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Steven I. v. Central Bucks School District

February 18, 2009

STEVEN I., MARK I. AND JILL I.
v.
CENTRAL BUCKS SCHOOL DISTRICT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Padova, J.

MEMORANDUM

This action has been brought by Steven I. ("Steven"), a student with learning disabilities, and his parents, Mark I. and Jill I., against the Central Bucks School District (the "School District"). Plaintiffs seek compensatory education from the 1997-98 school year through the present due to the School District's failure to provide Steven with a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq., and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794.*fn1 Plaintiffs have appealed the decision of the Pennsylvania Special Education Appeals Review Panel (the "Appeals Review Panel"), affirming the decision of the Special Education Hearing Officer (the "Hearing Officer"), who denied their claim, finding that the two-year statute of limitations in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (the "IDEIA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(C), limited their claim to the time period beginning on May 1, 2005, and that the School District had lawfully graduated Steven on June 17, 2005. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment with respect to the following issues: (1) whether the two-year statute of limitations applies to Plaintiffs' claim for compensatory education, and (2) whether Steven was lawfully graduated from high school on June 17, 2005. For the reasons that follow, both Motions are granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

Steven was a student in the School District from the beginning of the 1992-93 school year through his graduation on June 17, 2005. (Parents Hr'g Exs. 1, 22.) The School District identified Steven as a student eligible to obtain special education services in 1993, when he was in kindergarten. (Sch. Dist. Hr'g Exs. 69-71.) It therefore gave Steven learning support in study skills, English and reading. (Parents Hr'g Exs. 9, 13, 14, 16; Sch. Dist. Hr'g Exs. 2, 67-71, 79.) Steven graduated from high school based upon course credits and a review of a portfolio of his work. (Sch. Dist. Hr'g Exs. 1-3.)

On May 1, 2007, Mark I. and Jill I. initiated a due process hearing seeking compensatory education for Steven from the 1997-98 school year through the present. (Hr'g Officer Ex. 14 at 1.) In their request for a due process hearing, Steven's parents claimed that Steven had not received FAPE since at least the 1997-98 school year because he: 1) was never comprehensively evaluated by the School District; 2) demonstrated very minimal to no progress in basic reading, reading comprehension, math reasoning and numerical operations between 1997 and 2004; 3) regressed in spelling, written expression, and oral expression between 1997 and 2004; 4) was not evaluated in reading fluency; 5) showed a significant decrease in verbal abilities; 6) was never assessed for visual impairment; and (7) did not make meaningful educational progress under his Individual Education Programs ("IEPs").*fn2 (Hr'g Officer Ex. 14 at 3-5.) Steven's parents also claimed that Steven did not properly graduate from Central Bucks East High School in 2005 because he did not complete all of the requirements for graduation. (Id. at 2.)

Steven's due process hearing took place on June 22, July 25, and July 26, 2007, and the Hearing Officer took testimony and other evidence relating to the propriety of Steven's graduation from high school and the issue of whether Steven's claims were barred by the two-year statute of limitations. (Hr'g Officer Decision at 3, ¶ 5.) Five witnesses testified: (1) the guidance counselor who monitored Steven's credits for graduation; (2) Steven's twelfth grade teacher; (3) Steven's learning support teacher and IEP case manager for tenth through twelfth grades; (4) Jill I.; and (5) Mary Renner, the School District's Supervisor of Special Education. (Id. at 4, ¶ 7; N.T. at 483.) On September 25, 2007, the Hearing Officer issued his decision, concluding that the IDEIA's two-year statute of limitations applied to Steven's claims and that Steven was lawfully graduated from high school on June 17, 2005. (Hr'g Officer Decision at 7, ¶ 44 and 8, ¶¶ 1-10.)

Steven's parents filed exceptions to the Hearing Officer's decision. The Appeals Review Panel affirmed the Hearing Officer's decision, in its entirety, on November 7, 2007. (Appeals Review Panel Decision at 13.) Steven's parents argued to the Appeals Review Panel that Steven was unlawfully graduated because excessive absences prevented him from completing the required hours of instruction; the School District's alternative portfolio review process was an invalid assessment; and Steven had failed to earn sufficient credits from course work to graduate. (Id. at 6.) The Appeals Review Panel found that, although Steven had frequent absences, the majority of those absences were excused (id. at 6-7); Steven's parents had no basis for their argument that he was erroneously given credits for certain course work (id. at 7-8); and equitable considerations prevented a ruling in favor of his parents because:

Neither Parents nor Student initiated any request to continue special education and regular education. Instead, they made abundantly clear that they wanted and expected Student to graduate in June 2005.

Parents attended IEP meetings in which the District described in detail the plans for student's graduation. Furthermore, when the District offered the Student the option to continue, Parents refused the option. The District kept Parents and Student fully informed of the graduation requirements and the likelihood that Student would graduate in June 2005 from the beginning of the school year up to and including graduation day. Student did graduate in June 2005.

District issued timely and sufficient notice and Parents did not state any objection to the graduation. In fact, all Parental behavior prior to the graduation expressed full support for the graduation. (Id. at 8 (footnote omitted).) The Appeals Review Panel also decided that the "Hearing Officer correctly applied the statute of limitations in effect at the time the Parents filed for due process. It is the date of filing that determines the applicable statute of limitations, not the date of the alleged denial of FAPE." (Id. at 8-9.) Noting that Steven's parents filed their due process hearing request on May 1, 2007, the Appeals Panel determined that the two-year statute of limitations limited potential recovery of compensatory education to the period beginning on May 1, 2005. (Id. at 9-10.) Consequently, the Appeals Review Panel concluded that the Hearing Officer had "correctly limited the period of potential recovery to May 1, 2005 until graduation on June 17, 2005." (Id. at 10 (footnote omitted).)

II. LEGAL 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). An issue is "genuine" "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A factual dispute is "material" if it might affect the outcome of the case under governing law. Id. "'Where, as here, cross-motions for summary judgment have been presented, we must consider each party's motion individually. Each side bears the burden of establishing a lack of genuine issues of material fact.'" Neena S. v. Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia, Civ. A. No. 05-5404, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102841, at *17 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 19, 2008) (quoting Reinert v. Giorgio Foods, Inc., 15 F. Supp. 2d 589, 593-94 (E.D. Pa. 1998)).

"In a civil action arising from the administrative adjudication of an IDEA dispute, the district court conducts plenary review of legal conclusions and a 'modified de novo review' of factual findings to provide them 'due weight.'" Tearance D. v. Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia, 570 F. Supp. 2d 739, 743 (E.D. Pa. 2008) (citing S.H, 336 F.3d at 270-71). In order to give "due weight" to the underlying administrative proceedings, the "[f]actual findings from the administrative proceedings are to be considered prima facie correct." S.H., 336 F.3d at 270 (citing MM v. Sch. Dist. of Greenville County, 303 F.3d 523, 531 (4th Cir. 2002)). If we differ from those factual findings, we are obligated to explain our reasoning. Id. (quoting MM, 303 F.3d at 531). Thus, "[a] federal district court reviewing the administrative fact finder in the first instance is . . . required to defer to the [hearing officer's] factual findings unless it can point to contrary non-testimonial extrinsic evidence on the record." Id. (footnote omitted). Where, as here, "the District Court does not hear additional evidence it must find support for any factual conclusions contrary to the [hearing officer's] ...


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