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Jacqueline Wilson v. District of Columbia

March 18, 2011

JACQUELINE WILSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Jacqueline Wilson brings this action against the District of Columbia on behalf of her minor child A.W., seeking a judgment that the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") deprived A.W. of the free and appropriate public education guaranteed to him by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Wilson seeks the reversal of an administrative hearing officer's determination that DCPS did not violate A.W.'s rights by failing to provide transportation for extended school year activities mandated by A.W.'s individualized education program. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment [## 8, 11]. Upon consideration of the motions, the oppositions thereto, and the administrative record of this case, the Court concludes that Wilson's motion must be granted and the District's motion must be denied.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Statutory Framework

Through the IDEA, the federal government provides funding to state and local educational agencies, including those of the District of Columbia, see 20 U.S.C. § 1401(31), for the education of disabled children. As a condition of receiving that funding, an educational agency must maintain policies and procedures ensuring that a "free appropriate public education is available to all children with disabilities residing in the [jurisdiction] between the ages of 3 and 21." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). A "central component of a disabled student's special education under the IDEA" is the individualized education program ("IEP"), which is a written statement setting out the student's "individually tailored goals and the means of achieving them." District of Columbia v. Doe, 611 F.3d 888, 892 n.5 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)). The IDEA also guarantees a student's parents "both an opportunity for meaningful input into all decisions affecting their child's education and the right to seek review of any decisions they think inappropriate." Id. at 890 (quoting Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311--12 (1988)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

B. Factual Background

The facts of this case are essentially undisputed. A.W. is a District resident with multiple disabilities and is thus entitled to educational services from DCPS under the IDEA. In October 2008, A.W. (who was nine years old at the time this suit was commenced) began attending the Phillips School of Laurel in Maryland. In April 2009, Wilson, A.W.'s mother, met with a DCPS IEP team to develop a new IEP to guide A.W.'s education at Phillips. See A.R. at 120--24 (IEP meeting notes, Apr. 23, 2009). The IEP they produced classified A.W. as multiply disabled and called for him to receive 26.5 hours per week of specialized instruction, one hour per week of behavioral support, one hour per week of occupational therapy, and ninety minutes per week of speech and language therapy. See A.R. at 110--19 (IEP). The IEP also called for A.W. to participate in an extended school year ("ESY") program, which would take place from July 1 to July 31, 2009. See A.R. at 112--13. The ESY program was expected to encompass a mixture of counseling, therapy, and academic and behavioral development. Admin. Hr'g Tr. 26, Sept. 25, 2009 ("Hr'g Tr.") (test. of Judy Miller). According to the IEP, ESY services were needed because A.W. had difficulty adjusting to the program and staff at Phillips; although he had begun to make developmental progress, that progress was slowed by the issues that he was expected to work on during ESY. A.R. at 112.

On the day the ESY program was scheduled to begin, however, DCPS did not send a bus to transport A.W. to the program. Wilson called DCPS to investigate and was told that "they didn't have their lists together for the bus services," and that transportation services should begin in ten days. Hr'g Tr. 16 (test. of Jacqueline Wilson). Wilson also called Phillips, but was told that DCPS was responsible for transportation. Hr'g Tr. 16--17. DCPS was ultimately unable to provide transportation for the first three weeks of the four-week program; by the end of the third week, Wilson decided that it was not worthwhile to send A.W. to the ESY program for just one week. Consequently, A.W. did not attend the program at all.

Wilson subsequently filed an administrative due process complaint, alleging that DCPS's failure to provide A.W. with transportation to the ESY program denied him the free appropriate education that he is guaranteed under the IDEA and seeking a "Linda Mood Bell Assessment" to determine what amount of compensatory education services were warranted as a result. A.R. at 15 (admin. due process compl. notice). An administrative hearing was held on September 25, 2009. The Hearing Officer determined that A.W. had "offered uncontroverted evidence that DCPS failed to provide [A.W.] transportation to the first three weeks of ESY," but that there was "no evidence as to any educational harm that resulted from the deprivation of these services."

A.R. at 6 (Hearing Officer's decision). In particular, he found no indication that A.W. had experienced the type of academic regression that ESY programs are normally intended to prevent. A.R. at 6. He thus concluded that Wilson had failed to establish an IDEA violation and dismissed the complaint with prejudice. Wilson then filed this action, seeking a reversal of the Hearing Officer's decision and an order for testing to determine what educational services A.W. needs to compensate for the denial of the ESY program.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

A court reviewing an administrative decision under the IDEA "(i) shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; (ii) shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and (iii) basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C). "When neither party has requested that the district court hear additional evidence . . . '[t]he motion for summary judgment is simply the procedural vehicle for asking the judge to decide the case on the basis of the administrative record.'" Heather S. v. Wisconsin, 125 F.3d 1045, 1052 (7th Cir. 1997) (quoting Hunger v. Leininger, 15 F.3d 664, 669 (7th Cir. 1994)); see also District of Columbia v. Doe, 611 F.3d 888, 897 (D.C. Cir. 2010). A court deciding a case in this posture must engage in a more rigorous review of the decision below than is typical in administrative cases, see Reid ex rel. Reid v. District of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 521 (D.C. Cir. 2005), but should nevertheless accord the Hearing Officer's decision "due weight." Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Central Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982). Further, the party challenging the decision below bears the burden of persuading the Court that it was erroneous. Doe, 611 F.3d at 897.

III. ANALYSIS

The parties' dispute boils down to two questions: did the Hearing Officer err in concluding that, despite DCPS's failure to provide transportation to the ESY program, Wilson had failed to establish an IDEA violation because she had produced no evidence of academic regression? If so, is A.W. ...


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