The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Smyser
I. Background and Procedural History
On June 29, 2007, the plaintiffs commenced this action under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 29 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq, by filing a complaint. On July 20, 2007, the defendants filed an answer to the complaint.
The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and, on August 22, 2007, the case was reassigned to the undersigned.
On April 17, 2008, the plaintiffs filed a Motion for Summary Judgment/Judgment on the Administrative Record Together with Limited New Evidence, a statement of undisputed facts and a brief in support of their motion.
Also on April 17, 2008, the defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment and Judgment on the Administrative Record, a statement of uncontested facts and a brief in support of its motion.
On May 5, 2008, the defendant filed a brief in opposition to the plaintiffs' motion and a response to the plaintiffs' statement of undisputed facts.
On April 25, 2008, the plaintiffs filed a brief in opposition to the defendant's motion. The plaintiffs, however, did not file a response to the defendant's statement of uncontested facts as required by Local Rule 56.1. On May 8, 2008, the defendant filed a reply brief in which it argued that pursuant to Local Rule 56.1 the facts set forth in its statement of uncontested facts should be deemed admitted.
On May 14, 2008, the plaintiffs filed a motion to dismiss the defendant's request to deem admitted as true the defendant's statement of uncontested facts. By an order dated May 21, 2008, we denied the plaintiff's motion to dismiss the defendant's request to deem admitted as true the defendant's statement of uncontested facts and we ordered the plaintiffs to file, within ten days, a response in accordance with Local Rule 56.1 to the defendants' statement of uncontested facts. The Order of May 21, 2008 also provided that the defendant may file a supplemental reply brief in support of its motion within ten days after the date the plaintiffs file their response to the defendant's statement of uncontested facts.
On May 29, 2008, the plaintiffs filed a response to the defendant's statement of uncontested facts.
II. Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment is appropriate if the "pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). "The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of any genuine issue of material fact, though the non-moving party must make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of each element of his case on which he will bear the burden of proof at trial." Huang v. BP Amoco Corp., 271 F.3d 560, 564 (3d Cir. 2001); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).
"A factual dispute is material if it bears on an essential element of the plaintiff's claim, and is genuine if a reasonable jury could find in favor of the nonmoving party." Natale v. Camden County Correctional Facility, 318 F.3d 575, 580 (3d Cir. 2003). In determining whether an issue of material fact exists, the court must consider all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. White v. Westinghouse Electric Co., 862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988). "Our function at the summary judgment stage is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. v. Scottsdale Ins. Co., 316 F.3d 431, 443 (3d Cir. 2003).
Congress enacted the IDEA inter alia "to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for employment and independent living." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). The Act defines free appropriate public education (FAPE) as: special education and related services that--(A) have been provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge; (B) meet the standards of the State educational agency; (C) include an appropriate preschool, elementary, or secondary school education in the State involved; and (D) are provided in conformity with the individualized education program required under section 614(d) [20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)].
20 U.S.C. § 1401(8). "The Supreme Court has construed the statute's FAPE mandate to require 'education specially designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child, supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child 'to benefit' from the instruction.'" T.R. v. Kingwood Township Bd. of Educ., 205 F.3d 572, 577 (3d Cir. 2000)(quoting Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 188-89 (1982)). Although the state is not required to maximize the potential of a handicapped child, the education provided must be sufficient to confer some educational benefit upon the handicapped child. Id.
In addition to the FAPE requirement, the IDEA provides that states must establish procedures that assure that to the maximum extent appropriate children with disabilities are educated with children who are not disabled. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5).
An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is the primary vehicle for providing students with the required FAPE. S.H. v. State-Operated School of Dist. of the City of Newark, 336 F.3d 260, 264 (3d Cir. 2003). "The IEP consists of a detailed written statement arrived at by a multi-disciplinary team summarizing the child's abilities, outlining the goals for the child's education and specifying the services the child will receive." Polk v. Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit 16, 853 F.2d 171, 173 (3d Cir. 1988). The IEP must include a number of elements:
It must include a statement of the child's current level of performance, and how her disability affects her performance. Id. at (d)(1)(A)(i)(I). It must set measurable annual goals relating both to progress in the general curriculum and additional educational needs arising from her disability. Id. at (d)(1)(A)(ii). The IEP must detail those special education services and supplementary aids that the school will provide, explain how they will contribute toward meeting the annual goals, how they will allow the child to progress in both the general curriculum and participate in extracurricular activities, and describe how the child will interact with disabled and nondisabled children. Id. at (d)(1)(A)(iii). In measuring the child's progress, the IEP must explain whether standard student assessments will be used. If not, the IEP must explain why Id. not and how the school will assess the child.
S.H., supra, 336 F.3d at 264.
An IEP must offer more than a trivial or de minimis educational benefit. Kingwood Twp., supra, 205 F.3d at 577. "[A] satisfactory IEP must provide 'significant learning' and confer 'meaningful benefit.'" Id. (quoting Polk, supra, 853 F.2d at 182, 184). The educational benefit of the IEP must be gauged in relation to the child's potential. Ridgewood Bd. of Educ. v. N.E., 172 F.3d 238, 247 (3d Cir. 1999). "To fulfill this mandate a district court must 'analyze the type and amount of learning' of which the student is capable." Kingwood Twp., supra, 205 F.3d at 578. "The issue of whether an IEP is appropriate is a question of fact." S.H., supra, 336 F.3d at 271.
The Act imposes numerous procedural safeguards to ensure proper development of the IEP and to protect the rights of parents and guardians to challenge the IEP. See Rowley, supra, 458 U.S. at 205-07.
In actions brought under the IDEA, "the court -- (i) shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; (ii) shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and (iii) basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C).
The court is to apply a modified de novo standard of review. S.H., supra, 336 F.3d at 270. In reviewing the decision of a state agency under the IDEA, the district court must make its own findings by a preponderance of the evidence. Shore Regional High School Bd. of Educ. V. P.S., 381 F.3d 194, 199 (3d Cir. 2004). However, in order to prevent district courts from imposing their own views of preferable educational methods on the states, the court must give "due weight" to the administrative proceedings. Rowley, supra, 458 U.S. at 205-06. "Under this standard, '[f]actual findings from the administrative proceedings are to be considered prima facie correct,' and '[i]f a reviewing court fails to adhere to them, it is obliged to explain why.'" Shore Regional, supra, 381 F.3d at 199 (quoting S.H., supra, 336 F.3d at 271). The court must accept credibility determinations made by the state agency unless the non-testimonial, extrinsic evidence in the record would justify a contrary conclusion. Id. "In this context the word "justify" demands essentially the same standard of review given to a trial court's findings of fact by a federal appellate court." Id. An appellate court reviews the district court's factual findings for clear error.
Id. A finding of fact is clearly erroneous when, after reviewing the evidence, the court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.
"IDEA's grant of equitable authority empowers a court 'to order school authorities to reimburse parents for their expenditures on private special education for a child if the court ultimately determines that such placement, rather than a proposed IEP, is proper under the Act.'" Florence County School Dist. v. Carter, 510 U.S. 7, 12 (1993)(quoting School Comm. of Burlington v. Department of Educ. of Mass., 471 U.S. 359, 369 (1985)). However, parents who unilaterally change their child's placement without the consent of the school district do so at their own financial risk. Id. at 15. "They are entitled to reimbursement only if a federal court concludes both that the public placement violated IDEA and that the private school placement was proper under the Act." Id.
"A private placement is 'proper' if it (1) is 'appropriate,' i.e., it provides 'significant learning' and confers 'meaningful benefit,' and (2) is provided in the least restrictive educational environment." Lauren W. Ex Rel. Jean W. V. Deflaminis, 480 F.3d 259, 276 (3d Cir. 2007)(quoting Ridgewood, supra, 172 F.3d at 248). However, the private school need not meet all the requirements of a FAPE under § 1401(8). Carter, supra, 510 U.S. at 13. As to the least restrictive environment requirement, "when the public school fails to provide an appropriate IEP, tuition reimbursement may be made to students placed in private schools that specialize in educating students with learning disabilities." Warren G. v. Cumberland County School Dist., 190 F.3d 80, 84 (3d Cir. 1999). "The least-restrictive environment requirement does not bar reimbursement because 'the IDEA requires that disabled students be educated in the least restrictive appropriate educational environment.'" Id. (quoting Ridgewood, supra, 172 F.3d at 249). "An appropriate private placement is not disqualified because it is a more restrictive environment than that of the public placement." Id. "[T]he test for the parents' private placement is that it is appropriate, and not that it is perfect." Id.
Finally, equitable considerations are relevant in determining whether to award tuition reimbursement.
Carter, supra, 510 U.S. at 16. "Courts fashioning discretionary equitable relief under IDEA must consider all relevant factors, including the appropriate and reasonable level of reimbursement that should be required." Id.
The burden of proof is on the party seeking relief.