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Smith v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 28, 2018




         Plaintiff LaShawn Smith brings this action on behalf of her son A.J. to challenge various decisions by District of Columbia Public Schools (“DCPS”) regarding A.J.'s education. Smith first asserts that DCPS failed to provide her son with a free and appropriate public education in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. She also contends that DCPS violated both the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (“DCHRA”), D.C. Code § 2-1401.01 et seq., for failing to offer A.J. Advanced Placement classes outside of the general education setting. Both parties moved for summary judgment. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson, having been referred the case, issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) dismissing Smith's IDEA claim for failure to exhaust and declining to address Smith's remaining claims.

         For the reasons that follow, the Court will REJECT the Magistrate Judge's R&R, Dkt. 17. The Court will, instead, GRANT in part and DENY in part Smith's motion for summary judgment, Dkt. 10, and the District of Columbia's cross-motion for summary judgment, Dkt. 12. In particular, the Court will grant the District of Columbia summary judgment on Smith's claims under the ADA and the DCHRA. With respect to Smith's IDEA claim, the Court will remand the matter to the Hearing Officer for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Statutory Background

         The IDEA was enacted to “ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education” (“FAPE”) that includes “special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs.” 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). To that end, the IDEA provides procedural protections for disabled students, confers a substantive right to a FAPE, and sets forth dispute resolution procedures in case a disabled student's parents and his school disagree on the assistance that IDEA requires the school to provide.

         Once a child has been “identified as disabled, ” his school “must convene a meeting of a multidisciplinary team to develop” an Individualized Education Program, or “IEP.” Z.B. by & through Sanchez v. District of Columbia, 92 F.Supp.3d 300, 302 (D.D.C. 2018). The IEP is “the centerpiece of the statute's education delivery system for disabled children, ” Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311 (1988), and must be “tailored to [the] disabled child's needs, ” Alston v. District of Columbia, 439 F.Supp.2d 86, 90 (D.D.C. 2006) (“Alston I”).

         An IEP provides “a comprehensive statement of the educational needs of a handicapped child, ” Leonard v. McKenzie, 869 F.2d 1558, 1560 n.1 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (quoting Sch. Comm. of the Burlington v. Dept. of Educ., 471 U.S. 359, 368 (1985)), as well as “the specially designed instruction and services that will enable the child to meet [his educational] objectives, ” Honig, 484 U.S. at 311. An IEP “sets out, in writing, the student's existing levels of academic and functional performance, establishes appropriate goals, and describes how the student's progress toward those goals will be measured.” Z.B. v. District of Columbia, 888 F.3d 515, 519 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(I)-(III)). In addition, the IEP must describe “the special education and related services . . . to be provided to the child . . . to advance appropriately toward attaining the annual goals.” 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(I)-(IV). Special education consists of “specially designed instruction . . . to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, ” 20 U.S.C. § 1401(29), while related services are those support services that are “required to assist [the] child . . . to benefit from” that instruction, 20 U.S.C. § 1401(26)(A). Once an IEP is in place, the child's school system must comply with its terms. See 20 U.S.C. § 1401(9)(D).

         In addition to these procedural protections, the IDEA guarantees disabled children a substantive right to a FAPE. See Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 201-04 (1982). A child has received a FAPE if his “IEP sets out an educational program that is ‘reasonably calculated to enable [him] to receive educational benefits.'” Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist. RE-1, 137 S.Ct. 988, 996-97 (2017) (quoting Rowley, 458 U.S. at 207). The Supreme Court recently clarified the “standard [for] evaluat[ing] the adequacy of the education provided” by a school system: “To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances.” Endrew F., 137 S.Ct. at 998-99. “To the maximum extent appropriate, ” the school must educate the child in the “[l]east restrictive environment, ” or, in other words, “with children who are not disabled.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5)(A).

         Finally, “[w]hen disagreement arises” over “what a child's IEP should contain, ” the IDEA permits the child's parent or parents to request a “due process hearing” before a state or local educational agency. Endrew F., 137 S.Ct. at 994 (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(A), (g)). The losing party may seek judicial review of the administrative determination in state or federal court. Id. (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A)).

         B. Factual Background

         A.J. is “bright, ” “learns quickly, ” and “perform[s] at or above grade level, ” AR 8 (Hearing Officer's decision), but he has an emotional disturbance that “leads to frequent emotional dysregulation” and behavioral issues, AR 6. In school, he has “frequent conflict[s] with peers and teachers, with physical altercations [occurring] 2-3 times per week.” Id. A.J.'s emotional disturbance also interferes with his education. When his “emotions are d[y]sregulated, ” he is “unavailable for learning;” when he “has to be removed from the classroom . . . to de-escalate following an altercation, ” he cannot “access[] the general education curriculum.” AR 26. A.J., however, “can do his work when he chooses to, ” AR 9, and has “had fewer behavioral challenges in the classes that he [finds] rigorous, ” AR 8. A.J. has also had “infractions in hallways, the cafeteria, and the gym, ” and “there is no question [these conflicts were due to] his academic content boring him.” Id.

         In the fall of 2015, at the beginning of A.J.'s freshman year of high school, DCPS assigned A.J. to the Columbia Heights Education Campus. Dkt. 1 at 3 (Compl. ¶ 9). The IEP then in effect, which was developed at the end of the previous academic year in March 2015, “indicated that ‘[A.J.] requires a self-contained environment in order to succeed academically and behaviorally.'” AR 154-55. The March 2015 IEP also provided for 26.5 hours per week of specialized instruction outside the general education setting. AR 154.

         A.J. was initially placed in the Specific Learning Support (“SLS”) program, AR 8, a “self-contained special education classroom setting, ” AR 155, that is “designed for students with learning disabilities, ” Dkt. 10-2 at 2 (Pl.'s SUMF ¶ 3). A.J., however, does not have a learning disability. Id. (Pl.'s SUMF ¶ 3). A.J.'s IEP team met on October 8, 2015, and the resulting IEP carried forth the two provisions from the March 2015 IEP: the need for a “self-contained environment” and 26.5 hours per week of specialized instruction. See AR 28-29; see also AR 242 (Hrg. Tr. 8:8-18). At the meeting, A.J. indicated that he wished to participate in general education classes, but the IEP team concluded “that he was not ready due to his behavior.” AR 155.

         Toward the end of October 2015, A.J. began “having fights with another student, ” AR 8, and was subsequently moved from the SLS program to the Behavior and Education Support (“BES”) program, id.; AR 155. The BES program provides full-time instruction “outside the general education setting with supports for students with emotional disabilities.” AR 88 (due process complaint). The SLS and BES programs were led by “the same special education teachers, ” and A.J.'s instructional “content remained the same, ” except, in the BES program, A.J. “had a behavior technician to work with him.” AR 8. The other six students in the BES program were a year ahead of A.J. Id. As a result, A.J. was given “9th grade work while his [BES classmates] were given 10th grade instruction.” AR 88. A.J. received “personalized attention, ” and his work could “easily be adjusted and made more challenging for him.” AR 8.

         In November 2015, Plaintiff LaShawn Smith, A.J.'s mother, requested that A.J. be evaluated for placement in general education Advanced Placement (“AP”) courses. See AR 8; AR 89. DCPS informed her that an evaluation was not required to take those classes but that “educational programming decisions were made by the IEP team.” AR 89. Smith was also informed that “the hours on [A.J.'s] IEP would have to be reduced for him to attend AP classes.” AR 8. Smith “did not agree to forfeit” the hours, and so A.J. “did not receive any form of advanced curriculum.” Dkt. 10-2 at 2 (Pl.'s SUMF ¶ 9).

         On February 4, 2016, Smith filed a due process complaint against DCPS with the District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent of Education (“OSSE”). See AR 86-92. The complaint asserted that A.J.'s initial placement in the SLS program was inappropriate and therefore amounted to a denial of a FAPE in violation of the IDEA. Smith argued that the placement was inappropriate because the SLS program was “designed to accommodate students with specific learning disabilities, ” and A.J. has an emotional disturbance, not a learning disability. AR 87-88. The complaint also asserted that DCPS, “[i]n an attempt to remedy [its] initial placement error, ” compounded its mistake by “remov[ing] A.J. from an age-appropriate classroom” through the SLS program and placing him in the BES program, where his peers were a year ahead of him. AR 91. Because of this discrepancy, Smith argued, A.J.'s placement in the BES program was also inappropriate and violated the IDEA. AR 90. Finally, Smith maintained that DCPS violated the ADA by failing to provide AP classes outside the general education setting. AR 90-91.

         The Hearing Officer issued his decision on April 2, 2016. See AR 3-17 (Hearing Officer Determination). He dismissed Smith's ADA claim without prejudice on the grounds that he “lack[ed] subject matter jurisdiction.” AR 199 (citing 34 C.F.R. 300.507(a)(1)); see also AR 5 n.4. Next, he concluded that A.J.'s placement in the SLS and BES programs were “sufficient to implement [the] IEP and provide a FAPE.” AR 12. Finally, the Hearing Officer concluded that DCPS's failure to enroll A.J. in AP classes did not deny A.J. a FAPE. AR 13.

         C. Procedural History

         Smith filed this action on A.J.'s behalf in June 2016. Dkt. 1. The complaint asserts that DCPS denied A.J. a FAPE in violation of the IDEA “[b]y initially placing A.J. in a SLS classroom” and “[b]y moving A.J. out of an age-appropriate classroom” and into a BES classroom with students a year ahead of him. Id. at 5 (Compl. ¶¶ 27-28). In addition, Smith contends that DCPS's failure to offer AP classes outside the general education setting violated both the ADA and the DCHRA. Id. at 6-7 (Compl. ¶¶ 32-33, 38). Smith asks that the Court (1) reverse the Hearing Officer's determination and remand the matter to the Hearing Officer “for an appropriate determination of compensatory education;” (2) declare that DCPS violated the IDEA, ADA, and DCHRA; and (3) award compensatory and punitive damages of $50, 000. Id. at 7-8 (Compl. Prayer).

         The case was referred to a magistrate judge for full case management, Dkt. 4, and both parties moved for summary judgment, Dkt. 10; Dkt. 12. On March 20, 2018, the Magistrate Judge filed her R&R, Dkt. 17, and, subsequently, both parties filed objections to the R&R, Dkt. 21; Dkt. 23.

         II. ...

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