Special Education Case Law Update – Week of November 5, 2012

Posted on November 15, 2012

F.K. v. Department of Education, State of Hawaii, et. al;, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 159616 (D. Haw. Nov. 7, 2012)

 This opinion is founded in a Motion to Dismiss claims brought in a Third Party Complaint filed by the Department of Education (DOE) against Loveland Academy.  Loveland Academy is a private academy providing special education services to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. eligible students.   After being sued by Plaintiff F.K., the DOE brought its Third Party Complaint against Loveland alleging that is was Loveland’s fault that suit was brought against DOE and asserting claims for: (1) declaratory relief finding a violation of state law and the IDEA with regard to oversight of private academies serving special education needs; (2) declaratory relief finding violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA); (3) negligence; (4) civil conspiracy; and (5) attorneys’ fees and costs.

With regard to oversight of private academies pursuant to the IDEA, the claim was dismissed because the statutory language asserted by the DOE, 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10)(B), placed requirements on the DOE to ensure fulfillment of state standards, not Loveland Academy.  The state law claim was for declaratory relief pursuant to H.R.S sec. 302A-443(f), which required any private school receiving state funding for special needs students to allow DOE access to monitor such placements.  The Court dismissed this declaratory relief claim because it comprised a portion of DOE’s negligence claim, and judgment on the requested relief would not entirely dispose of the negligence claims against Loveland.

On the FERPA claim, the Court noted that FERPA allowed Loveland to release records to the DOE but did not require Loveland to do so.  The Court found that the FERPA claim was thus not appropriate for declaratory relief because this claim, like the IDEA claim, it was duplicative of allegations comprising DOE’s negligence claim.  The Court held that DOE stated a claim for negligence, mainly that Loveland had failed to conform to statutory standards and caused DOE to terminate payments to Loveland, which in turned caused F.K.’s suit against DOE.  Critically, the Court noted that DOE’s damages may include DOE’s attorneys’ fees and costs due to Loveland’s actions.  Citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), the Court dismissed DOE’s claim for civil conspiracy as having plead no facts in support.
Dep’t of Education, State of Hawaii v. Patrick P., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 158469 (D. Haw. Nov. 5, 2012)

In a primarily procedural case determining the application of the Twombly/Iqbal line of case law to pleadings in special education matters, the Court rejected a student’s motion to dismiss a Complaint filed by the state Department of Education (DOE).   Up until approximately his high school year, the student received special education and related services due to diagnoses of dyslexia, dysgraphia, and ADHD.  Beginning with his freshman year, the student’s IEP team determined that he was no longer eligible for those services.  During the student’s 12th grade year, due to a private psychologist’s evaluation, Patrick P.’s parents requested that the DOE reevaluate the student’s eligibility.  The DOE determined that the student was not eligible for special services.  After request for an impartial hearing, a Hearing Officer determined that the student was eligible for special education services.

 The DOE then filed its Complaint seeking review and reversal of the hearing officer’s decision asserting reliance by the Hearing Officer on on speculative evidence.   The Complaint did not identify the allegedly speculative evidence.  The student moved to dismiss, pursuant to Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) on grounds that the Complaint lacked sufficient factual statements with regard to what speculative evidence the Complaint intended to reference.  The Court denied the Motion to Dismiss, noting that the Complaint was more in the nature of a notice of appeal.  The Court found that Complaint sufficient to alert the student as to DOE’s position regarding the Hearing Officer’s decision and that the student would have adequate opportunity to respond to specific factual allegations at the filing of DOE’s opening brief.

District of Columbia v. Laura Vinyard and William Vinyard, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 157135 (D.D.C. Nov. 2, 2012)

Student G.V. attended a private school at the time District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) convened an IEP meeting and developed an Individualized Education Plan  (IEP) for G.V.  G.V.’s parents rejected the IEP offer which was conditioned on G.V. enrolling in a DCPS school, and maintained G.V.’s enrollment in private school.  Afterwards, G.V. moved to another private school, Lab School, and parents requested DCPS pay for G.V. to attend Lab School.  DCPS denied the request.  After new evaluations were conducted on G.V. and were presented to DCPS, DCPS again offered G.V. the previous IEP proposal if G.V. enrolled in a DCPS school.  Parents again rejected this offer.  Parents then filed a due process complaint asserting that the IEP offered was not appropriate in that it provided only 6 hours per week of specialized education, rather than a full-time program.  Parents sought reimbursement for tuition costs in placing G.V. at the first private school, and costs for his prospective placement at Lab School.  The Hearing Officer found that DCPS had denied G.V. a free appropriate public education by developing an inappropriate IEP.  Additionally, the Hearing Officer ordered that G.V. continue at the Lab School pursuant to the stay-put provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., and that DCPS continue to fund this program.  The IDEA’s stay-put provisions require an educational agency to maintain a special needs child in his “current educational placement” throughout the administrative and judicial proceedings following an appeal from a due process hearing.

After DCPS filed this action to appeal the Hearing Officer’s decision, and refused to fund G.V.’s placement at Lab School, parents filed a motion to maintain G.V.’s  placement.  The Court determined that Lab School was G.V.’s current placement pursuant to the IDEA because of  the Hearing Officer’s unequivocal decision regarding that placement.   In such cases, the IDEA’s stay-put provision creates a presumption in favor of G.V.’s continuing in his current placement.  DCPS was unable to overcome this presumption under a traditional four-part preliminary injunction test.  Primarily, DCPS argued that it would suffer irreparable harm if it later prevailed on its appeal and became unable to recover the payments required for G.V. to stay-put at Lab School.  The Court rejected this argument, holding that the asserted irreparable harm was at odds with the express stay-put remedy afforded G.V. under IDEA.  The Court additionally rejected DCPS’s argument that parents be required to post a bond for those payments DCPS was required to make pursuant to the stay-put placement.

The Court, however, granted DCPS’s cross-motion to stay the Hearing Officer’s determination as to reimbursing G.V. parents for past tuition costs.  The Court noted several other opinions holding IDEA does not permit school districts to recover money already paid to parents.  Accordingly, DCPS would be irreparably harmed if it were required to reimburse past tuition during the pendency of its appeal because DCPS would be unable to recover these funds if it were it to prevail on appeal.

Lauren G. v. West Chester Area School District, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 158711 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 6, 2012)

Lauren G. and her parents brought this action alleging that the school district failed to provide Lauren a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  Parents filed a due process Complaint, and a decision was issued by a Hearing Officer on the Complaint.  Parents and the school district object to portions of the decision in this case.

In February 2008, Lauren G.  enrolled in the school district partway through her tenth grade year.  Through the spring, Lauren struggled with attendance, handling her classes, and was diagnosed  with depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder, among other diagnoses.  In March 2008, her parents communicated these diagnoses to the school guidance counselor and Lauren self-reported to the guidance counselor she was seeing a psychiatrist.  In April 2008, her parents requested a § 504 Accommodation Plan.  Later in April, the school district issued a Denial of Eligibility letter, stating that Lauren did not meet the criteria for a § 504 plan.

Lauren’s problems escalated at the start of her junior year and she entered an outpatient care program.  In November 2008, the school district sent a Permission To Evaluate –Evaluation Consent  Form (PTE) to evaluate the effect of Lauren’s mood disorder .  Parents, however, did not respond to the PTE because in the interim Lauren had begun attending King George, a therapeutic, residential school approximately nine hours from the school district.  In April 2009, parents filed a due process complaint seeking an independent education evaluation.   However because of Lauren’s location at King George, the evaluation was not conducted until July 2009.  By all accounts, Lauren was extremely successful at King George, at graduated from King George in August 2009.  Parents persisted in their efforts to get the school district to recognize Lauren as having needed a § 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for purposes of tuition reimbursement for her time at King George.  Failing to reach resolution with the school district, parents filed a formal due process Complaint on March 11, 2011.

Due to the two-year statute of limitations on IDEA and § 504 claims, the Court  limited the parents’ potential recovery from March 11, 2009 (date two years prior to filing of formal due process complaint) to August 15, 2009 (Lauren’s graduation from King George).    Nevertheless, the Court concluded that the school district incorrectly denied Lauren’s eligibility for a § 504 Plan because by Spring 2008 – due to Lauren’s self-reporting of seeing a psychiatrist, parents informing the school district of the outpatient treatment, and parents informing the school district of Lauren’s diagnoses – the school district was reasonably expected to know about Lauren’s disabilities.  Further, the Court found Lauren entitled to special education benefits under the IDEA because her emotional disturbances directly and negatively impacted her educational performance.

The IDEA entitles Parents  to tuition reimbursement for a child’s placement in private school if (1) the school district failed to offer the student FAPE; (2) the private placement is appropriate; and (3) equitable considerations favor reimbursement.  The Court additionally found parents entitled to tuition reimbursement for § 504 violation on these same factors. 

On the facts in this case, The Court found that the school district violated the “child find” obligations § 504 when it failed to identify Lauren as a Protected Handicapped Student in Spring 2008 and had denied Lauren a FAPE since that time.  With regard to the IDEA, Lauren was not denied a FAPE until July 2009 because Parents did not make Lauren available for evaluation, due to her attendance at King George, until July 2009.  On the second factor, the placement at King George was deemed appropriate because it conferred a significant learning and meaningful benefit on Lauren.  Specifically, Lauren made immense strides in her academic and emotional life and the Court noted the remarkable improvement  when compared with her time in the school district.  Finally, the Court found that parents’ multi-year efforts to settle their disputes with the school district, even at the expense of becoming barred by the statute of limitations for some of the expenses they hope to be reimbursed, weighed strongly in favor of awarding parents  full tuition reimbursement  pursuant to § 504 for the period allowable under the statute of limitations.  However, the Court held the equity did not favor the parents under the IDEA because of parents’ delay in making Lauren available for evaluation in the summer of 2009.  In conclusion the Court awarded the parents reimbursement under § 504 from March 11, 2009 through Lauren’s graduation on August 15, 2009.

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