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Richardson v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 19, 2017

JASMIN RICHARDSON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Amit P. Mehta, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Jasmin Richardson 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 Defendant District of Columbia correctly concluded that her minor son, C.S., did not have a qualifying disability in 2015, despite subsequent testing that confirmed C.S. exhibits symptoms consistent with at least one disability recognized under the statute.

         Before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the court grants Defendant's motion.

         I

         C.S., Plaintiff's four-year-old son, began receiving special education services under Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), in 2014 at Early Learning Center, a nonprofit service provider in Washington, D.C. See Admin. Rec., ECF No. 9, Pts. 1-10, ECF Nos. 9-1 through 9-10 [hereinafter A.R.], at 6-7.[1] Part C of the IDEA provides for early intervention services for at-risk infants and toddlers until the age of three. See 20 U.S.C. §§ 1431-1433. The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education determined C.S. was eligible for Part C educational services based upon a Strong Start D.C. Early Intervention Program evaluation conducted in October 2014, as part of which the evaluators administered the Battelle Developmental Inventory, Second Edition (“BDI-2”), and the Assessment, Evaluation and Programming System for Infants and Children, Second Edition; reviewed C.S.'s medical records; and observed C.S. A.R. at 6-7.

         Because C.S. would turn three years old in late 2015 and no longer be eligible for Part C services, he underwent an initial special education evaluation, consisting of multiple parts, in order to determine whether he qualified for services under Part B of the IDEA. Id. at 7, 10; see 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(9). Part B of the IDEA provides special education and related services to children and young adults between the ages of 3 and 21. See 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). In April 2015, C.S. was referred to a school psychologist at Early Stages Center, a D.C. Public Schools assessment center, and he underwent a psychological evaluation in mid-July 2015. A.R. at 7-8. As part of that evaluation, the psychologist reviewed C.S.'s October 2014 Strong Start evaluation; interviewed Plaintiff and Plaintiff's mother (C.S.'s grandmother); tested C.S. using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition, assessment and the Pervasive Development Disorder Behavior Inventory assessment; and, on July 28, 2015, issued a report with his findings. Id. at 7- 8, 55-63. Additionally, an occupational therapist observed C.S. in class in early July and interviewed his teacher. Id. at 9, 68-69. Lastly, a speech-language pathologist evaluated C.S. in July, as well. She observed C.S. in class; interviewed C.S.'s speech-language provider and classroom teacher; reviewed the Early Stages' interview of Plaintiff and Plaintiff's mother; administered an Otoacoustic Emissions test and Preschool Language Scales, Fifth Edition, assessment; and committed her findings to a report issued on July 22, 2015. Id. at 8, 45-54.

         In late July 2015, a Multi-Disciplinary Team (“Defendant's team”) held a meeting, which Plaintiff and Plaintiff's mother attended, and concluded C.S. was not eligible for Part B services because he did not qualify as a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, Speech or Language Impairment, or Developmental Delay. Id. at 8-9. In making that determination, the team reviewed C.S.'s BDI-2 scores from 2014, the July 2015 psychological evaluation by the Early Stages school psychologist, the July 2015 speech-language assessment, and the July 2015 classroom observations by the occupational therapist. Id. at 75-89. As a result of Defendant's team's determination, C.S. stopped receiving speech-language and occupational therapy services in fall 2015 because he had aged-out of eligibility for Part C services. Id. at 7, 10.

         Plaintiff disagreed with Defendant's team's determination and requested that Defendant fund an Independent Educational Evaluation of C.S. Pursuant to Plaintiff's request, Defendant provided funding for psychological and speech evaluations of C.S. in the early part of 2016 to determine whether he qualified as a child with a disability. Id. at 10. First, on February 10, 2016, an independent audiologist performed a speech-language evaluation of C.S. and concluded he “had an expressive language deficit in verbal language communication for which he needed speech-language therapy.” Id. at 11. Next, in mid-February 2016, an independent psychologist observed C.S. in the classroom and administered a variety of cognitive, educational, and behavioral assessments. Id. at 10-11. The independent psychologist determined that C.S. presented with clinical symptoms consistent with Global Development Delay, as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, and Autism Spectrum Disorder, as defined under District of Columbia law. Id. at 11. Lastly, in April 2016, an occupational therapist reviewed C.S.'s records; interviewed his classroom teachers, Plaintiff, and Plaintiff's mother; made clinical observations; and tested C.S. using the Peabody Developmental Motor Scales, Second Edition, assessment. Id. The occupational therapist concluded C.S. “needed support for fine motor delays.” Id. at 12.

         In late April 2016, Defendant's team reconvened and determined C.S. met the eligibility criteria for Developmental Delay and, therefore, was a child with a disability entitled to a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”). Id. Plaintiff subsequently sought a due process hearing to review the team's earlier conclusion that C.S. did not qualify as a child with a disability in July 2015. Id. at 3.

         After holding a hearing on the matter, the Hearing Officer ruled in favor of Defendant. First, the Hearing Officer concluded that Defendant's team's July 2015 evaluation was “comprehensive, ” as required by the IDEA, because it included review of the psychological, speech-language, and occupational therapy assessments that the Early Stages assessment center conducted in July 2015, as well as the BDI-2 assessment completed as part of the Strong Start evaluation from October 2014. Id. at 15. Although Plaintiff's expert, Dr. Keisha Mack, had testified that there were “missing pieces” in the July 2015 psychological evaluation, making it unreliable, the Hearing Officer discounted Dr. Mack's opinion because Dr. Mack also stated she had not reviewed the Strong Start assessment data, on which the July 2015 psychological evaluation relied, and, therefore, could not affirmatively rebut the findings of the July 2015 psychological evaluation. Id. at 15, 423-25. The Hearing Officer also rejected Plaintiff's argument that the July 2015 psychological evaluation was deficient because the Early Stages school psychologist did not conduct any classroom observations of C.S. or interview C.S.'s teachers himself, but instead, relied on the classroom observations and interviews of the speech-language pathologist. Id. at 15-16. Second, the Hearing Officer determined that Defendant's team appropriately concluded C.S. was not a child with a disability in July 2015 because the data presented did not meet the District of Columbia's definition of either “Developmental Delay” or “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Id. at 17-21 (citing 5-E D.C.M.R. § 3001). Specifically, with respect to the possibility of Autism Spectrum Disorder, the Hearing Officer explained that Plaintiff had not proven C.S. qualified as a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder because her expert did not make that conclusion on the record as part of her opinion. Id. at 20. Separately, with respect to the Developmental Delay, the Hearing Officer found Plaintiff had not met her burden of proof because Dr. Mack “could not dispute the conclusions and recommendations of the DCPS Early Stages evaluators [in 2015]” because she had not reviewed the data underlying that assessment. Id. at 21. Consequently, the Hearing Officer determined C.S. was not a child with a disability in July 2015 and, therefore, was not denied a FAPE. Id.

         Plaintiff filed the present action on September 7, 2016, seeking review of the Hearing Officer's determination. See Compl., ECF No. 1. The parties submitted cross-motions for summar y judgment, which are now ripe for the court's review. See Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 10 [hereinafter Pl.'s Mot.]; Def.'s Cross-Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 12.

         II

         A parent dissatisfied with the outcome of a due process hearing concerning an IDEA claim 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).

         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 ...


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