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J.T. v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 20, 2018

J.T., Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Beryl A. Howell Chief Judge

         The plaintiff, J.T., has an elementary-school-age son, V.T., with special education needs, who has not been attending any school during the 2018-19 school year, which is almost half over.[1] Understandably, J.T. has been pushing for an appropriate solution. To that end, J.T. filed, in October 2018, an administrative due process complaint alleging two violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. The administrative hearing was scheduled for November 19, 2018, but a week before, on November 12, 2018, J.T. instituted the instant civil action, seeking immediate injunctive and declaratory relief in the form of a directive that the defendant produce certain records, to which the Hearing Officer and the District of Columbia Public Schools (“DCPS”) had denied plaintiff access for use in the administrative proceeding. Compl. ¶¶ 12-14, ECF No. 1; Mot. for Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction (“Pl.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 3. According to the plaintiff, absent an order “to provide access to all records” regarding V.T., Compl. ¶ 14, J.T. would be denied “her due process rights under the IDEA and prevent[ed] [] from fully litigating her due process complaint under the IDEA, ” id. ¶15.

         Neither the instant civil action nor the requested injunctive relief, however, relates to either of the violations alleged in the due process complaint at issue in the ongoing administrative proceedings. Rather, J.T. has invoked this Court's jurisdiction to resolve what amounts to a discovery dispute in the administrative proceeding. By initiating this action, and filing the pending motion, J.T. has prematurely jumped to Court. While the IDEA authorizes civil actions, such actions must follow exhaustion of administrative remedies. J.T. did not exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing this action. Thus, the motion for injunctive relief is denied and J.T. is ordered to show cause why her complaint should not be dismissed without prejudice for failure to exhaust.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Finding an educational home for V.T. has been difficult. For the 2018-19 school year, DCPS took until September 17, 2018 to identify a school placement, Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 1, Due Process Compl. at 2, ECF No. 3-1, allegedly without consulting J.T. or her husband, id. V.T. has not been attending the school identified by DCPS because, according to J.T., “it is not an appropriate placement.” Id. DCPS has not offered a new placement. Id.

         Consequently, on October 12, 2018, J.T. filed an administrative due process complaint alleging that DCPS is not providing V.T. with a free appropriate public education and had failed to include her in the decision about V.T.'s school placement, each in violation of the IDEA. Due Process Compl. at 1. As noted, a hearing on that due process complaint was scheduled for November 19, 2018. Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 2, Prehearing Order at 2, ECF No. 3-2.

         In preparation for the hearing, J.T.'s counsel requested from DCPS “copies of or access to all of V.T.'s education records.” Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 3, Oct. 30 Email, ECF No. 3-3. Subsequently, on November 5, 2018, the administrative Hearing Officer held a prehearing conference and instructed the parties to disclose witnesses and exhibits to be relied upon at the upcoming hearing. Prehearing Order at 6. Two days later, a DCPS “monitoring specialist” informed J.T.'s counsel that records were available for collection, Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 4, Nov. 7 Email, ECF No. 3-4, but, upon review, J.T.'s counsel advised DCPS that the production was inadequate because “no records more than six months old” had been produced, nor had DCPS produced “internal communications, ” Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 5, Nov. 8 Email, ECF No. 3-5. J.T.'s counsel alerted the Hearing Officer of the same perceived deficiencies. Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 7, Nov. 9 Email Thread at 4, ECF No. 3-7.

         Over the next several days, J.T.'s counsel, DCPS, and the Hearing Officer exchanged emails about the nature of the alleged discovery shortcomings, potential supplementary productions, J.T.'s counsel's view of DCPS's disclosure obligation, and how to proceed with the administrative hearing. Id. at 1-3; Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 8, Nov. 9 Email, ECF No. 3-8; Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 9, Nov. 12 Email Thread, ECF No. 3-9.

         In the end, the Hearing Officer informed the parties that he did “not expect to grant or agree to a continuance, unless both sides request it.” Nov. 12 Email Thread at 1. The Hearing Officer was inclined, however, to grant a motion to amend the due process complaint to “add the issue of educational records.” Id. at 2. Instead of accepting the Hearing Officer's offer, J.T.'s counsel responded that he intended to “continu[e] forward with my federal complaint, which is almost ready for filing, and my [preliminary injunction] Motion to obtain the records.” Id. at 1.

         On November 12, 2018, J.T., on behalf of V.T., filed this federal action against the District of Columbia alleging that DCPS violated the IDEA by failing to permit J.T.'s access to records, as the statute mandates. See Compl. at ¶ 1, ECF No. 1. Then, DCPS made a second, allegedly inadequate record production, see Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 10, Nov. 13 Email Thread at 1-2, ECF No. 3-10, and declined to take a position on the requested stay of the administrative proceeding pending resolution of the document production dispute, see Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 12, Nov. 12 Email, ECF No. 3-12.

         In her pending motion for temporary injunctive relief, J.T. asserts that DCPS violated 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(1) by failing to produce “all records related to” V.T and asks the Court to both stay the administrative hearing and order DCPS to provide J.T. all requested records. Pl.'s Mot. at 2. DCPS responded, inter alia, that DCPS “has already produced all relevant documents related to V.T., ” Def.'s Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. (“Def.'s Opp'n”) at 1, ECF No. 7, and that the email communications sought by the plaintiff “are not otherwise kept on file for V.T. as part of his ‘educational records, '” id. at 2.

         On November 16, 2018, at this Court's hearing on J.T.'s motion, J.T.'s counsel agreed to limit the records request to internal DCPS emails related to V.T., emails between DCPS and V.T.'s former school related to V.T., and emails between DCPS and the Office of State Superintended of Education related to V.T., for the period of 2016 to the present. Rough Transcript of Hearing (Nov. 16, 2018) at 26:22-31:1.[2] Later the same day, DCPS submitted a status report containing a catalog of the contents of the educational records maintained for V.T., as required under 34 C.F.R. § 300.616, Def.'s Status Report, Ex. 1, Education Record List, ECF No. 8-1, and requested the opportunity “to present the factual and legal issues to the hearing officer” so that “any subsequent ruling from the Court will be on a full administrative record, ” id. at 1. The defendant further expressed its willingness “to cooperate with Plaintiff in requesting the hearing officer consider the issue.”[3] Id. Despite the change in DCPS's litigating posture, J.T. withheld consent to DCPS's proposal. Pl.'s Status Report at 1, ECF No. 9. The administrative hearing then began on November 19. See Joint Status Report at 1, ECF No. 10. In accordance with the Court's order for the parties to file a joint report, by November 20, about the status of access-to-records issues in the administrative proceeding, see Min. Order (dated Nov. 17, 2018), the parties timely filed a report informing the Court that the parties are engaged in proceedings before the Hearing Officer to resolve the access-to-records questions. Joint Status Report at 1-2. J.T.'s motion for injunctive relief is now ripe for review.

         II. DISCUSSION

         V.T. needs to be in an appropriate school and DCPS has a statutory obligation to provide him with a “free appropriate public education.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1). Yet, the IDEA also creates a clear order of operations: Alleged violations go first to administrative proceedings, see 20 U.S.C. ยง 1415(f)(1); ...


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