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L.R.L. ex rel. Lomax v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 9, 2012

L.R.L., a minor, by his mother and next Friend Shantel LOMAX Plaintiffs,

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Donna L. Wulkan, Law Office of Donna L. Wulkan, Washington, DC, for Plaintiffs.

Laura George, District of Columbia, Office of Attorney General, Civil Litigation, Washington, DC, for Defendant.


BERYL A. HOWELL, District Judge.

Pending before the Court are objections filed by the defendant District of Columbia to Magistrate Judge Alan Kay's Report and Recommendation, which recommended denial of the defendant's motion for summary judgment and grant of summary judgment to the minor plaintiff, L.R.L., who is represented in this action by his mother Shantel Lomax (" plaintiff" ). ECF No. 19 (" MJ Report" ). The defendant objects that the Magistrate Judge improperly construed 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6) of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (" IDEA" ), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq., to permit a student to bring a due process complaint for compensatory education against a local education authority (" LEA" ), with which the student was formerly enrolled, after the student had moved to a new LEA. For the reasons set forth below, the Court adopts the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation and hereby GRANTS the plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES the defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.


The factual and procedural background for this matter is set forth in detail in the Magistrate's Report and, thus, will be summarized only briefly here. As set

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forth in the administrative record, and undisputed in the parties' statements of facts, the plaintiff first requested special education services under the IDEA from the defendant's Early Stages Center on March 4, 2009, when L.R.L. was three years old. Administrative Record (" AR" ) at 11, ECF No. 11; Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Facts (" Def.'s Facts" ) at 23 ¶ 1, ECF No. 13. For some time before this date, L.R.L. showed signs of poor behavior and low functioning in a private day care facility. AR at 11. Three evaluations conducted at the Children's National Medical Center (" CNMC" ) in 2007, 2008, and early 2009 corroborated that L.R.L. had severe developmental, speech, and language deficits. Id.

Between March 2009 and July 20, 2009, DCPS evaluated L.R.L. and determined that he was eligible under the IDEA.[1] DCPS further provided him with an individualized education program (" IEP" ) for the 2009-2010 school year, when L.R.L. would be a four-year-old student.[2] AR at 11-13; Def.'s Facts ¶ ¶ 3-6. Also, on July 20, 2009, DCPS notified the plaintiff that she should enroll L.R.L. at his neighborhood public school, Emery Elementary School, for kindergarten. AR at 13; Def.'s Facts ¶ 8; Pl.'s Statement of Material Facts (" Pl.'s Facts" ) ¶ 4, ECF No. 12-3. When the plaintiff tried to enroll L.R.L. at the school, however, she was rejected and DCPS did not provide an alternative placement. AR at 13. Consequently, for the 2009-10 school year, the plaintiff " was forced to register" L.R.L. at Community Academy Public Charter School (" CAPCS" ), which is located within the District of Columbia and acts as its own LEA for the purposes of the IDEA.[3] AR at 13; Def.'s Facts ¶ 9.

Upon L.R.L.'s enrollment, CAPCS implemented the original IEP devised by DCPS but found that L.R.L. needed further assistance. AR at 13. In accordance with the DCPS IEP, CAPCS provided L.R.L. one hour per week of speech and language services, one hour per week of occupational therapy services, and thirty minutes per week of behavioral support services, but increased L.R.L.'s services from five to twenty hours per week of specialized instruction and, while not prescribed in the DCPS IEP at all, provided L.R.L. with a dedicated aide to assist with his behavior. Id. L.R.L. continued to attend CAPCS during the 2010-11 school year. Id.

Mid-way through the 2010-11 school year, on January 27, 2011, the plaintiff filed a due process complaint against DCPS alleging that L.R.L. had been denied a free appropriate public education (" FAPE" ) due to the defendant's failure (1) to identify L.R.L. pursuant to the District's Child Find obligations, (2) to evaluate L.R.L. timely, fully, and comprehensively in all areas of his disability; (3) to develop an appropriate IEP for L.R.L. for the 2009-2010 school year, and (4) to provide an appropriate or accessible educational placement for the 2009-2010 school year. AR at 13-14. The plaintiff

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requested relief of compensatory education through placement and funding in a private, full-time special education school. AR at 14.

The matter was referred to a Hearing Officer, who dismissed the complaint less than a month after the complaint was filed and before holding the due process hearing. AR at 3 (Hearing Officer Determination (" HOD" )). The Hearing Officer acknowledged the plaintiff's argument that enrollment in CAPCS " would not have been necessary if [DCPS] had not denied the Student a FAPE," and conceded that she " took a totally appropriate approach when faced [with] what she perceived to be inadequacies in the Student's education program" and " enrolled him in a public charter school." AR at 2 (HOD). Nevertheless, the Hearing Officer concluded, " as a matter of law," that L.R.L. was a " LEA child" of CAPCS and not of DCPS, within the meaning of applicable District of Columbia Municipal Regulations, " because the Student does not currently attend any of the [DCPS]'s schools, did not attend any of the [DCPS]'s schools when the hearing was requested, and was not placed in another LEA by the [DCPS]." AR at 2(HOD). The Hearing Officer reasoned that the purpose of IDEA is to ensure that students with disabilities are receiving a FAPE, something which L.R.L. is presumably receiving at CAPCS and, therefore, the plaintiff was precluded under D.C. Municipal Regulations, Title 5-E, § 3029.1, from seeking a remedy against DCPS. AR at 1-2 (HOD).

The plaintiff thereafter filed the instant lawsuit, on May 12, 2011, challenging the Hearing Officer's dismissal of her due process complaint. The Court referred the case to the Magistrate Judge for full case management, pursuant to Local Civil Rule 72.3(a). Order, dated Oct. 19, 2011, ECF No. 8. Following the filing of the administrative record and cross motions for summary judgment, the Magistrate Judge issued his Report and Recommendation (" R & R" ) on April 19, 2012, ECF No. 19, recommending denial of the defendant's motion, grant of the plaintiff's motion, reversal of the Hearing Officer's Dismissal Order and remand to the Hearing Officer for further proceedings. R & R at 9. The defendant filed timely objections, ECF No. 20, which are currently before the Court.


A. De Novo Review of Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation

When, as here, the Court has referred a case for full case management, the Magistrate Judge determines all motions and matters that arise in the case, except for those matters specified in Local Civil Rule 72.3, for which the Magistrate Judge will report proposed findings of fact and a recommendation for disposition. LCvR 72.3. This Local Civil Rule is consistent with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), which provides for the referral of a pretrial matter " dispositive of a claim or defense" to a Magistrate Judge to hear and make a " recommended disposition." FED.R.CIV.P. 72(b); see also LCvR 72.3(a)(3) (" At the request of the district judge to whom the case is assigned, a magistrate judge may ... submit ... proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition of ... motions for summary judgment...." ). Upon submission of the Magistrate Judge's recommended disposition, a " district judge shall make a de novo determination of those portions of a magistrate judge's findings and recommendations to which [an] objection is made," based upon the record before the Magistrate Judge or based upon further evidence that the district judge may receive in a new hearing. LCvR

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72.3(c); see also Davis v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, 844 F.Supp.2d 92, 95 n. 3 (D.D.C.2012) ( " Review under Local Civil Rule 72.3 would require a more searching analysis under the de novo standard." ); Brodie v. Worthington, No. 09-1828, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107422, at *3 n. 2 (D.D.C. Sept. 21, 2011) (same).

B. Summary Judgment Standard of Review of IDEA Hearing Officer Decision

The parties in this case are seeking cross-motions for summary judgment based upon the administrative record available to an IDEA Hearing Officer.[4] The IDEA " establishes various procedural safeguards that guarantee 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." District of Columbia v. Doe, 611 F.3d 888, 890 (D.C.Cir.2010) (quoting Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311-12, 108 S.Ct. 592, 98 L.Ed.2d 686 (1988)). Any party aggrieved by a decision of a due process hearing officer under the IDEA may appeal the findings and decision to any state court or a United States district court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2). The party challenging the administrative decision has the burden of proving deficiencies in the administrative decision by a preponderance of the evidence. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii). When evaluating an appeal of an administrative decision, a court " (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). " Federal courts have interpreted ‘ appropriate relief’ to include compensatory education as an equitable remedy to be granted upon finding that a child has been denied FAPE under the Act." Flores v. District of Columbia, 437 F.Supp.2d 22, 30 (D.D.C.2006) (quoting Diatta v. District of Columbia, 319 F.Supp.2d 57, 64 (D.D.C.2004)).

Although seeking judicial review of an administrative agency's decision by way of a summary judgment motion " is permissible under the IDEA, it is not a true summary judgment procedure. Instead, the district court essentially conduct[s] a bench trial based on a stipulated record." Ojai Unified Sch. Dist. v. Jackson, 4 F.3d 1467, 1472 (9th Cir.1993); see also S.B. v. District of Columbia, 783 F.Supp.2d 44, 50 (D.D.C.2011) (" As no new evidence has been submitted here, the Court will treat the parties' cross motions for summary judgment as motions for judgment based on the administrative record." ). In other words, rather than applying the typical standard applicable to a summary judgment motion, which may be granted " if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law," FED.R.CIV.P. 56(a); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986); Estate of Parsons v. Palestinian Auth., 651 F.3d 118, 123 (D.C.Cir.2011); Tao v. Freeh, 27 F.3d 635, 638 (D.C.Cir.1994), the Court in an IDEA case conducts a summary adjudication. Phillips v. District of Columbia, 736 F.Supp.2d 240, 246 (D.D.C.2010) (" If no additional evidence is introduced by the parties in a civil suit seeking review of an

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administrative decision, a motion for summary judgment operates as a motion for judgment based on the evidence comprising the record." ) (alterations and internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Thomas v. District of Columbia, 407 F.Supp.2d 102, 109 (D.D.C.2005)); District of Columbia v. Ramirez, 377 F.Supp.2d 63, 66-67 (D.D.C.2005); see also Hanson v. Smith, 212 F.Supp.2d 474, 480-81 (D.Md.2002).

The court must resolve factual disputes based upon its own de novo review of the record and evaluation of the preponderance of the evidence, giving " due weight" to the factual findings of the IDEA Hearing Officer, depending upon the thoroughness and reasonableness of the administrative proceedings. See Doe, 611 F.3d at 897; see also Roark ex rel. Roark v. District of Columbia, 460 F.Supp.2d 32, 38 (D.D.C.2006) (quoting S.H. v. State-Operated Sch. Dist., 336 F.3d 260, 270 (3d Cir.2003)). Where, as here, the administrative decision to reject the parent's claim for a due process hearing was predicated solely on the Hearing Officer's legal interpretation of applicable law, without consideration otherwise of the merits of the plaintiff's due process complaint, that decision is entitled to no ...

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