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Johnson v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District Circuit

August 27, 2013

CHARLENE JOHNSON, Parent and Next Friend of F.J., a minor, and F.J., Individually, Plaintiffs,
THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, A Municipal Corporation, Defendants.


REGGIE B. WALTON, District Judge.

Plaintiffs Charlene Johnson, on behalf of her minor child, F.J., and F.J. individually, bring claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the "IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1491 (2012), alleging that the District of Columbia failed to provide F.J. with a free appropriate public education and seeking reimbursement for all expenses arising from F.J.'s placement at a private school. Complaint for Declaratory Judgment & Inju[n]ctive and Other Relief ("Compl.") ¶¶ 23-39. Currently before the Court are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. After carefully considering the parties' submissions and the administrative record in this case, [1] the Court concludes for the reasons below that it must grant the defendant's motion for summary judgment.

I. Statutory Background

Under the IDEA, states and territories, including the District of Columbia, that accept federal educational funds must provide a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") to students with disabilities residing within their borders. See 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). The IDEA defines a FAPE as an education which is "[(A)] provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge; (B) meet[s] the standards of the State educational agency; (C) include[s] an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school education in the State involved; and (D) [is] provided in conformity with the individualized education program required" under other provisions of the IDEA. Id . § 1401(9). Once a student is deemed eligible to receive services under the IDEA, a team which includes the parent or parents of the student, certain teachers, and a representative of the local educational agency develops an individualized education program ("IEP") for the student in accordance with the requirements of the IDEA. Id . §§ 1414(d)(1)(A), (B). In addition to developing the IEP, the student's team determines an appropriate educational placement for the student. See id. § 1414(e).

The IDEA provides that a parent may present a complaint to an educational agency "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" and receive a hearing on the complaint conducted by an independent hearing officer. Id . §§ 1415(b)(6), (f). A party who is dissatisfied with the decision of the hearing officer may file a civil action in federal district court seeking review of the hearing officer's decision. Id . § 1415(i)(2)(A). If the hearing officer or district court determines that the agency failed to provide the student with a FAPE, the officer or court may require the agency to reimburse the parents of the child for the cost of enrollment at a private institution. Id . § 1412(a)(10)(C)(ii).

II. Factual Background

F.J. is a fourteen-year-old child who has been deemed eligible to receive services under the IDEA, having been diagnosed "as a student with an emotional disturbance, " A.R. at 19, and she was therefore receiving services through the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") until the 2011-12 school year, see Pls.' Mem. at 4; Def.'s Mem. at 4-5. During the immediately preceeding school year, F.J. attended Hamilton Center at the recommendation of her IEP team ("Team"). A.R. at 47. On April 27, 2011, F.J.'s Team developed her current IEP, see Pls.' Mem. at 4; Def.'s Mem. at 4; see also A.R. at 67, which requires F.J. to receive thirty-one hours per week of "[s]pecialized [i]nstruction" and one hour per week of "[b]ehavioral [s]upport [s]ervices" in an "[o]utside [g]eneral [e]ducation" setting, A.R. at 73.

At a Team meeting on June 9, 2011, the plaintiffs were advised that Hamilton Center was closing and that DCPS proposed placing F.J. in the program for students with emotional disturbance at Ballou Senior High School ("Ballou"). See Pls.' Mem. at 4; Def.'s Mem. at 5; A.R. at 85, 253. Both Ms. Johnson and F.J.'s advocate objected to the proposed placement at Ballou. A.R. at 86. Their objections notwithstanding, DCPS issued a written notice assigning F.J. to Ballou for the 2011-12 school year. See A.R. at 87-88. The plaintiffs rejected Ballou as an appropriate placement, and Ms. Johnson instead unilaterally placed F.J. at the Accotink Academy ("Accotink"), for the 2011-12 school year. Pls.' Mem. at 4; Def.'s Mem. at 5; see A.R. at 260.

The plaintiffs filed an administrative complaint with DCPS on September 22, 2011, alleging that the District failed to provide F.J. with a FAPE in violation of the IDEA and seeking reimbursement for F.J.'s placement at Accotink. A.R. at 89-91. At the administrative hearing, the plaintiffs argued that Ballou was not an appropriate placement because it is unable to provide the thirty-one hours of specialized instruction required by F.J.'s IEP, and because the school lacks properly certified teachers to allow F.J. to earn all of the credits needed to graduate.[2] A.R. at 90, 150-51.

The hearing officer rejected the plaintiffs' arguments, finding that DCPS' proposed placement at Ballou was appropriate because Ballou "can substantially implement [F.J.'s] IEP by providing a full-time out of general education separate [emotional disturbance] program with approximately 28.25 hours per week of instruction, " and therefore, the plaintiffs were not entitled to reimbursement for the cost for F.J. attending Accotink. A.R. at 7-8. The hearing officer "acknowledge[d] that [F.J.'s] IEP calls for 31 hours of specialized instruction per week, " but found that "the difference between what the IEP requires and what [Ballou] can offer is de minimis under the circumstances... since [F.J.] would be placed in the full-time out of general education setting her IEP team envisioned." A.R. at 7.

The plaintiffs subsequently sought review of the hearing officer's decision before this Court, see Compl. ¶¶ 23-39, and the parties have now both moved for summary judgment.

III. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is proper when the moving party "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). In IDEA cases in which "neither party seeks to present additional evidence, a motion for summary judgment operates as a motion for judgment based on the evidence comprising the record.'" Parker v. Friendship Edison Pub. Charter Sch. , 577 F.Supp.2d 68, 72 (D.D.C. 2008) (citations omitted).

A district court reviewing the findings and decision of an administrative hearing officer "(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). Under this standard, the reviewing court owes the hearing officer "less deference than is conventional' in administrative proceedings." Reid ex rel. Reid v. Dist. of Columbia , 401 F.3d 516, 521 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (quoting Kerkam v. McKenzie , 862 F.2d 884, 887 (D.C. Cir. 1989) ("Kerkam I")). And "a hearing decision ...

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