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Butler v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 14, 2017

DAVETTE BUTLER, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          AMIT P. MEHTA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Davette Butler brings this matter under the Individuals with Disabilities Act after a Hearing Officer declined to award her minor son, D.B., any compensatory education even though he had found that the District of Columbia Public Schools (“DCPS”) denied him a “free appropriate public education, ” or “FAPE, ” for the vast majority of the 2014-2015 and 2015- 2016 school years. Now before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff asserts that the Hearing Officer should have ordered compensatory education and asks this court to make that award. Defendant District of Columbia concedes that an award of compensatory education is appropriate, but asks that the matter be remanded for the Hearing Officer to determine the appropriate compensatory education award, or alternatively, if this court decides to make an award itself, that it grant something less than Plaintiff requests. Accordingly, the only question presented is whether this court or the Hearing Officer should award compensatory education to Plaintiff.

         For the reasons stated below, the court remands this matter to the Hearing Officer to determine an appropriate compensatory education award.

         I. BACKGROUND

         D.B. has suffered from blindness and learning disabilities since birth. Admin. R., ECF No. 8 [hereinafter A.R.], at 44-55. In July 2014, DCPS developed an individualized education program (“IEP”) for D.B. for the 2014-2015 school year, which designated his school placement as Woodrow Wilson High School. Id. at 92-93. D.B. started at Wilson in August, but his school year was cut short after he was allegedly sexually assaulted in a school bathroom on September 8, 2014. Id. at 94-95, 97-101, 108-09, 281-82, 285-87. Thereafter, he did not return to school. Id. at 97-101, 108-09, 113-14, 285, 293. Beginning in October 2014, Plaintiff requested a change in her son's school placement, but DCPS did not carry out the request until June 2015, when it placed D.B. at H.D. Woodson High School. Id. at 97, 113-14, 143. Citing her concern that Woodson could not provide D.B. the services that he needed, Plaintiff did not, however, enroll D.B. at Woodson, and he never attended school there. Id. at 113, 144, 190-91.

         In December 2015, Plaintiff filed a due process complaint under the IDEA on behalf of D.B., and amended it in January 2016. Id. at 147-50, 189-93. Her complaint alleged that DCPS had denied her son a FAPE for the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years. Id. at 190-91. Two months later, after holding an evidentiary hearing, a Hearing Officer agreed with Plaintiff, in part. He determined that DCPS had denied D.B. a FAPE by (1) failing to convene D.B.'s entire IEP team to review his school placement following the alleged assault in September 2014; and (2) failing to revise D.B.'s IEP for the 2015-2016 school year. Id. at 20-21. The Hearing Officer did not, however, award D.B. compensatory education. He explained that, although Plaintiff's expert had proposed a compensatory education award of 50-75 hours of tutoring, in addition to other services, for each month of educational services D.B. had missed since he stopped attending school, the evidence did not establish “what position [D.B.] would now occupy if he had attended school after September 8, 2014 or the type and amount of services he would need to regain that position.” Id. at 24-25, 401-03. The Hearing Officer proceeded to reject Plaintiff's expert's testimony as “speculative” and insufficient “to craft an appropriate, specific fact based, compensatory education remedy.” Id. at 25-26. He denied the request for compensatory education “without prejudice.” Id.

         Plaintiff then filed this action, challenging the Hearing Officer's refusal to award compensatory education. Plaintiff asks the court to enter an award of compensatory education based on the expert testimony presented at the administrative hearing. See Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 9 [hereinafter Pl.'s Mot.], at 12-15. Alternatively, Plaintiff requests an order directing the District to develop an appropriate compensatory education plan or an order requiring the District to fund an independent compensatory education evaluation. Id. at 15-18. Defendant, for its part, asks the court to remand the matter so the Hearing Officer can conduct a fact-specific inquiry to determine the appropriate compensatory education award. Def.'s Cross-Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 10 [hereinafter Def.'s Mot.], at 19. Alternatively, if the court decides to award compensatory education, Defendant asks the court to reject Plaintiff's proposal, arguing that D.B. is not entitled to the amount Plaintiff requests. Id. at 19-20.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The IDEA mandates that States, including the District of Columbia, which receive federal educational assistance provide a “free appropriate public education” (“FAPE”) to all children with disabilities between the ages of 3 and 21. 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400(d)(1)(A), 1412(a)(1)(A). As part of the requirement to provide a FAPE, school districts must work with parents to develop an IEP for each child with a disability and then select a school placement to implement the IEP. Id. §§ 1412(a)(4), 1414(d)(1)(B), 1414(e). Under the IDEA, parents may challenge a school district's decisions regarding educational services by filing a due process complaint and requesting an administrative due process hearing. Id. § 1415(b)(6), 1415(f). If a hearing officer concludes that the school district denied a student a FAPE, he has “broad discretion to fashion an appropriate remedy, ” which may include compensatory education. See B.D. v. District of Columbia, 817 F.3d 792, 800 (D.C. Cir. 2016). Compensatory education consists of prospective educational services designed to “compensate for a past deficient program.” Reid ex rel. Reid v. District of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 522 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). A final award relies on “individualized assessments, ” requires a “fact-specific” inquiry, and must be “reasonably calculated to provide the educational benefits that likely would have accrued from special education services the school district should have supplied in the first place.” Id. at 524.

         The IDEA grants a parent dissatisfied with the outcome of a due process hearing the right to appeal to a federal district court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). A reviewing court must consider the entire administrative record and, should either party request it, any additional evidence. Id. § 1415(i)(2)(C). The party challenging the hearing officer's ruling bears the burden of “persuading the court that the hearing officer was wrong.” Kerkam v. McKenzie, 862 F.2d 884, 887 (D.C. Cir. 1988). Using a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, the court may “grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate, ” including an award of compensatory education. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C); B.D., 817 F.3d at 797-98.

         That the reviewing court is required to base its decision “on the preponderance of the evidence” does not, however, authorize unfettered de novo review. See Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982) (internal quotation marks omitted). Instead, a 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 which [it] review[s].” Id. With that said, the fact that a court may hear additional evidence at a party's request, coupled with the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, “plainly suggest[s]” that a hearing officer's determination receives less deference than is typical in administrative proceedings. Kerkam, 862 F.2d at 887. And, 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) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         When, as here, neither party presents additional evidence to the district court, a motion for summary judgment operates as a motion for judgment based on the evidence in the record. S.S. ex rel. Shank v. Howard Rd. Acad., 585 F.Supp.2d 56, 64 (D.D.C. 2008). If the administrative record lacks “pertinent findings” and neither party enters additional evidence, then the “court may determine that the appropriate relief is a remand to the hearing officer for further proceedings.” Reid, 401 F.3d at 526 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         III. DISCUSSION

         In this matter, the parties' sole disagreement is whether the court should enter a compensatory education award for D.B. (Plaintiff's position) or whether the matter should be remanded to the Hearing Officer to take additional ...


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