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McLean v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 1, 2017

SHANIKA MCLEAN, et al., Plaintiffs,


          Amit P. Mehta United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Shanika McLean filed suit under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., to seek review of a Hearing Officer's determination that her minor son, D.M., was not denied a free appropriate public education during the 2013-2014 school year. The Hearing Officer determined that Defendant District of Columbia's April 2014 special education eligibility evaluation of D.M. was procedurally deficient, but found that the procedural violation did not deny D.M. a free appropriate public education and, therefore, concluded that an award of compensatory education was unwarranted.

         Before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the court denies the parties' motions and remands the case for further proceedings.


         D.M., the six-year old son of Plaintiff Shanika McLean, suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (“ODD”), but these conditions were not immediately recognized. See Admin. Rec., ECF No. 9, Pts. 1-7, ECF Nos. 9- 1, 9-2, 9-3, 9-4, 9-5, 9-6, 9-7 [hereinafter A.R.], at 7-10.[1] Concerned with D.M.'s behavior during the 2013-2014 school year, and at the suggestion of D.M.'s teacher, Plaintiff requested her son be evaluated for special education services. Id. at 6. In April 2014, D.M. underwent an initial evaluation by Early Stages, Defendant District of Columbia's assessment center. Id. During that initial assessment, although the Early Stages psychologist did subject D.M. to various diagnostic tests, he did not conduct a classroom observation or interview D.M.'s teacher. Id. at 6-7. Following this assessment, the Early Stages evaluators concluded that D.M. did not meet the eligibility criteria for “developmental delay” and, therefore, was ineligible for special education. Id. at 7-8; see also 20 U.S.C. § 1401(3)(B). Dissatisfied with that outcome, Plaintiff had D.M. independently evaluated, leading to his diagnoses with ADHD and ODD, and enrolled D.M. at a different school for the 2015-2016 academic year. A.R. at 8-9. The psychologist at D.M.'s new school performed a comprehensive evaluation of D.M. and determined he met the criteria for special education services based on a Specific Learning Disability in reading and an “Other Health Impairment, ” a separate type of qualifying disability, premised on his ADHD. Id.; see 20 U.S.C. § 1401(3), (30). As a result of the discrepancy in findings between the two evaluations, Plaintiff filed a due process complaint alleging that Defendant denied D.M. a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”), as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). Specifically, Plaintiff's complaint challenged Defendant's failure to comprehensively evaluate D.M. during the 2013-2014 school year and conduct comprehensive evaluations of him following his initial referral for evaluation in Spring 2014. See A.R. at 171- 76.

         After holding a hearing on the matter, the Hearing Officer ruled in favor of Defendant. Crediting the opinion of one of Plaintiff's experts, the Hearing Officer (1) determined that D.M.'s April 2014 special education eligibility evaluation violated the IDEA because it was prepared without conducting a classroom observation or obtaining teacher input and (2) accepted that D.M. suffered from ADHD at the time of his defective evaluation. Id. at 14, 16. Nonetheless, the Hearing Officer concluded D.M. was not denied a FAPE because Plaintiff had not established that D.M.'s ADHD adversely affected his academic performance or that, by reason of his ADHD, D.M. needed special education and related services. Id. at 16. Therefore, the Hearing Officer held, Defendant did not deny D.M. a FAPE for the 2013-2014 school year and compensatory education was unwarranted. Id. at 17.


         A parent dissatisfied with the outcome of a due process hearing concerning a claim under the IDEA may appeal that decision to a federal district court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). The reviewing 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.” 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). Although the court owes some deference to the hearing officer's decision, “a hearing decision without reasoned and specific findings deserves little deference.” Reid ex rel. Reid v. District of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 521 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). When neither party presents additional evidence to the district court, “a motion for summary judgment operates as a motion for judgment based on the evidence comprising the record.” S.S. ex rel. Shank v. Howard Rd. Acad., 585 F.Supp.2d 56, 64 (D.D.C. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). 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).

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A “genuine dispute” of a “material fact” exists when the fact is “capable of affecting the substantive outcome of the litigation” and “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Elzeneiny v. District of Columbia, 125 F.Supp.3d 18, 28 (D.D.C. 2015). On cross-motions for summary judgment, each party carries its own burden to demonstrate that there are no disputed material facts and it is entitled to judgment in its favor. Ehrman v. United States, 429 F.Supp.2d 61, 67 (D.D.C. 2011).


         The IDEA provides a statutory right to “[a] free appropriate public education . . . to all children with disabilities residing in the State between the ages of 3 and 21, inclusive.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). In order to meet this statutory obligation, school officials must identify those students with a disability, “develop a comprehensive strategy, known as an ‘individualized education program, ' or IEP, tailored to the student's unique needs, ” and have the IEP in place at the start of each school year. Leggett v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 59, 63 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)). Attendant regulations set forth the criteria school officials must use when evaluating a child to determine if he or she has a disability. See 34 C.F.R. § 300.305(a).

         Here, no one disputes the Hearing Officer's determination that Defendant violated the IDEA's procedures for determining whether D.M. had a disability during the 2013-2014 school year. The Hearing Officer explained that Defendant's initial evaluation of D.M. fell short of the regulatory mandate because “the only existing data for [D.M.] the Early Stages evaluators reported having reviewed was the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, which contained no classroom observation information or teacher input, ” contrary to the regulation's requirements. A.R. at 14; see 34 C.F.R. § 300.305(a)(ii), (iii). Defendant does not challenge that finding. Def.'s Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. & Cross-Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 12, at 6.

         The only question presented is whether that procedural violation resulted in denial of a FAPE. “[A] procedural violation . . . will constitute a denial of a free appropriate public education only if it results in loss of educational opportunity for the student.” Leggett, 793 F.3d at 67 (alteration adopted) (internal quotation marks omitted). In other words, “a school district's failure to comply with the procedural requirements of IDEA will be ‘actionable' only ‘if those procedural violations affected the student's substantive rights.'” Id. (quoting Lesesne ex rel. B.F. v. District of Columbia, 447 F.3d 828, 834 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (emphasis omitted)). A hearing officer may find a procedural violation caused the denial of a FAPE in three circumstances: the procedural inadequacy “(i) [i]mpeded the child's right to a FAPE; (ii) [s]ignificantly impeded the parent's opportunity to participate in the decision-making process regarding the provision of a FAPE to the parent's child; or (iii) [c]aused a deprivation of educational benefit.” 34 C.F.R. § 300.513(a)(2).

         Here, the Hearing Officer determined that, notwithstanding the procedural violation, D.M. was not denied a FAPE because the record evidence did not establish that D.M. met the definition of a “child with a disability” during the 2013-2014 school year, and, therefore, he was not entitled to a FAPE. The statute defines “child with a disability” as a child (1) who suffers from one or more enumerated impairments, including, as pertinent here, “other health impairments, ” and (2) “who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.” 20 U.S.C. § 1401(3). A child has an “other health impairment” (“OHI”) when he has “limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, ” (1) “due to chronic or acute health problems such as . . . attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ” that (2) “[a]dversely affects [his] educational performance.” 34 C.F.R. § 300.8(c)(9). The Hearing Officer credited Plaintiff's expert's testimony that D.M. had ADHD “as early as the spring of 2014.” A.R. at 16. However, the Hearing Officer found that there was insufficient ...

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