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Nguyen v. District of Columbia

February 1, 2010

HUNG HANH THI NGUYEN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: James Robertson United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM

Hung Hanh Thi Nguyen seeks review of an independent hearing officer's decision that her son, H.N., is not disabled within the meaning of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the defendants' motion will be granted.

Background

H.N., who is seventeen years old, experienced significant turbulence in the period leading up to the independent officer's hearing. On February 28, 2008, he entered a plea to a charge of simple assault for striking his brother.

A.R. 99. He admitted to smoking up to five marijuana joints daily, and he was suspended for a period of time for drug possession on school grounds. Id. at 146. He also had been suspended from school on four other occasions for various reasons. Id. Even when not suspended, he often failed to attend class. Id. He had been held back a grade in school due to his poor performance. Id.

At the due process hearing, conducted on October 21 and 29, 2008, Nguyen suggested that H.N. suffered from an emotional disturbance and a specific learning disability, either of which would qualify him as disabled within the meaning of IDEA and therefore eligible for its benefits. See 20 U.S.C. § 1401(3). The officer held that Nguyen failed to meet her burden. A.R. 3-10. She now seeks judicial review of that decision. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2) (authorizing such review).

Standard of Review

In reviewing an IDEA due process hearing, a district court must determine whether a plaintiff is entitled to judgment based on a preponderance of the evidence. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii). When neither party requests that the court hear additional evidence before ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the motion is to be construed as a "procedural vehicle for asking [a] judge to decide the case on the basis of the administrative record." Herbin v. District of Columbia, 362 F. Supp. 2d 254, 258 (D.D.C. 2005) (internal quotations and citation omitted). The party challenging the hearing officer's determination bears the burden of convincing the court that it was incorrect. See Angevine v. Smith, 959 F.2d 292, 295 (D.C. Cir. 1992). Judicial review under IDEA is more rigorous than conventional agency review. See Reid v. District of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 521 (D.C. Cir. 2005). However, the preponderance of the evidence standard "is by no means an invitation to the courts to substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review." Bd. of Ed. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982). Thus, I must conduct an independent review of the evidence, but in so doing I must give "due weight" to the administrative proceedings. Id.

Analysis

A. Emotional Disturbance

To establish that a student suffers from an emotional disturbance within the meaning of IDEA, the student first must be shown to have exhibited one of five symptoms:

(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors;

(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships ...


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