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District of Columbia v. Dianne Nelson

September 21, 2011

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DIANNE NELSON, GUARDIAN AND NEXT FRIEND OF C.P., A MINOR, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff District of Columbia brings this action under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") against Dianne Nelson, the guardian and next friend of C.P., a minor, challenging certain portions of an administrative decision concerning the education of C.P. Pending before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Upon consideration of the motions, the responses and replies thereto, the applicable law, the entire record, and for the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is hereby GRANTED, and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment is hereby DENIED. The Court concludes that the hearing officer's decision is contrary to the IDEA and, accordingly, the Court hereby REMANDS this matter to the administrative hearing officer for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Defendant C.P. is a high school student who lives in the District of Columbia with her mother, defendant Dianne Nelson. Administrative Record ("AR") at 44. C.P. suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and has borderline cognitive skills. AR at 7. During the 2008-2009 school year, C.P. attended ninth grade at and received special education services from Cesar Chavez Public Charter School. District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") was the relevant Local Education Agency for the Charter School and supervised C.P.'s special education services.

At issue in the instant case is the December 21, 2009 determination issued by an independent hearing officer in response to a complaint filed by Nelson regarding C.P.'s individual education plan ("IEP"). In her complaint before the hearing officer, Nelson proposed a full-time special education placement for C.P. at Accotink Academy, a private institution in Springfield, VA that provides full-time special education services to District of Columbia students. AR at 15. After an evidentiary hearing was held, the hearing officer determined that C.P. was "entitled to a full-time special education day school in order to progress toward a duly awarded diploma" and ordered DCPS to place C.P. at Accotink Academy at public expense for the 2009-2010 school year. AR at 20.

Plaintiff challenges the hearing officer's determination ("HOD"), specifically Paragraph Two of the order. Paragraph Two states:

The Accotink Academy staff, with the Petitioner, shall be responsible for the revision and implementation of the Student's IEP. The Respondent [DCPS] shall remain responsible for the supervision and cost of the special education and related services provided to the Student, ensuring that sufficient education and supports are provided for the Student to permit her to graduate with a diploma no later than the semester ending following her 21st birthday. Respondent staff shall have no authority to object to the special education and related services provided unless there is clear data indicating the Student is not making sufficient progress and Accotink Academy is unwilling or unable to alter the program to effectively address any lack of expected progress. Thus, if the Student is not making sufficient progress toward a diploma, the Respondent may make a change in location to a comparable full-time special education day school, with two weeks['] notice to the Petitioner and Accotink Academy, pursuant to 34 C.F.R. § 300.503. If Accotink Academy fails to adhere to due process requirements as directed by this order or the Respondent, the Respondent may make a change in location following the due process requirements just described.

AR at 20-21. Plaintiff asserts that this paragraph "contains language that is erroneous as a matter of law that must be stricken to permit full compliance with the [IDEA]." Pl.'s Mot.

1.

II.STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

The purpose of the IDEA is "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 and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living . . . ." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). A "free appropriate public education" must be "sufficient to confer some educational benefit." Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 200 (1982). Parents or guardians may "present a complaint with respect to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6)(A). Following a parent's due process complaint, an independent hearing officer determines whether the student received a free appropriate public education. See id. § 1415(f)(3)(E)(i). After the hearing, "[a]ny party aggrieved by the findings and decision . . . shall have the right to bring a civil action with respect to the complaint presented . . . ." Id. § 1415(i)(2)(A).

Under the IDEA, the hearing officer's decision is afforded "less deference than is conventional in administrative proceedings." Reid v. Dist. of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 521 (D.C. Cir. 2005). However, while a court must "engage in a more rigorous review of the decision below than is typical in administrative cases," a court should "nevertheless accord the Hearing Officer's decision due weight." Wilson v. Dist. of Columbia, 770 F. Supp. 2d 270, 274 (D.D.C. 2011) (internal citations omitted). As this Circuit has explained:

Deference to the hearing officer makes sense in a proceeding under the Act for the same reasons that it makes sense in the review of any other agency action -- agency expertise, the decision of the political branches (here state and federal) to vest the decision initially in the agency, and the costs imposed on all parties of having still another person redecide the matter from scratch. But the district court's authority under § 1415(e) to supplement the record below with new evidence, as well as Congress's call for a decision based on the 'preponderance of the evidence,' plainly suggest less deference than is conventional.

Kerkam v. McKenzie, 862 F.2d 884, 887 ...


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