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Garris v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 28, 2016

Luwan Garris, et ah, Plaintiffs,
v.
District of Columbia, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Amit P. Mehta United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Luwan Garris and her minor daughter, Plaintiff D.G, filed this matter challenging an administrative Hearing Officer's determination that Plaintiffs had failed to show that Defendant District of Columbia had violated the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This court referred the case to a magistrate judge for case management and to prepare a Report and Recommendation ("R&R"). See Order of Aug. 14, 2015. Magistrate Judge Kay was randomly assigned. Judge Kay issued his R&R on June 1, 2016, ECF No. 17 [hereinafter R&R], and Plaintiffs thereafter filed their objections, ECF No. 18 [hereinafter Pis.' Obj.].

         This court has reviewed de novo Judge Kay's R&R, and the objections thereto, as well as the record in this matter, as required under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(b)(3). For the reasons explained below, this court will accept the disposition recommended by the R&R and grant summary judgment in favor of Defendant.

         II. BACKGROUND

         The court presumes the parties' familiarity with the facts and procedural history of the case and therefore will dispense with repeating them here, except as needed. Plaintiffs asserted before the Hearing Officer that Defendant had violated the IDEA in three respects. First, Plaintiffs claimed that D.G.'s 2014 Individualized Education Plan ("IEP") was inadequate because it did not provide her with a sufficient number of hours of specialized instruction to address her educational needs. SeeCompl, ECF No. 1; Id., Ex. A, April 28, 2015 Hearing Officer Determination, ECF No. 1-1 [hereinafter Hr'g Decision], at 13-14. Second, they argued that Defendant failed to offer D.G. an appropriate transition plan-that is, apian designed to facilitate a child's movement from school to post-school activities-because Defendant did not interview D.G. when developing the plan. Id. at 14-15. And, third, Plaintiffs asserted that Defendant had not, as required by IDEA, done enough to address D.G.'s truancy problems. Id. 16-18. Magistrate Judge Kay recommended upholding the Hearing Officer's rejection of each of Plaintiffs' three claims and granting summary judgment in favor of Defendant. R&R at 17, 21, 25. Plaintiffs have filed objections regarding each of their claims, to which the court now turns.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Adequacy of the December 2014 IEP

         As to Plaintiffs' first claim-that D.G.'s IEP did not provide her with a sufficient number of hours of specialized instruction-Plaintiffs object that "[t]he Hearing Officer and the [R&R] both failed to account for substantial evidence that D.G.'s IEP was inappropriate and the [R&R] errs in finding that offering additional hours of specialized instruction 'would have made no difference, ' because of her truancy." Pis.' Obj. at 2. They further argue that "[e]vidence presented at the [administrative] Hearing demonstrated that D.G.'s truancy was substantially related to the Defendant's failure to offer an appropriate program and likely would have improved with additional support." Id. The court disagrees with Plaintiffs' objections.

         At the administrative hearing, Plaintiffs offered the testimony of Rasheed Bonner, a school psychologist and expert in the development of IEP sand behavioral intervention plans, who testified that, in his opinion, and in contrast with her 2014 IEP, D.G. should receive approximately 15 hours per week of specialized instruction outside of the classroom. See Administrative Record, Ex. 19, April 23, 2014, Hr'g Tr., ECF No. 16-13 [hereinafter April 23, 2014, Hr'g Tr.], at 80-81. Bonner based his opinion upon his review of various records, including D.G.'s 2014 psychological evaluation. Mat 54. Ultimately, the Hearing Officer declined to follow Bonner's recommendation and instead affirmed the provisions of the school's 2014 IEP, which called for D.G. to receive four hours per week of specialized instruction outside of the general education setting, two hours per week of specialized instruction in reading inside of the general education setting, three hours per week of specialized instruction in mathematics inside of the general education setting, and speech and language therapy for fifteen minutes per month. Hr'g Decision at 7. Plaintiffs criticize the Hearing Officer for not giving Bonner's testimony sufficient weight. See PL's Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 9, at 12.

         A party challenging a hearing officer's ruling must "at least take on the burden of persuading the court that the hearing officer was wrong." Kerkam v. McKenzie, 862 F.2d 884, 887 (D.C. Cir. 1989). The court must give "due weight" to the hearing officer's decision and "may not substitute its own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities." Turner v. District of Columbia, 952 F.Supp.2d 31, 35-36 (D.D.C. 2013) (citations and internal quotations omitted). On the other hand, a decision "without ... reasoned and specific findings deserves little deference." Kerkam v. Superintendent, D.C. Pub. Schs., 931 F.2d 84, 87 (D.C.Cir. 1991) (citations and internal quotations omitted).

         Here, the court finds that Plaintiffs have not carried their burden. Although the Hearing Officer could have provided a more fulsome explanation for why he ultimately rejected Bonner's recommendation, he certainly acknowledged it when evaluating the appropriateness of the 2014 IEP. See Hr'g Decision at 13 (noting that Plaintiffs had argued that "the Student requires at least 15 hours of instruction outside of general education"). The Hearing Officer instead gave weight to other record evidence, which D.G.'s mother had confirmed, demonstrating that D.G. "had made good progress" at another school with fewer than 15 hours of specialized instruction. Id. at 13-14. He also relied on teacher reports in the record showing that D.G. had performed well in her general education classes. Id. at 14.

         Plaintiffs take issue with the Hearing Officer's conclusion and his rationale, arguing that D.G.'s 2014 IEP "was not reasonably calculated to produce meaningful education benefit, because D.G. had not shown progress under a similar IEP at a previous school, it was unsupported by D.G.'s most recent evaluation, and it failed to address the role of insufficient educational support in D.G. 's truancy." Pis.' Obj. at 3. At bottom, however, these objections are about how the Hearing Officer weighed the evidence and not that he failed to consider the evidence in the first place. He clearly did. As noted, the Hearing Officer considered D.G.'s past educational records and performance. SeeHr'g Decision at 13-14. That Plaintiffs draw a different conclusion from that evidence does not make the Hearing Officer's alternative conclusion improper.

         Likewise, the Hearing Officer weighed D.G.'s most recent psychological evaluation and discounted that evidence because "there [was] evidence that the Student is resistant to standardized testing, suggesting the Student's actual academic levels may be higher than reported by psychologists." Id. at 14. Plaintiffs dispute that view of the psychological evidence, see Pis.' Obj.at 4, but ...


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