 F.2d 884, 887 (D.C. Cir. 1989) ("Kerkam I"). Although the Court must give "due weight" to the administrative proceedings, id., a hearing officer's decision "without reasoned and specific findings deserves little deference." See Kerkam v. Superintendent, D.C. Pub. Schs., 931 F.2d 84, 87 (D.C. Cir. 1991) ("Kerkam II") (internal quotation marks omitted).

B. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Under the IDEA, if a student with a disability "violates any rule or code that applies to all children," then a meeting must be conducted within 10 days to determine the relationship between the student's actions and the student's disability. 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (k)(1)(E)(ii). The student's parent, a DCPS representative, and relevant members of the student's Individual Education Program team must be present at this meeting, and must decide whether or not the student's conduct was a manifestation of his or her disability. 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (k)(1)(E). Once an IDEA hearing officer determines that the subject behavior was not a manifestation of the student's disability, then the student may be disciplined in the same manner as any other student, provided that the student receives a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"). 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (k)(1)(C). See also 5 D.C.M.R. § 2510.10.

Any party aggrieved by the findings and decision made by the hearing officer shall have the right to bring a civil action in a district court of the United States, without regard to the amount in controversy. 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (i)(2)(A). In any action or proceeding brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability. 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (i)(3)(B).

C. Code of District of Columbia Municipal Regulations

The District of Columbia's procedures for disciplinary actions against non-disabled students are as follows:

1) The decision to effect a disciplinary action shall be made by the principal or the principal's designee, and may be made upon the recommendation of a teacher or other D.C. Public School employee. The implementation of a disciplinary action for a Level II infraction shall be approved by the Superintendent's designee. The Superintendent may modify any proposed disciplinary action. See 5 D.C.M.R. § 2505.2.;

2) The student shall be given a conference with the school official responsible for making or approving the disciplinary action, prior to the exclusion, suspension, or expulsion. See 5 D.C.M.R. § 2505.4;

3) The principal or school official initiating a class exclusion of eleven (11) days or more shall advise the student hearing office of the exclusion immediately upon ...

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