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Jones v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 11, 2019

ANISSA JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Royce C. Lamberth, United States District Judge.

         Anissa Jones sues under the Individuals with Disabilities Act. 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1482 (IDEA), to challenge her minor son D.M.'s individualized education program (IEP) for the 2015-2016 school year. After a local education hearing officer determined the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) provided D.M. with the requisite free appropriate public education (FAPE), Jones appealed to this Court.

         The Court referred the matter to Magistrate Judge Meriweather, who considered the six issues Jones raised, affirming the hearing officer on five of them. But the hearing officer never considered the sixth: whether the 2015-2016 IEP's failure to account for all hours during the school week or to describe D.M.'s least restrictive possible educational environment[1] violated the IDEA by limiting Jones's ability to help develop her son's IEP. Judge Meriweather decided that it did, but since the violation did not actually affect D.M.'s education, it only entitled Jones to declaratory relief.

         Jones objects, arguing the deficient IEP affected D.M.'s education by permitting instruction from non-special-education-certified teachers. So she wants a compensatory education plan to make up for any instruction by non-special-education-eertified teachers. But this relief would not remedy the IDEA violation Judge Meriweather found. And in any event, instruction by non-special-education-certified teachers does not render D.M.'s 2015-2016 IEP deficient. Accordingly, the Court adopts Judge Meriweather s Report & Recommendation in full.

         I. Background

         A. Jones's Prior IDEA Action

         This suit concerns D.M.'s 2015-2016 IEP. But that IEP actually resulted from an earlier action challenging D.M.'s 2014-2015 IEP. The earlier action ended with a hearing officer ordering DCPS to draft a new IEP for the 2015-2016 school year requiring that "[a]ll of [D.M.]'s academic instruction shall be specialized instruction provided in the outside of general setting," and that "[a] 11 of [D.M.'s] instruction shall be provided in a small classroom (i.e., not to exceed 12 students), with a low ratio of students to adults (i.e.. not to exceed six students per adult)." R. 201-02, ECF No. 9.

         Jones brought this action because DCPS failed to comply. Though DCPS follows a 32.5-hour school week, D.M.'s 2015-2016 IEP guaranteed only 21.5 weekly hours of special education. See R. 231. But despite this oversight, the 2015-2016 IEP functionally complied with the original order since D.M. spent the entire school week in a small, self-contained classroom designated for behavioral and educational support. See R. 15, 992. Regardless, Jones brought this IDEA action alleging DCPS denied D.M. a FAPE by failing to formally heed the original order.

         B. Proceedings Below

         This time around, the hearing officer agreed the 2015-2016 IEP formally "contravened" the original order. R. 15-16. Yet he concluded DCPS did not functionally deny D.M. a FAPE since it "actually offered all of his academic instruction .. . outside of [a] general education setting." Id.

         Judge Meriweather affirmed. But she reached further to find two new IDEA violations the officer did not consider: First, she decided the 2015-2016 IEP's failure to account for every school hour "negatively impacted [Jones]'s ability to participate in the decision making process regarding the environment in which [her son] would be educated." R. & R. 27, ECF No. 17. Second, she concluded the 2015-2016 IEP's "failure to address [D.M.'s] LRE also significantly impeded [Jones]'s participation in the development of the IEP." Id. 28. According to Judge Meriweather, "both deficiencies constitute[d] substantive violations of the IDEA" that denied D.M. a FAPE. Id. DCPS does not object to that conclusion.

         But Judge Meriweather admitted this was "an unusual situation because the denial of a FAPE did not affect the educational services that D.M. received." Id. at 48. Since "[t]he denial of a FAPE arises [only] from the infringement of [Jones] 's ability to participate in the process of determining the setting in which D.M. would be educated," there was "no lost educational benefit to redress." Id., So she declined Jones's request for compensatory education, awarding only declaratory relief. Id.

         II. Jones's Objection to Judge Meriweather's Report & Recommendation

         Jones objects to Judge Meriweather's decision to award only declaratory relief, claiming the IEP's failure to account for every school hour and for D.M.'s LRE did affect his educational services and thus entitle him to equitable relief. She argues even though DCPS provided D.M.'s education in a specialized setting. DCPS did not provide D.M. with full-time special education since non-special-education-certified teachers ...


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