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District of Columbia v. Wolfire

United States District Court, District Circuit

January 16, 2014

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Plaintiff,
v.
DOUG WOLFIRE, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

AMY BERMAN JACKSON, United States District Judge

Plaintiff District of Columbia filed this case on behalf of the District of Columbia Public Schools (“DCPS”) and the Local Education Agency (“LEA”), seeking judicial review of an administrative due process hearing decision (“HOD”). The challenged HOD determined that plaintiff violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., when it failed to develop an IEP for J.W. – a student residing in the District of Columbia who has been identified as a student with disabilities. Defendant Doug Wolfire is the father of J.W. and appears as next of friend to his son.

The case was referred to Magistrate Judge Robinson for full case management pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72.3. See Sept. 17, 2012 Order Referring Case [Dkt. # 5]. The parties subsequently filed cross-motions for summary judgment, see Pl.’s Mot. for Summ. J. (“Pl.’s Mot.”) [Dkt. # 13]; Def.’s Mem. in Supp. of Def.’s Cross-Mot. for Summ. J. [Dkt. # 14], and Magistrate Judge Robinson issued a Report and Recommendation suggesting that defendant is entitled to summary judgment and upholding the HOD. See Sept. 6, 2013 Report and Recommendation (“Report”) at 9 [Dkt. # 20]. Plaintiff filed timely written objections to the report. Pl.’s Objections to Report (“Pl.’s Object.”) [Dkt. # 22]. After careful review of the Report and Recommendation, plaintiff’s objections, defendant’s response to plaintiff’s objections, and the Administrative Record, the Court will adopt the Magistrate Judge’s report in its entirety. As a result, the Court will grant defendant’s cross-motion for summary judgment and deny plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.[1]

STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

The purpose of the 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 and prepare them for further education.” 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). To receive funding under the IDEA, school districts must adopt procedures to ensure appropriate educational placement of students with disabilities. Id. § 1413.

A central requirement of the IDEA is that the district in which a student with disabilities resides must offer that student a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”), id. § 1412(a), which entitles each student with a disability to a comprehensive plan, known as an individualized education program (“IEP”), that is designed to meet his or her specialized educational needs. Id. § 1414(d)(2)(A) (“At the beginning of each school year, each [state] shall have in effect, for each child with a disability in [its] jurisdiction, an individualized education program.”). The IEP must be formulated in accordance with the terms of the IDEA and “should be reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.” Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 204 (1982).

When a student with disabilities is parentally placed in a private school, the LEA responsible for the district in which the student resides must continue to periodically evaluate the student’s special education needs, either on its own initiative or at the request of the student’s parents or teacher. See 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(3)(A); District of Columbia v. Vinyard, __ F.Supp.2d __, No. 12–1604, 2013 WL 5302674, at *3 (D.D.C. Sept. 22, 2013). As a result, the LEA has a continuing responsibility to offer a FAPE to a student with disabilities that resides within its district regardless of whether that student is currently enrolled in a private school. Upon receipt of an offer of a FAPE, parents have two options: (1) accept the offer of a FAPE and enroll their student in the delegated school, or (2) keep their child in private school. See Ex. 2 to Pl.’s Object. at 6 [Dkt. # 22-2]. If the parents choose the latter option, any services provided to the student pursuant to the IDEA are governed by 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10) and 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.130–300.144. “No parentally-placed private school child with a disability has an individual right to receive some or all of the special education and related services that the child would receive if enrolled in a public school.” 34 C.F.R. § 300.137(a).

The IDEA provides parents of students with disabilities the opportunity to participate in the evaluation and placement process. 20 U.S.C. §§ 1414(e), 1415(b)(1). Parents who object to their child’s “identification, evaluation, or educational placement” are entitled to an impartial due process hearing, see Id . § 1415(b)(6), (f)(1)(A), at which they have a “right to be accompanied and advised by counsel” and a “right to present evidence and confront, cross-examine, and compel the attendance of witnesses.” Id. § 1415(h). A qualified impartial hearing officer conducts the due process hearing, id. § 1415(f)(3)(A), and any “party aggrieved by the findings and decision” of that officer may file a civil case in federal court challenging that decision. Id. § 1415(i)(2)(A). The district court has remedial authority under the IDEA and broad discretion to grant “such relief as the court determines is appropriate.” Id. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

When a party objects to a magistrate judge’s recommended disposition, the Court reviews the magistrate judge’s recommendation de novo. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); see also Smith v. District of Columbia, 846 F.Supp.2d 197, 198–200 (D.D.C. 2012); D.D. ex rel. Davis v. District of Columbia, 470 F.Supp.2d 1, 1 (D.D.C. 2007). The Court may “accept, reject, or modify” the magistrate judge’s recommendation. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

When reviewing an administrative decision made under the IDEA, a district 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). The party challenging the decision bears the burden of proof and “must at least take on 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), quoting Kerkam v. McKenzie, 862 F.2d 884, 887 (D.C. Cir. 1989). Although this Court must give “due weight” to the hearing officer’s determinations, Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206, that decision receives less deference than conventional administrative decisions. Kerkam, 862 F.2d at 887.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff raises two objections to the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation, which adopted the HOD determination that plaintiff must provide J.W. with an IEP in order to comply with the IDEA. First, plaintiff argues that the Magistrate Judge did not conduct a proper statutory analysis because there is a separate statutory framework governing students with disabilities who are parentally placed in private schools that eliminates plaintiff’s responsibility to develop an IEP for J.W. See generally Pl.’s Object. And second, plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge’s conclusion that plaintiff’s Spending Clause argument is not germane and therefore need not be addressed. See generally Id . Neither objection has merit.

The separate statutory framework for children who are parentally placed in private school does not support plaintiff’s theory that it is not obligated under the IDEA to develop an IEP for J.W. until he enrolls in a public school. See Vinyard, 2013 WL 5302674, at *6–10. The IDEA’s basic rule is that the state must ensure that “[a] free appropriate public education is available to all children with disability residing in the State between the ages of 3 and 21.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A) (emphasis added). To satisfy that obligation, the state must not only engage in “child find, ”[2]id. § 1412(a)(3), but it must also reevaluate and offer a FAPE to “each child with a disability . . . if the [LEA] determines that the educational or related services needs . . . of the child warrant a reevaluation[, ] or if the child’s parents or ...


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