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Capital City Public Charter School v. Gambale

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

March 20, 2014

ROBERTA GAMBALE, et al., Defendants

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ROSEMARY M. COLLYER, United States District Judge.

This is an action for attorney's fees incurred by Capital City Public Charter School in its own defense at an administrative proceeding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The Hearing Officer denied all claims, finding that the Parent was responsible for the actions about which she complained, not the school. Capital City alleges that the matter was initiated and continued by Defendants Roberta Gambale, Esq., and James E. Brown & Associates, PLLC, and that it was frivolous, unreasonable, and without foundation. Defendants respond that Ms. Gambale advanced legitimate claims and that the decision in Capital City's favor was based on credibility determinations.

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Having reviewed the entire record, the Court finds that Defendants initiated and continued a proceeding that was frivolous, unreasonable, and without foundation. Capitol City will be awarded the attorney's fees it requests, which the Court finds are essentially uncontested and reasonable.


A. The Individuals with Disabilities Act

Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as amended, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., to guarantee a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to disabled students. A FAPE is an education that, inter alia, " emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet [disabled students'] unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living . . . ." Id. § 1400(d)(1)(A). All " states and territories, including the District of Columbia, that receive federal education assistance must establish policies and procedures to ensure, among other things, that . . . [a] FAPE[] is available to disabled children" within their school districts. Branham v. Gov't of the Dist. of Columbia, 427 F.3d 7, 8, 368 U.S.App.D.C. 151 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

IDEA identifies a disabled student as " a child . . . (i) with intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance . . . , orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities; and (ii) who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services." 20 U.S.C. § 1401(3)(A). Once a student is identified as disabled, the relevant Local Educational Agency (LEA), which is the " public board of education or other public authority legally constituted within a State for either administrative control or direction of, or to perform a service function for, public elementary schools or secondary schools," id. § 1401(19)(A), must devise a comprehensive, individualized education program (IEP) for that child, id. § 1414(d)(2)(A). A multidisciplinary IEP Team, which includes " the child's parents and select teachers[] as well as a representative of the [LEA] with knowledge [of] the school's resources and curriculum, develops an . . . IEP . . . for the child." Branham, 427 F.3d at 8 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

An IEP must balance competing concerns. At a minimum, an IEP must " 'provid[e] personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction.'" Reid ex rel. Reid v. District of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 519, 365 U.S.App.D.C. 234 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (alteration in original) (quoting Bd. of Educ. of the Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist., Westchester Cnty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 203, 102 S.Ct. 3034, 73 L.Ed.2d 690 (1982)). In addition, an IEP must ensure, " [t]o the maximum extent appropriate," that the disabled student is placed in the least restrictive environment, ideally receiving his education alongside children who are not disabled. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5)(A). " If no suitable public school is available, the [school system] must pay the costs of sending the child to an appropriate private school." Branham, 427 F.3d at 9 (alteration in original omitted) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

Parents of disabled students participate in the development and implementation of their child's IEP. 20 U.S.C. § § 1414(e), 1415(b)(1). A parent who objects to the " identification, evaluation, or educational placement" of their child is entitled to a

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due process hearing before a qualified, impartial hearing officer. Id. § § 1415(b)(6), (f)(1). At the hearing, the parent and the LEA have " the right to be accompanied and advised by counsel," id. § 1415(h)(1), " present evidence and confront, cross-examine, and compel the attendance of witnesses," id. § 1415(h)(2), and appeal the hearing officer's findings administratively, id. § 1415(g). Further, the party who prevails at the due process hearing may bring a civil action for reasonable attorney's fees. Id. § § 1415(i)(2)(A), (3)(B)(i).

B. Factual Background

Capital City Public Charter School is a District of Columbia public charter school which has elected to serve as its own LEA under IDEA.[1] Answer [Dkt. 3] ¶ 3. Roberta Gambale is an attorney licensed to practice in the District of Columbia. She represented the Student, a seventeen-year-old young man who needed special education and related services, and the Student's Parent in an administrative proceeding under IDEA.[2] Id. ¶ ¶ 4, 6. James E. Brown & Associates, PLLC, is a law firm in the District of Columbia and was Ms. Gambale's employer at the time Ms. Gambale filed and litigated the administrative complaint. Id. ¶ 5.

On March 23, 2012, Ms. Gambale filed an IDEA complaint against Capital City, alleging that it had failed to provide a FAPE to the Student as required by IDEA. See 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). Ms. Gambale sought various forms of relief, including amendments to the Student's IEP concerning his post-secondary education goals, compensatory education due to the absence of a FAPE, and reimbursement to the Parent for expenses she incurred in arranging a college tour for the Student. Admin. R. (IDEA Compl.) [Dkt. 6-1] at 15.

1. The Student's Local School Placements

The Student began attending Capital City in Washington, D.C., in the fourth grade. Due to his multiple disabilities, he was eligible to receive specialized instruction and related services. Admin. R. (HOD) [Dkt. 6-5] at 813-14. His mental health declined during the first semester of his freshman year of high school, Admin. R. (Parent Testimony) [Dkt. 6-8] at 1199, and it was determined that he should be placed at the Frost School (Frost), a private, special education day school, HOD at 814; Pl. Resp. to Defs. Statement of Material Facts [Dkt. 15] ¶ 6. In its role as LEA, Capital City transferred the Student to Frost in December 2009. The Student had a difficult time with the transition, became a truant, and was suspended multiple times in late 2009 and early 2010. HOD at 814.

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Having missed school days, the Student received extended school year services during the summer of 2010. However, in July 2010, he got into separate fights at Frost with a teacher and with another student, who was seriously injured. After these incidents, the director of Frost suggested to the Parent that the Student may require placement at a residential school and that the IEP Team should discuss such a placement for the upcoming school year. (Frost did not itself convene an IEP Team meeting at that time.) Then, in August 2010, the Student stopped taking his medications, refused to meet with his doctor or attend school, and became violent at home. He was hospitalized at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington from August 16 to August 21, 2010, and then again, from September 10 to September 17, 2010. Id. at 814-15.

2. IEP Team Meetings

On September 3, 2010, Frost formally asked the Student's IEP Team to assemble for the purpose of reviewing and updating his IEP. The IEP coordinator at Frost faxed a " Letter of Invitation to a Meeting" to the Parent, Ms. Gambale, and Capital City. Admin. R. (Sept. 3, 2010 Letter of Invitation) [Dkt. 6-3] at 472. The Invitation was a form letter. It provided several check-boxes to indicate the purpose of the meeting, such as " discuss[ion] [of] possible changes in the setting for [the Student]." Id. Frost only checked the box indicating that the purpose of the IEP Team meeting was " to develop/review/revise or update [the Student's] current IEP." Id. The Invitation set the meeting for September 20, 2010, at 10:15 a.m.

Five days later, on September 8, 2010, Ms. Gambale sent an email to Frost and the Parent to confirm the meeting. Ms. Gambale also reported to Frost that Children's National Medical Center was conducting a psychiatric evaluation of the Student, and warned that the meeting might have to be postponed if that evaluation were not available for the IEP Team's review by September 20. Ms. Gambale explained that a psychiatric evaluation was necessary because the Parent was concerned about the Student's behavior and thought he may need a more restrictive school setting. HOD at 815; see also Admin. R. (Sept. 8, 2010 Email from Ms. Gambale) [Dkt. 6-3] at 475-76 (adding " that is why the psychiatric recommendation would be of particular importance for the team to review" ).

On September 14, 2010, Capital City invited the District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to the meeting set for September 20.[3] Apparently, at some point between September 8 and September 14, 2010, Frost had shared Ms. Gambale's concerns about the Student's placement with Capital City, as Capital City advised OSSE that the likely purpose of the IEP Team meeting was to discuss placing the Student at a residential treatment facility. Id. at 815. Meanwhile, Frost drafted a new IEP for the Student and circulated it to the IEP Team members ahead of the meeting set for September 20. See Admin. R. (Testimony of Wanda Gregory, Capital City's LEA representative) [Dkt. 6-9] at 1362.

The September 20 meeting never happened. At 7:45 a.m. on September 20, Ms. Gambale sent an email to Frost and Capital City, telling them that the meeting needed to be rescheduled because the psychiatric recommendation for the Student

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was not available. Admin. R. (Sept. 20. 2010 Email from Ms. Gambale) [Dkt. 6-3] at 478. In this email, Ms. Gambale said that the awaited psychiatric evaluation was being performed by the Psychiatric Institute of Washington.[4] Since the Parent was unprepared, the meeting was postponed. HOD at 815-16.

And then, on September 24, 2010, Ms. Gambale sent a written request to Frost that asked for a psychiatric evaluation of the Student, indicating that the Parent had not been able to obtain an evaluation from the Psychiatric Institute of Washington. HOD at 816. Capital City, which was copied on this request and which needed to approve and pay for an evaluation as LEA, responded six days later. It informed Ms. Gambale that it needed the Parent to sign a release for medical records and to provide any information she had about the Student's recent hospitalizations at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington. Admin R. (Sept. 30 to Oct. 7, 2010 Email Chain) [Dkt. 6-3] at 488-89. Ms. Gamble provided a release and the requested information on that same day, id. at 487-88, and an IEP Team meeting was set for October 14, 2010, id. at 486.

This time, the IEP Team met as planned. Team participants included Ms. Gambale, the Parent, OSSE, Capital City, and Frost. They discussed the process for placement of the Student into a residential facility, which would first require a psychiatric evaluation. HOD at 816; see also id. at 827 (" The team needed the psychiatric assessment to inform them of the Student's needs, [and] the type of residential facility that would be appropriate for him." ). Capital City agreed to pay for an independent psychiatric evaluation of the Student and authorized the Parent to select a psychiatrist for that purpose. Id. at 816. Neither Ms. Gambale nor the Parent raised concerns about the new IEP circulated in September by Frost, although all Team members anticipated that a revised IEP would be completed after the psychiatric evaluation. Admin. R. (October 14, 2010 Meeting Notes) [Dkt. 6-3] at 503-04 (indicating that the IEP would be finalized after the Student's psychiatric evaluation); Gregory Testimony at 1362-63 (" Q[:] And at any time after providing that draft IEP, specifically the September 20, 2010 [IEP], . . . were you aware of any concerns that the [P]arent had about the IEP? A[:] Not to my knowledge." ).

A psychiatric evaluation of the Student was conducted by the psychiatrist chosen by the Parent on October 21, 2010. HOD at 817. In the meantime, the Student continued to exhibit behavioral problems at home. On October 25, 2010, Ms. Gambale informed OSSE and Capital City that the police had " just taken" the Student to the Psychiatric Institute of Washington. Id. On that same day, Capital City notified Ms. Gambale, the Parent, and OSSE, that Capital City agreed, even without a psychiatric evaluation, that the Student needed a residential school placement in light of the difficulties he was having. OSSE responded three days later, stating that it would

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move ahead with changing the Student's placement to a residential facility. Id.

On November 19, 2010, Ms. Gambale received the psychiatrist's report from the October 21, 2010 evaluation of the Student. Defs. Mot. for Summ. J. (MSJ) [Dkt. 8], Ex. 1 (Nov. 19, 2010 Email from Ms. Gambale) [Dkt. 8-4] at 1. The evaluating psychiatrist recommended that the Student be placed in a residential treatment center, be prescribed psychotropic medications, and remain compliant with dosage instructions. Ms. Gambale sent a copy of the evaluation to OSSE and Capital City on November 19, 2010, the day she received it. Id. ; HOD at 817.

Later on November 19, 2010, OSSE responded to Ms. Gambale, telling her that it needed the Parent's signature on an interstate compact form " in order to process the request for [the Student's] residential placement" in an out-of-state facility.[5] Admin. R. (Nov. 19, 2010 Email from OSSE) [Dkt. 6-3] at 542-43 (emphasis added). Nearly two months passed before Ms. Gambale returned the signed interstate compact form to OSSE. HOD at 818.

In the meantime, Capital City proposed scheduling another IEP Team meeting for November 30, December 1, December 6, or December 7, 2010. Admin. R. (Nov. 24, 2010 Letter to Ms. Gambale) [Dkt. 6-3] at 538. The Parent selected December 6, 2010, and the IEP Team convened on that date. HOD at 818. At that IEP Team meeting, which Ms. Gambale did not attend, the IEP Team discussed residential placement options for the Student. The Parent informed the IEP Team at the end of the meeting that the Student would remain at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington until his new school placement was finalized. Id. Again, the Parent did not voice concerns about the IEP as it was drafted in September. Admin R. (Dec. 6, 2010 Meeting Notes) [Dkt. 6-3] at 546.

3. The Student's Residential Placement

On January 5, 2011, Ms. Gambale informed Capital City and OSSE that she had found a residential treatment center in Pennsylvania that would accept the Student for admission. Ms. Gambale provided OSSE with the signed interstate compact form two days later, on January 7, 2011, and OSSE submitted the form to the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency four days later. HOD at 818-19. On January 21, 2011, OSSE notified the Parent that it had issued a location assignment for the Student to attend Devereux Beneto Center-Mapleton (Devereux), a Pennsylvania residential treatment facility. Admin. R. [Dkt 6-2] (Jan. 21, 2011 Notice of Location Assignment) at 410. Approximately three weeks later, OSSE sent ...

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