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Turner v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District Circuit

July 2, 2013

MARY TURNER, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ELLEN SEGAL HUVELLE, District Judge.

Plaintiff Mary Turner, on behalf of her grandson B.M., has brought this action against the District of Columbia pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. ("IDEA"). Plaintiff appeals from an administrative decision that rejected her claim that defendant violated the IDEA by failing to provide B.M. with a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"). Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated herein, the Court will grant in part and deny in part both motions and remand the case to the Hearing Officer for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

I. STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

Congress enacted the IDEA "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 and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). To accomplish this goal, the Act requires that for each child identified as eligible for special education, a team composed of the child's parents, teachers, and other education specialists must develop an individualized education program ("IEP") that sets forth, among other things, the child's present levels of academic achievement and performance, measurable annual goals and how progress toward those goals will be measured, and special education and related services to be provided. Id. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i). A parent who disagrees with the IEP or otherwise believes that his or her child has been denied a FAPE is entitled to an impartial due process hearing before a Hearing Officer. Id. § 1415(f)(1)(A). A party aggrieved by a Hearing Officer's decision ("HOD") may bring a civil action challenging it. Id. § 1415(i)(2)(A).

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

B.M., a seventeen-year-old boy, has been deemed eligible to receive special education and related services from D.C. Public Schools ("DCPS"). (Complaint, Dec. 3, 2012 [ECF No. 1] ("Compl.") ¶¶ 5, 8.) B.M.'s special education eligibility is based on an Other Health Impairment (OHI) as his primary disability. (Administrative Record, Feb. 13, 2013 [ECF No. 9] ("AR") at 3.) B.M.'s previous IEP, from June 23, 2011, had prescribed, among other things, eleven hours per week of specialized instruction within the general education environment, five hours per week of specialized instruction outside of the general education environment, and sixty minutes per month of career exploration. ( Id. at 6.) In February 2012, B.M. began attending Roosevelt Senior High School ("Roosevelt") after having previously attended a charter school-Booker T. Washington High School. (Compl. ¶¶ 11-12.)

On May 24, 2012, a meeting was held to renew B.M.'s IEP. ( Id. ¶ 14.) While there was a special education teacher (Ms. Cooper) at the meeting, she was not B.M.'s teacher. (AR at 7.) Ms. Cooper is instead B.M.'s case manager, and she was found by the Hearing Officer to have "conferred with the student's special education and regular education teachers prior to the IEP Team meeting." ( Id. ) While Ms. Turner was in attendance for the meeting, she and her attorney refused to participate in the discussion regarding B.M.'s IEP goals without one of B.M.'s current special education teachers. ( Id. at 8.)

The renewed IEP resulting from the May, 24, 2012 meeting provided for B.M. to receive six and one half hours per week of specialized instruction inside of the general education setting, and six and one half hours per week of specialized instruction outside of the general education setting. ( Id. at 3.) The IEP also included SAT registration as an aspect of his transition plan. ( Id. at 8.)

Plaintiff filed a due process complaint on June 25, 2012, alleging that the May 24, 2012 meeting did not fulfill the IDEA's requirements for an IEP meeting. (Compl. ¶ 19.) Specifically, plaintiff alleged that DCPS failed: 1) to convene a complete IEP team by failing to include the student's special education teacher as a team member, 2) to provide the student with an appropriate transition plan, 3) to implement the student's June 23, 2011 IEP, and 4) to provide the student with a placement capable of implementing the June 23, 2011 IEP. (AR at 5.) Plaintiff alleged that the failure to convene a complete IEP team further violated the requirement that a student's IEP be reviewed and revised at least annually. (Compl. ¶¶ 21-22.)

The Hearing Officer concluded that DCPS had failed to convene a complete IEP team, but that this was a procedural violation which did not constitute denial of a FAPE. (AR at 11-12.) Because the failure to convene a complete team was only a procedural violation, the Hearing Officer also found that B.M.'s IEP had been reviewed and revised at least annually. ( Id. ) The Hearing Officer further concluded that the transition plan was appropriate, as it was designed to produce meaningful benefit tailored to B.M.'s goals. ( Id. at 13-14.)

On the claim of the IEP's implementation, B.M. was enrolled in English, history, Life Skills, and culinary arts, and each of these classes met for ninety minutes per day. ( Id. at 15.) The Hearing Officer found that Life Skills was taught by a special education teacher, and thus, it fulfilled the June 23, 2011 IEP requirement of specialized education outside the general education environment. ( Id. ) However, during the approximately five-month period between B.M.'s transfer to Roosevelt and the May 24, 2012 IEP meeting, the Hearing Officer found that B.M. had not received his prescribed specialized instruction within the general education environment. ( Id. ) The Hearing Officer determined that the record did not support DCPS' argument that B.M.'s English and history classes were supported by a special education teacher. ( Id. ) The Hearing Officer found that B.M.'s English class was instead supported by a "paraprofessional" and that there was "no indication that the special education teacher assigned to the student's history class was ever present in the classroom." ( Id. ) The Hearing Officer concluded, however, that this was not a "material deviation" so the IEP was sufficient enough to confer educational benefit. ( Id. at 16.) On this point, the Hearing Officer cited the special education coordinator's testimony "that [B.M.'s] teachers reported that limited support in general education classes is effective for [B.M.]." ( Id. )

Finally, the Hearing Officer found that the issue of whether DCPS failed to provide an appropriate placement to implement the June 23, 2011 IEP was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. ( Id. at 4, 199.)

ANALYSIS

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under the IDEA, a party aggrieved by a HOD may bring a civil action to challenge it. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). 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 [it] deems appropriate." Id. § 1415(i)(2)(C). If neither party introduces additional evidence, a motion for summary judgment acts as a motion for judgment based on the evidence in the record. Brown ex rel. E.M. v. District of Columbia, 568 F.Supp.2d 44, 50 (D.D.C. 2008). The party challenging the administrative decision carries the burden of "persuading the court that the Hearing Officer was wrong." Reid ex rel. Reid v. District of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 521 (D.C. Cir. 2005). A court must give "due weight'" to the HOD and "may not substitute its own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities." S.S. v. Howard Rd. Acad., 585 F.Supp.2d 56, 63 (D.D.C. 2008) (quoting Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982)).

However, less deference is to be accorded to the HOD than would be the case in a conventional administrative proceeding. See Reid, 401 F.3d at 521. A court is "obligated by the IDEA to ensure that relief set forth in the administrative award was appropriate[.]'" Id. Thus, a court may not simply "rely on the Hearing Officer's exercise of discretion, " for a decision "without reasoned and specific findings deserves little deference.'" Id. (quoting Kerkam v. Superintendent, D.C. Pub. Schs., 931 F.2d 84, 87 (D.C. Cir. 1991)). Where the administrative record lacks "pertinent findings" and where neither party requested "consideration of additional evidence, the [Court] may determine that the appropriate' relief is a remand to the Hearing Officer for further proceedings." Id. at 526 (quoting J.H. ex rel. J.D. v. Henrico Cnty. Sch. Bd., 395 F.3d 185, 198 (4th Cir. 2005)).

II. ALLEGED ERRORS IN THE HOD

Plaintiff raises a number of challenges to the HOD. The Court will consider each of ...


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