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N.W. v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 4, 2015

N.W., et al., Plaintiffs,


RANDOLPH D. MOSS, District Judge.

Plaintiffs James Werner, Christine Bird, and their son N.W. contend that the District of Columbia ("the District") deprived N.W. of his right to a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. Compl. ¶ 1. Plaintiffs initially filed a complaint with the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") Student Hearing Office, alleging three related claims. At the statutorily-mandated due process hearing, the DCPS hearing officer concluded that Plaintiffs' first claim was barred by a prior settlement agreement, and, based on that decision, Plaintiffs indicated that they could not proceed on the remaining claims. The hearing officer, accordingly, dismissed the complaint in its entirety. Plaintiffs then brought this action, challenging the hearing officer's decision.

The matter is now before the Court on the District's Motion to Dismiss (Dkt. 3) and Plaintiffs' Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 6). The parties agree that Plaintiffs' challenge turns on a single issue-the interpretation and effect of the settlement agreement-and that this issue is appropriate for resolution on the pending motions. See Dkt. 5 at 17; Dkt. 7 at 5. For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that the settlement agreement does not bar Plaintiffs' claims. Accordingly, the Court will GRANT Plaintiffs' Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment and DENY the District's Motion to Dismiss. The Court will also DENY Plaintiffs' Motion for Leave to File Additional Evidence (Dkt. 10) and GRANT Plaintiffs' Motion for Leave to File Additional Evidence (Dkt. 14). The matter will be REMANDED to the DCPS Student Hearing Office for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.


A. Statutory Background

Congress enacted the IDEA "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, employment, and independent living." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). In exchange for federal educational assistance, "school systems must ensure that all children with disabilities residing in the State... regardless of the severity of their disabilities, and who are in need of special education and related services, are identified, located, and evaluated.'" Reid ex rel. Reid v. District of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 518-19 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(3)(A)). "Once such children are identified, a team' including the child's parents and select teachers, as well as a representative of the local educational agency with knowledge about the school's resources and curriculum, develops an individualized education program, ' or IEP, ' for the child." Id. (citing 20 U.S.C. §§ 1412(a)(4), 1414(d)). "If no suitable public school is available, the [school system] must pay the costs of sending the child to an appropriate private school.'" Id. (quoting Jenkins v. Squillacote, 935 F.2d 303, 305 (D.C. Cir. 1991)) (alterations in original).

The IDEA provides that parents dissatisfied with a proposed IEP or other aspects of their child's "identification, evaluation, or educational placement" are entitled to an impartial "due process hearing" conducted by a qualified hearing officer. 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(b)(6), (f)(1)(A); see 5-E D.C. CODE MUN. REGS. § 3030.11 (LexisNexis 2015). At the due process hearing, parents may present evidence and call and cross-examine witnesses. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(h); see 5-ED.C. CODE MUN. REGS. § 3031.1 (LexisNexis 2015). The burden of persuasion at the hearing rests with the party seeking relief. 5-E D.C. CODE MUN. REGS. § 3030.14 (LexisNexis 2015); see Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 51 (2005).

Any party aggrieved by the hearing officer's findings and decision may bring a civil action in state or federal court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2); 5-E D.C. CODE MUN. REGS. § 3031.5 (LexisNexis 2015). The reviewing court "(i) shall receive the record 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); see Reid, 401 F.3d at 520-21. Although judicial review in an IDEA proceeding is typically based on the administrative record, the trial court may consider "additional evidence." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(ii); see Branham v. District of Columbia, 427 F.3d 7, 13 (D.C. Cir. 2005), Kingsmore v. District of Columbia, 466 F.3d 118, 120 (D.C. Cir. 2006); see also S.S. v. District of Columbia, 2014 WL 4650885, *4 (D.D.C. Sept. 19, 2014) ("The trial court has the discretion to determine what constitutes additional' evidence under the IDEA.") The trial court may decide whether to "itself hear additional evidence to supplement the missing parts of the record, " Kingsmore, 466 F.3d at 120, or to instead "return the case to the hearing officer, " Branham, 427 F.3d at 17-18; see Reid, 401 F.3d at 526.

B. Factual Background

The relevant facts are largely undisputed, see Dkt. 3 at 3, and, in any event, because the hearing officer ruled against Plaintiffs as a matter of law, Plaintiffs' allegations in the administrative proceeding can, absent contrary evidence, be taken as true for purposes of this proceeding. Plaintiff N.W., who is seventeen, has been diagnosed with several learning disorders and an anxiety disorder. A.R. 9. Plaintiffs contend that the symptoms of N.W.'s anxiety disorder "are triggered in part by exposure to unusual odors and sudden or loud noises." Compl. ¶ 8. N.W. initially attended a DCPS preschool, but relocated to Missouri with his family in 2002. A.R. 9. Between 2002 and 2012, N.W. attended public and private schools in Missouri and other states. A.R. 9, 10. N.W. received special education services during this period. Id. In 2011, N.W.'s evaluations indicated that he had difficulties with social interactions and that his instructional level in math and reading lagged behind his grade level. A.R. 10.

In 2012, N.W. and his family returned to the District. A.R. 10. Upon their return, N.W. enrolled at the Lab School of Washington, a private special education school. A.R. 10. In August of 2012, N.W.'s parents sent an enrollment package to DCPS. A.R. 11. DCPS held a screening meeting for N.W., but did not propose an IEP at that time. A.R. 11.

In January of 2013, N.W.'s parents filed an administrative due process complaint alleging that DCPS had failed to timely evaluate N.W.'s eligibility and to provide an IEP. A.R. 11; see Dkt. 14, Ex. B. They sought funding for N.W.'s placement at the Lab School and reimbursement for "tuition and related services for the 2012-13 school year." Dkt. 14, Ex. B, at 6.

In February 2013, DCPS proposed to settle the dispute. A.R. 11; see A.R. 42-46 (settlement agreement). In exchange for the withdrawal of the pending due process complaint, DCPS agreed to "reimburse the parents' tuition and fees at the Lab School of Washington for [N.W.] from December 19, 2012 until June 20, 2013, " A.R. 43 ¶ 5, i.e., until the last day of the 2012-2013 school year, see Dkt. 5, Ex. C, at 12; Dkt. 15-2 at 12. DCPS also agreed to pay a maximum of $3, 000 in reasonable attorney's fees. Id. ¶ 6. The settlement agreement, which was drafted by DCPS, contains a "Release and Waiver" provision ("the Release"). The Release states:

In exchange for the consideration provided herein the Petitioner agrees to waive all rights, claims, causes of action, known and unknown, of any kind against DCPS, including those claims under IDEA and § 504 the Petitioner now asserts or could assert in the future for a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for Petitioner up to the date of this Agreement, and up to June 20, 2013.

A.R. 44 ¶ 10.[1] N.W.'s parents accepted the offer on February 28, 2013, and the agreement became effective on March 5, 2013. A.R. 46.

On April 18, 2013, DCPS met with N.W.'s parents and teachers to draft an IEP for the 2013-2014 school year. See A.R. 47. The draft IEP called for N.W. to receive a specified number of hours of special education, occupational therapy and speech/language services each month. See A.R. 47-67. DCPS offered to implement the IEP at Coolidge High School ("Coolidge").

N.W.'s parents allege that they were concerned about the proposed placement at Coolidge because they did not think Coolidge could deliver the services in the IEP. Compl. ¶ 47; A.R. 12, 13. On June 9, 2013, N.W.'s father visited Coolidge to observe the facilities and special education classrooms. A.R. 12. He concluded that the environment at Coolidge was not, in his view, appropriate for N.W. because of significant distractions, including noise, poor lighting, and strong odors. Id.; A.R. 102. On June 16, 2013, DCPS sent N.W.'s parents a letter confirming that Coolidge "is the school chosen by DCPS where your child will attend and where his/her IEP will be implemented" for the 2013-2014 school year. A.R. 68.

The 2012-2013 school year ended on June 20, 2013. Dkt. 5, Ex. C, at 12; Dkt. 15-2 at 12. On July 23, 2013, N.W.'s parents filed a second administrative due process complaint, see A.R. 6-15, and requested an administrative hearing on the following issues: (1) whether DCPS "den[ied N.W.] a FAPE by failing to propose an appropriate IEP, " A.R. 13; (2) whether DCPS denied N.W. a FAPE by proposing to place N.W. at Coolidge, "a school that could not ...

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