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District of Columbia v. Oliver

United States District Court, District Circuit

November 13, 2013

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Plaintiff,
v.
MARTHA OLIVER, parent and next friend of K.C., a minor, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

BERYL A. HOWELL, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is the defendants', Martha Oliver and Jeffrey Crater, Motion for Preliminary Injunction, ECF No. 26, seeking to invoke the "stay-put" provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j), to require the defendant District of Columbia to fund their child's education at a private school for the 2013-2014 school year. Following a hearing on this motion held November 13, 2013, for the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted.

I. BACKGROUND

The defendants' daughter, K.C., is a child with special needs who resides in the District of Columbia but has never attended District of Columbia public schools. Admin. Record ("AR") ("Hearing Officer Determination") at 540, [1] ECF No. 14-2. On October 28, 2011, the defendants requested that the plaintiff "begin the process of evaluating the Student, determining her eligibility for special education and related services, and providing an offer of [Free Appropriate Public Education ("FAPE")]." Id. The plaintiff subsequently determined the child was eligible for special education and related services under the IDEA, but "refused to develop an individualized education ("IEP") for the Student, " based on the plaintiff's policy that "students are not eligible for an IEP unless they are enrolled and attending a DCPS Public School." Id. at 542. In the absence of an IEP, the defendants timely informed the plaintiff "that they intended to maintain placement for the Student at Private School for the 2012-13 school year and requested public funding for that placement." Id. The private school, which the child is currently attending, the Lab School of Washington, "provides full-time special education to students with disabilities" and "is approved by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education ("OSSE") to provide special education services in the District of Columbia." Id.

The defendants filed an administrative due process complaint on September 11, 2012, alleging, inter alia, that the plaintiff denied the student a FAPE by refusing to propose an IEP, and seeking funding for the child at her private school for the 2012-2013 school year. Id. at 536, 539. Following a hearing, the hearing officer released a determination ("HOD") on November 25, 2012, finding that the plaintiff had violated the IDEA and denied the defendants' child a FAPE by refusing to provide an IEP, despite the plaintiff's conclusion that the child was "eligible for special education and related services." Id. at 536, 551. The HOD further found that "the parental placement at Private School is proper under the IDEA, as the student is receiving significant educational benefit from the program." As support for this finding, the HOD explained that "the Private School placement also appears to be appropriately tailored to meet the needs of the Student, considering the nature and severity of her disabilities, her specialized needs, and the link between those needs and services offered at Private School. Private School can provide a full-time, special education program within a small, structured setting that is well suited to the Student's particular needs. Moreover, the placement aligns very well with the recommendations made by the Student's evaluators, and is able to provide the Student with the placement that she needs to access her education." Id. at 552-53 (internal citations omitted). The HOD ordered the plaintiff to "place and fund the Student at Private School for the remainder of the 2012-13 school year, with transportation" and to create an IEP for the student by no later than December 24, 2012. Id. at 553-54.

The plaintiff timely filed suit in this Court, challenging the HOD on multiple grounds. See Compl., ECF No. 1. Although the plaintiff did "comply with the hearing officer's order that it fund the XXXX-XXXX school year, " the plaintiff refused to comply with the portion of the order requiring development of an IEP by December 24, 2012, leaving the child with no alternative placement to the private school she currently attends. The instant motion for injunctive relief is prompted by the plaintiff's refusal to fund the child's placement at the private school for the 2013-14 school year. Pl.'s Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. Prelim. Inj. ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at 1, ECF No. 27. Specifically, the defendants seek funding for the child's placement under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j), "retroactive to the start of the 2013-2014 school year, " and "continuously thereafter until the completion of the [plaintiff's] appeal" on October 29, 2013. Defs.' Mot. for Prelim. Inj. ("Defs.' Mot.") at 11, ECF No. 26. Oral arguments on the motion were heard on November 13, 2013. This motion is now ripe for decision.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

The defendants have styled their motion as one for a preliminary injunction, which the plaintiff contends is "improper" because the relief sought is enforcement of "the automatic injunction in 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j)."[2] See Pl.'s Opp'n at 3; Defs.' Mot. at 10. This statutory provision states that, except in certain circumstances inapplicable here, "during the pendency of any proceedings conducted pursuant to this section, unless the State or local educational agency and the parents otherwise agree, the child shall remain in the then-current educational placement of the child." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j). By its terms, this procedural safeguard, commonly known as the "stay-put provision, " "functions, in essence, as an automatic preliminary injunction." Drinker by Drinker v. Colonial Sch. Dist., 78 F.3d 859, 864 (3d Cir. 1996) (discussing the identical IDEA provision when it was codified at § 1415(e)(3)); see also Laster v. District of Columbia, 439 F.Supp.2d 93, 98-99 (D.D.C. 2006) (collecting cases and noting "courts have consistently interpreted the stay-put provision to be an automatic injunction.").

In evaluating requests for injunctive relief under the stay-put provision, the traditional four-part test for a preliminary injunction does not apply. See Andersen by Andersen v. District of Columbia, 877 F.2d 1018, 1023-24 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (noting that "if the [stay-put] provision applies, injunctive relief is available without the traditional showing of irreparable harm"); see also District of Columbia v. Vinyard, 901 F.Supp.2d 77, 84 (D.D.C. 2012) (finding a school's "unilateral change to that [current educational] placement" entitles movants to "enforcement of their stay-put rights pursuant to § 1415(j), irrespective of their ability to demonstrate irreparable harm, likelihood of success on the merits, or a balancing of equities in their favor."); Alston v. District of Columbia, 439 F.Supp.2d 86, 91 (D.D.C. 2006) ("The traditional four-part standard for injunctive relief, however, does not apply in the present case because the stay-put provision has been interpreted as imposing an automatic statutory injunction.'") (quoting Casey K. ex rel. Norman K. v. St. Anne Cmty High Sch. Dist. No. 302, 400 F.3d 508, 511 (7th Cir. 2005) (comparing a stay-put injunction to an automatic stay in a bankruptcy case) (citing Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 326-37 (1988))). Rather, the movant invoking the stay-put provision must show that (1) proceedings under the IDEA are pending; and (2) prevention of a change in the "then-current educational placement" of the child is sought. See 20 U.S.C. 1415(j); Moore v. District of Columbia, No. 09-656, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34349 (D.D.C. Apr. 22, 2009). Upon meeting this two-part inquiry, the movant is presumptively entitled to a stay-put injunction in favor of the child's current placement, unless the school district overcomes the presumption by demonstrating "that application of the traditional four part preliminary injunction test warrants a different result." Laster v. District of Columbi a, 439 F.Supp.2d 93, 99 (D.D.C. 2006); see also Honig, 484 U.S. at 328 (finding the stay-put provision "effectively creates a presumption in favor of the child's current educational placement which school officials can overcome only by showing that maintaining the child in his or her current placement is substantially likely to result in injury either to himself or herself, or to others."); Henry v. Sch. Admin. Unit No. 29, 70 F.Supp.2d 52, 58 (D.N.H. 1999) ("The preference may be overcome through the issuance of a preliminary injunction if the equitable factors traditionally used by courts to evaluate requests for interim injunctive relief favor a change in the child's placement."). The plaintiff vigorously argues that the stay-put provision is inapplicable, which amounts to a challenge to the defendants' likelihood of success on the merits, but the plaintiff makes no effort in its opposition to address the other equitable factors necessary to overcome the presumptive automatic injunction.[3]

III. DISCUSSION

The plaintiff raises two distinct but closely related arguments in opposition to the defendants' motion: (1) that the child in question does not have a current educational placement to be maintained under § 1415(j) because an IEP has not been provided; and (2) that granting the defendants' motion would effectively decide the merits of the plaintiff's appeal by recognizing the student's current placement as an educational placement under the IDEA. See Pl.'s Opp'n at 4-5. As explained below, these arguments are unavailing.

A. The Defendants' Child's Current Private School Placement Is A Current Educational Placement Under The IDEA

The plaintiff characterizes the defendants' request "that the Court order DCPS to fund K.C.'s tuition at the Lab School" for the XXXX-XXXX school year as "an inaccurate application of IDEA terminology" and "puts the cart before the horse." Pl.'s Opp'n at 4. In essence, the plaintiff argues that the terminology of "the then-current educational placement, " which is used in the stay-up provision, "means the overall educational program that is documented on a student's IEP." Id. Absent an IEP, as in this case, "there is no educational placement to be maintained." Id. Thus, the plaintiff contends that a fundamental prerequisite for invocation of the stay-put provision is missing here, namely, an IEP, which the plaintiff further argues is not required to be provided to a parentally-placed private school child.

At the outset, the Court notes that the IDEA and its accompanying regulations do not define the term "then-current educational placement" or even the shorter term "educational placement" as used in § 1415(j). Consequently, absent any definition, the Court must look first to the plain meaning of the language. The plaintiff would have the Court construe the term "educational placement" to be limited to a placement reflected in or sanctioned by an IEP, but the statute simply does not refer to an IEP. If Congress had meant that the "current educational placement" was embodied in an IEP, it could easily have written that limitation into the statute. Instead, the provision expresses its intention to preserve the status quo by referring to the placement in which the child is actually receiving educational services at the time the dispute first arises. Certainly, when an IEP is in place, the program placement where the IEP is being implemented is the placement subject to the stay-put provision. See Johnson v. District of Columbia, 839 F.Supp.2d 173, 177 (D.D.C. 2012) ("Typically, [t]he dispositive factor in deciding a child's current educational placement' should be the [IEP]... actually functioning when the stay-put' is invoked.") (quoting Drinker, 78 F.3d at ...


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