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K.S. v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District Circuit

August 26, 2013

K.S., et al., Plaintiffs,


JAMES E. BOASBERG, District Judge.

Plaintiffs Dudley and Elizabeth Snee, acting on behalf of their child K.S., have brought this action challenging a hearing officer's determination that the District of Columbia Public Schools did not deny their daughter a free and appropriate education (FAPE) pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Magistrate Judge Alan Kay, having been referred the case, has issued a Report and Recommendation supporting the administrative decision. Plaintiffs have now submitted their 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.

I. Background

The Court will not reiterate the full factual background of the case, which is set out in detail in the 16-page Report. A brief recap here will suffice. K.S. attended Janney Elementary School, a D.C. public school, from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. See A.R. 956 (Transcript of Due-Process Hearing). During first grade (2006-2007), she was diagnosed with a learning disability, and an Individualized Education Program (IEP) was developed whereby she was to receive special instruction in both general and special-education settings. See A.R. 50 (DCPS IEP, 4/30/07). DCPS developed IEPs for K.S. for second (2007-2008) and third grade (2008-2009) as well, under which she continued to receive similar services. See A.R. 71-73 (DCPS IEP, 3/6/08); A.R. 87-97 (DCPS IEP, 2/19/09). Concerned with their daughter's progress during third grade, K.S.'s parents had a neuropsychological evaluation conducted by a private psychologist in January 2009. See A.R. 975 (Transcript of Due-Process Hearing); A.R. 76-86 (January 2009 Neuropsychological Evaluation). The psychologist recommended adding specific services and instructional approaches to address K.S.'s needs. See A.R. 76-86 (January 2009 Neuropsychological Evaluation).

Based on this evaluation and the recommendations contained in the psychologist's report, K.S.'s parents sought additional services for their daughter during a planning meeting for her fourth-grade (2009-2010) IEP. DCPS, however, proposed the same services that K.S. was then receiving in third grade. See A.R. 87-97 (DCPS IEP, 2/19/09); A.R. 103-110 (DCPS IEP, 5/13/09). Despite her parents' concerns, K.S. returned to Janney for fourth grade in the fall of 2009. The Snees, nonetheless, simultaneously applied for admission to the Lab School, a private special-education school, for the next year. See A.R. 1013 (Transcript of Due-Process Hearing). In the spring of 2010, a meeting was held at Janney to plan K.S.'s fifth-grade (2010-2011) IEP. See A.R. 145-147 (Meeting Notes from 4/12/10 IEP Planning Session). The IEP was not finalized at this time, however, because the parties determined that an additional speech-and-language assessment should be conducted. See id.

Following this assessment, the parties reconvened to discuss K.S.'s IEP on June 7, 2010. DCPS proposed additional speech-and-language service hours for K.S. and further determined that she should attend Janney and did not need a full-time special-education placement at a private school. See A.R. 187-214 (DCPS IEP, 6/7/10); A.R. 215-216 (Prior Written Notice, 6/7/10). Finding the District's plan inadequate, K.S.'s parents rejected the proposed IEP and the placement at Janney, informing DCPS that they were going to remove her from Janney, enroll her at the Lab School, and pursuant to IDEA, seek reimbursement for her tuition. See A.R. 215-216 (Prior Written Notice, 6/7/10); A.R. 1022 (Transcript of Due-Process Hearing).

K.S. began her fifth-grade year at Lab in the fall of 2010, receiving services in a full-time special-education classroom. See A.R. 235-253 (Lab School Plan for Services, 11/2/10). In the spring, Lab updated its plan to serve K.S. in sixth grade (2011-2012). Even though K.S. was not currently enrolled at DCPS, a copy of that plan was provided to the District, and an IEP meeting was held on June 1, 2011. At this meeting, DCPS proposed an increase in the special-education services offered to K.S. See A.R. 347-360 (DCPS IEP, 6/1/11). Again, though, DCPS refused K.S.'s parents' request that she remain in a full-time special-education setting at the Lab School. See A.R. 361-363 (Prior Written Notice, 6/7/11). Believing that DCPS's proposed placement (at Alice Deal Middle School) could not meet their daughter's needs, they rejected the proposal and re-enrolled their daughter at Lab for the 2011-2012 school year.

Alleging a denial of FAPE from DCPS's failure to propose an appropriate program or placement for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, K.S.'s parents filed a due-process complaint on December 9, 2011, seeking tuition reimbursement. See A.R. 413-424 (Due Process Complaint, 12/9/11). A three-day due-process hearing was held in February 2012, and the hearing officer issued a decision on March 3, finding that Plaintiffs had not proven that K.S. had been denied a FAPE in either year. See A.R. 3-27 (HOD). As a result, she was not entitled to reimbursement for tuition at the private school. See id.

Following these administrative proceedings, Plaintiffs filed this action on April 19, 2012, and the case was subsequently referred to Magistrate Judge Kay for full case management. Both sides thereafter filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. On June 10, 2013, Magistrate Judge Kay issued his Report recommending that Plaintiffs' Motion be denied and Defendant's Motion be granted. Plaintiffs timely filed their Objections to the Report on June 27, and Defendant filed its Reply on July 15.

II. Legal Standard

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), once a magistrate judge has entered a 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 also Winston & Strawn LLP v. FDIC , 841 F.Supp.2d 225, 228 (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

Plaintiffs object to the Report's recommendation that this Court uphold the decision of the hearing officer relating to 2010-2011 and 2011-2012. They claim the hearing officer erred in finding that the District's proposed IEPs for those years constituted a FAPE. As to the first year, they maintain that the hearing officer failed to consider the evidence and testimony of the parents and their experts when he determined that K.S.'s IEP was reasonably calculated to confer educational benefits under IDEA. See Obj. at 7-12. They also challenge his findings for the 2011-2012 school year on two distinct grounds. First, they argue that he erred in determining that the District was not required to provide an IEP to K.S. for that year because she was enrolled in a private school. See id. at 1-7. Second, they contend that the hearing officer erred in finding that the plan DCPS did develop for K.S. was sufficient. See id. at 12-15. The Court will first set forth some of IDEA's basic principles and then address each of Plaintiffs' objections.

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 students with disabilities. See 20 U.S.C. § 1413.

1. Role of IEPs

In particular, school districts must develop a comprehensive plan, known as an individualized education program, for meeting the special-educational needs of each student with a disability. See § 1414(d)(2)(A). The plan is developed by the child's IEP Team, a multidisciplinary team consisting of the child's parents and teachers, as well as educational specialists, that meets and confers in a collaborative process to determine how best to accommodate the needs of the student and provide a FAPE. See § 1414(d)(1)(B). 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. IDEA also 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 do not have disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate. See § 1412(a)(5)(A).

The role of courts is to inquire:

First, has the State complied with the procedures set forth in the Act? And second, is the individualized educational program developed through the Act's procedures reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits? If these requirements are met, the State has complied with the obligations imposed by Congress and the courts can require no more.

Id. at 206-07 (footnotes omitted). IDEA provides a "basic floor of opportunity" for students, Rowley , 458 U.S. at 201, rather than "a potential-maximizing education." Id. at 197 n.21; see also Jenkins v. Squillacote , 935 F.2d 303, 305 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (inquiry is not whether another placement may be "more appropriate or better able to serve the child") (emphasis in original); Houston Indep. Sch. Dist. v. V.P. ex rel. Juan P. , 582 F.3d 576, 583 (5th Cir. 2009) (IDEA does not guarantee "the best possible education, nor one that will maximize the student's educational potential"; instead, it requires only that the benefit "cannot be a mere modicum or de minimis; rather, an IEP must be likely to produce progress, not regression or trivial educational advancement.'") (quoting Cypress-Fairbanks Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Michael F. ex rel. Barry F. , 118 F.3d 245, 248 (5th Cir. 1997)). Consistent with this framework, "[t]he question is not whether there was more that could be done, but only whether there was more that had to be done under the governing statute." Houston Indep. Sch. Dist. , 582 F.3d at 590.

Courts have consistently underscored that the "appropriateness of an IEP is not a question of whether it will guarantee educational benefits, but rather whether it is reasonably calculated to do so"; thus, "the court judges the IEP prospectively and looks to the IEP's goals and methodology at the time of its implementation." Report at 11 (citing Thompson R2-J Sch. Dist. v. Luke P. ex rel. Jeff P. , 540 F.3d 1143, 1148-49 (10th Cir. 2008)). Academic progress under a prior plan may be relevant in determining the appropriateness of a challenged IEP. See Roark ex rel. Roark v. Dist. of Columbia , 460 F.Supp.2d 32, 44 (D.D.C. 2006) ("Academic success is an important factor in determining whether an IEP is reasonably calculated to provide education benefits.'") ...

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