Special Education Case Law Update – February 11, 2013

Posted on February 26, 2013

District of Columbia v. J.P., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17263 (D.D.C. Feb. 8, 2013) (identifying issues presented for due process adjudication)

J.P. is a 16-year-old student with evaluated deficiencies in all academic areas, including diagnoses of attention deficient hyperactivity disorder and depression. Pursuant to a previous hearing officer’s determination, J.P. was placed a private school, the Accotink Academy, with funds provided by the District. In June 2011, while J.P. was at Accotink, the District convened a Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) to review and revise J.P.’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). The revised IEP changed J.P.’s placement to a public school.  J.P.’s mother opposed the placement and filed a due process complaint alleging that the district had denied J.P. a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

On the due process complaint, a pre-hearing conference was held to more specifically identify the issues before the hearing officer for adjudication. Two issues were identified: (1) whether the district denied J.P. a FAPE by failing to offer a placement that could meet J.P.’s need for the 2010-11 school year, and (2) that a FAPE was deined by failing to develop an appropriate IEP that included a full description of J.P.’s least restrictive environment. After making several findings of fact, the hearing officer concluded that J.P.’s mother had failed to show that the district had denied a FAPE. However, the hearing officer noted J.P.’s significant emotional problems interferring with J.P.’s  attendance and participation in school, as well as J.P.’s truancy problems, were not addressed in the IEP. The hearing officer, stating that it was evident that J.P. required additional assistance outside of school, ordered the District to revise the IEP to include: weekly family counseling, a service provider to ensure J.P. got out of bed, dressed for school, and ate healthy breakfast. The hearing officer likewise ordered that a service provider accompany J.P. home after school, ensure he ate a healthy snack, assist him with completing homework, make sure he had a healthy dinner, and give J.P.’s mother nutritional counseling, among other things. The district challenged the part of the hearing officer’s order regarding these additions to the IEP in federal court.

The District contends that the court should vacate that portion of the hearing officer’s order requiring the district to revise its IEP to include a service provider to oversee J.P.’s daily routine. According to the District, J.P.’s truancy, attendance, and participation issues were not raised in the administrative complaint nor certified as an issue to be adjudicated at the due process hearing. On the other hand, J.P. asserts that his behavioral and emotional problems were discussed in the due process complaint, that these problems gave rise to his truancy, and that the hearing officer had the authority to provide the relief ordered.

The court held that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the subject matter of a due process hearing is limited to those issues raised in the due process complaint by the party requesting the hearing. After a review of the complaint, the court found that the issue of J.P.’s truancy was not raised, nor was it identified as an issue in the pre-hearing conference which was intended to clarify J.P.’s claims. In so holding, the court examined those parts of the complaint that addressed the issues the court considered properly before the hearing office, which it found were stated with such specificity to demonstrate that the truancy issue was not “implicitly” included in the complaint. In fact, the hearing officer’s decision noted that the parent failed to address the issue in her request for relief or in the evidence presented at the due process hearing. Therefore, the federal court held that the hearing officer’s “injecting” an issue not raised in the complaint was clearly inappropriate. Further, because there was no determination made at the hearing that the district had violated any of J.P.’s rights, the hearing officer had no substantive basis to order that the district increase its services to J.P. Finally, there was no evidence in the record that the hearing officer’s finding of daily supervision would resolve the issues which they were intended to resolve. On these bases, the court vacated that portion of the hearing officer’s order regarding the additional services, and upheld the hearing officer’s determination that J.P. was not denied a FAPE, as that issue was not challenged on appeal to the federal court.

John Doe v. Regional School Unit No. 21, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16700 (D. Ma. Feb. 7, 2013) (disqualification of plaintiff’s counsel)

In this Memorandum Decision, the Regional School Unit No. 21 (District) moves the court to disqualify the student-plaintiff’s counsel and plaintiff’s counsel’s law firm, Murray Plumb, on the grounds that Murray Plumb has an irresolvable conflict of interest in representing plaintiff. For the reasons below, the court denied the District’s motion.

Generally speaking, when one attorney within a firm has a conflict with an opposing party, the entire firm with which that attorney is associated may be disqualified from representing its client in a matter against the opposing party with which a conflict (absent other action). Conflicts typically develop when an attorney has been the receipt in the past of confidential information or legal strategy of a party which may be used against that party in the representation of a new client. Maine, unlike many jurisdictions, does not allow an attorney in this situation to work for a firm opposing the former client under the protections of “screening,” or sequestering, the conflicted attorney from the matter involving the former client.

In this case, attorney Sara Hellstedt worked for the private firm representing the District in this matter, Drummond Woodsum. Ms. Hellstedt worked for Drummond Woodsum in the months leading up to and following the filing of this case, including performing work for the District’s lead attorney in this matter. The court reviewed the professional requirements of attorneys subject to the Maine rules of professional conduct and concluded that it was a “close call” as to whether Hellstedt formed an attorney-client relationship with the District given that the majority of her work was “back office” tasks such as document review of the administrative record. Nevertheless, the court noted that Hellstedt billed more than 140 hours working with the lead attorney on the matter discussing case strategy, performing legal research, and drafting briefs filed with the court in this matter. However, even presuming that Hellstedt had an attorney-client relationship with the District while at Drummond Woodsum, the court noted that the District had to additionally show “actual prejudice” in order to have Ms. Hellstedt disqualified in this matter. Because the District did not argue that it was actually prejudiced – relying instead on an unsuccessful argument that actual prejudice was not required – the motion to disqualify Murray Plumb was denied and that firm was allowed to continue its representation of the student in his case against the District.

Follow sprlawspecialed on Twitter

Comments are closed.