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Algoyce Smith, Parent and Next Friend of H.S v. District of Columbia

March 6, 2011

ALGOYCE SMITH, PARENT AND NEXT FRIEND OF H.S.,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: James E. Boasberg United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

On Sept. 24, 2010, Plaintiff Algoyce Smith, acting on behalf of her child H.S., brought this action, challenging a hearing officer's determination that H.S. was not denied a free and appropriate education (FAPE) pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson, having been referred the case, has issued a Report and Recommendation upholding the administrative decision. Plaintiff has now submitted her Objections to the Report. Finding that the Report appropriately upholds the decision of the hearing officer, the Court will accept it and grant summary judgment to the District of Columbia.

I.Background

The Court will not reiterate the full factual background of the case, which is set out in detail in the 19-page Report. Suffice it to say that the hearing officer issued his determination (HOD) on June 27, 2010, finding that Plaintiff had failed to prove that Defendant had denied H.S. a FAPE. Plaintiff then filed this action on Sept. 24, and both sides thereafter filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. The case was subsequently referred to Magistrate Judge Robinson for full case management, and she issued her report on Feb. 17, 2012. Plaintiff timely filed her Objections to the Report on March 2. The Court does not require a response from Defendant.

II.Legal Standard

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), once a magistrate judge has entered her recommended disposition, a party may file specific written objections. The district court "must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to." Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3); see, e.g., Winston & Strawn LLP v. FDIC, 2012 WL 252418, at *3 (D.D.C. 2012) (court must conduct de novo review of objections to magistrate judge's report and recommendation). The district court may then "accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition." Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3).

III.Analysis

Plaintiff nominally raises two objections to the Report. First, she claims that the Report "erred in determining that H.S.'s[individualized education program (IEP)] was reasonably calculated to confer educational benefits." Obj. at 4. Second, she maintains that the "Report erred in determining that H.S.'s progress was 'de minimis.'" Id. at 5. (The Court assumes that the latter argument is actually that the Report erred in finding that the progress was more than de minimis.) These two are in reality the same argument -- namely, that DCPS's failure to provide H.S. a laptop and other software meant that the IEP conferred only minimal benefits. The Court will address the question after first setting forth some of IDEA's basic principles.

A. Statutory Framework of IDEA

The purpose of IDEA is "to ensure 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 . . . ." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). "Implicit" in IDEA's guarantee "is the requirement that the education to which access is provided be sufficient to confer some educational benefit upon the handicapped child." Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 200 (1982). As a condition of receiving funding under IDEA, school districts are required to adopt procedures to ensure appropriate educational placement of disabled students. See20 U.S.C. § 1413. A student's eligibility for a FAPE under IDEA is determined by the results of testing and evaluating the student, and the findings of a "multidisciplinary team" or "individualized education program team." § 1414. Such a team consists of the parents and teachers of the disabled student, as well as other educational specialists, who meet and confer in a collaborative process to determine how best to accommodate the needs of the student and provide a FAPE. See § 1414(d)(1)(B).

School districts must also develop a comprehensive plan, known as an individualized education program (IEP), for meeting the special educational needs of each disabled student. See§ 1414(d)(2)(A). The IEP must be formulated in accordance with the terms of IDEA and "should be reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade." Rowley, 458 U.S. at 204. "If no suitable public school is available, the school system must pay the costs of sending the child to an appropriate private school." Reid ex rel. Reid v. District of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 519 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (citation and alterations omitted).

IDEA requires that children with disabilities be placed in the "least restrictive environment" so that they can be educated in an integrated setting with children who are not disabled to the maximum extent appropriate. See§ 1412(a)(5)(A). IDEA also guarantees parents of disabled children the opportunity to participate in the evaluation and placement process. See§§ 1414(f), 1415(b)(1). Parents who object to their child's "identification, evaluation, or educational placement" are entitled to an impartial due process hearing, see§§ 1415(b)(6), (f)(1), at which they have a "right to be accompanied and advised by counsel" and a "right to present evidence and confront, cross-examine, and compel the attendance of witnesses." § 1415(h). A qualified impartial hearing officer conducts the due process hearing in accordance with the Act. 5 D.C. Mun. Regs. § 3030.1.

Parents "aggrieved by" a hearing officer's findings and decision may bring a civil action in either state or federal court. § 1415(i)(2); 5 D.C. Mun. Regs. § 3031.5. The district court has remedial authority under the Act and broad discretion to grant "such relief as the court determines is appropriate" under IDEA as guided by the goals of the Act. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii).

Although styled Motions for Summary Judgment, the pleadings in this case more accurately seek the Court's review of an administrative decision. IDEA provides a framework for such review. More specifically, IDEA permits "any party aggrieved by the findings and decision" rendered during administrative proceedings to "bring a civil action" in state or federal court without regard to the amount in controversy. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2). The reviewing court "shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and, basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate." § 1415(i)(2)(C). In a review of a Hearing Officer Decision (HOD), the burden of proof is always on the party challenging the administrative determination, who must "'at least take on the burden of persuading ...


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