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Susan N. v. Wilson School Dist.

November 20, 1995

SUSAN N.; DAVID N., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PARENTS AND NATURAL GUARDIANS TO M.N. A MINOR, APPELLANTS

v.

WILSON SCHOOL DISTRICT



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 93-4658)

BEFORE: GREENBERG, LEWIS, and ROSENN, Circuit Judges

GREENBERG, Circuit Judge.

Argued October 10, 1995

(Filed: November 20, 1995)

OPINION OF THE COURT

This case arises under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1400-85 (1990). Appellants Susan and David N. brought the case individually, and as parents and natural guardians of their daughter, M., against the Wilson School District, charging that it had not fulfilled its statutory obligations to M. under the IDEA. The hearing officer at the local educational level found in appellants' favor, concluding that M. was both mentally gifted and afflicted with a specific learning disability, and that she thereby was entitled to special education. An appeals panel at the state education agency level reversed the hearing officer's findings. The appellants challenged this decision in a civil action in the district court, which affirmed the decision of the appeals panel on the record of the administrative proceedings without accepting the appellants' proffer of additional evidence. The appellants appeal from the district court's order entered September 27, 1994, in accordance with its opinion.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

A. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The appellants reside in the Wilson School District with M., who is now nine years old. They believe that M. suffers from attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity ("ADHD"), a learning disability manifested in attention problems, hyperactive motor behavior, poor social skills, extensive difficulty in completing tasks, low frustration tolerance, and low self-esteem. Memorandum and Order of the District Court ("Mem."), N. v. Wilson Sch. Dist., No. 93-4658, slip op. at 2 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 26, 1994). M. has been treated with Ritalin, a medication intended to control the symptoms of ADHD. See Mem. at 3 n.6. The appellants believe that M.'s disability may affect her progress in school and that she is entitled to special education from the State of Pennsylvania. Id. at 2.

During the spring of 1992, when M. was in kindergarten, the appellants requested that the school district undertake a multidisciplinary evaluation of her to determine whether she was in need of special education. *fn1 Id. In accordance with the appellants' request, a district multidisciplinary team ("MDT") conducted an evaluation in April 1992 that included two psychological examinations, an interview with M.'s kindergarten teacher, and discussions with appellants. Id. at 2-3. The MDT issued a report on June 2, 1992, concluding that M. was not "exceptional," *fn2 and that she did not require special education. Specifically, the MDT found that M. did exhibit symptoms consistent with ADHD, including processing weaknesses that involved fine motor control, but that she had strong verbal skills and her ability and achievement levels were average or above average. The MDT concluded that M. could be educated in a regular classroom as long as her school program addressed "`her strong verbal skills, her weak motor skills, and her difficulty with impulsivity and inattention and hyperactivity (which often lead to disorganization).'" Id. at 3 (quoting Record at 321a).

On June 9, 1992, an Individual Education Program ("IEP") team met with the appellants to discuss the MDT report. *fn3 Mem. at 4. The IEP team agreed with the MDT's evaluation that M. was not exceptional and not in need of special education. The team concluded that, in spite of her weaknesses, M. could sustain herself in a regular academic curriculum with proper assistance from her parents and teachers. Id. The team then developed a Notice of Recommended Assignment ("NORA"), which consisted of written program "suggestions" to M.'s regular education teachers. Id.

The appellants refused to approve the school district's NORA, which was offered to them on June 18, 1992. Mem. at 5. Instead, they requested a pre-hearing conference and an independent evaluation of M. at the school district's expense. On July 26, 1992, the appellants requested an administrative due process hearing pursuant to the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1415(b)(1)(E). *fn4 Id.

A Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer conducted the due process hearing on September 17 and September 28, 1992. The appellants presented two issues: (1) whether, under Pennsylvania law, M. is a mentally gifted child suffering from a specific learning disability who is entitled to special education services; and (2) whether the appellants were entitled to reimbursement for an independent psychological evaluation of M. Mem. at 5. The appellants argued that despite M.'s achievement of academic success in the regular classroom, she was functioning below her intellectual ability and, therefore, required special education. Id. at 5-6. On October 11, 1992, the hearing officer decided in appellants' favor. Specifically, the hearing officer found that M. both was gifted mentally and afflicted with a specific learning disability, and that she thereby was entitled to special education. Id. at 7.

The school district appealed the hearing officer's decision to the Pennsylvania Special Education Appeals Panel, which reversed the hearing officer's findings on November 28, 1992. Mem. at 7. The appeals panel concluded that: (1) the record did not support the hearing officer's finding that M. was mentally gifted but learning disabled; (2) the hearing officer based his decision on faulty legal assumptions; (3) the opinion of the appellants' expert witness, upon which the hearing officer relied in making his determination, was "rambling and confusing"; and (4) the appellants were not entitled to reimbursement for the expert's "independent evaluation." Id. at 7-8. Shortly after the appeals panel issued its decision, the appellants withdrew M. from public school and placed her in a private school that specializes in educating children with learning disabilities. Id. at 8.

B. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On August 27, 1993, the appellants filed a civil action against the school district in the district court. The appellants alleged violations of: the IDEA; section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. Section(s) 794; the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 12101 et seq.; the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 1983; and the Pennsylvania Public School Code of 1949, Pa. Stat. Ann. tit. 24, Section(s) 1-101 et seq. (1992). Mem. at 8-9. Specifically, they alleged that the school district had failed to evaluate M. adequately and classify her as disabled, and that M. therefore had been denied her right to receive special education. The appellants sought compensatory damages in the form of reimbursement of private school tuition and reimbursement of fees incurred for doctors and psychological evaluations; punitive damages; attorneys' fees and costs; and an order requiring the school district to provide appropriate special education services to M. Id.

On March 16, 1994, the school district filed a "Motion for Disposition Under Section 1415(e) of the Individuals with Disabilities Act," in which it argued: (1) that the court should affirm the decision of the appeals panel based on the administrative record without hearing additional evidence; and (2) that the court should dismiss the appellants' additional statutory claims. *fn5 Mem. at 9. The appellants argued in response that the court should not dismiss their case on the administrative record because they had significant additional evidence to submit that was not available at the time of the administrative hearing, including the testimony of M.'s private school teachers and expert witnesses regarding her disability. *fn6 Id. The appellants also argued that if their IDEA claim was found to be invalid, the court should not dismiss their non-IDEA claims. Id. at 9-10.

The district court held a hearing on June 2, 1994. *fn7 Without further proceedings, the court issued its Memorandum and Order of September 26, 1994, in which it ruled that it would accept no additional evidence. Mem. at 12. Further, with respect to the IDEA claim, the court ruled in favor of the school district on the record of the administrative proceedings and affirmed the order of the appeals panel. Id. at 21. Finally, the district court dismissed all other ...


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