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J.L. v. Ambridge Area School District

April 27, 2009

J.L., A MINOR, BY AND THROUGH HIS PARENTS, J.L. AND C.L. PLAINTIFF,
v.
AMBRIDGE AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nora Barry Fischer United States District Judge

Judge Nora Barry Fischer

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This Court is again tasked with the application of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act ("IDEA") statute of limitations, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(C), and its enumerated exceptions, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(D), to Plaintiffs J.L., and his parents, J.L. and C.L.'s ("Plaintiffs") compensatory education claims under the IDEA against Defendant Ambridge Area School District ("Defendant" or "AASD"). Presently before the Court are proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law submitted by the parties as well as legal briefs ordered by the Court in light of the decision of Tereance D. v. School Dist. of Philadelphia, 570 F.Supp.2d 739 (E.D.Pa. 2008) addressing the issue of whether the IDEA statute of limitations should apply to bar Plaintiffs' claims that J.L. was denied a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE") during the 2001-2002, 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 school years. Upon consideration of the administrative record, the supplemental record (Docket Nos. 62-1, 66 80-1 and 81), as well as the parties' briefs, and for the following reasons, the Court finds that said claims are not barred by the IDEA statute of limitations.

II. BACKGROUND*fn1

On March 3, 2006, Plaintiffs, through counsel, filed notice with the AASD requesting a due process hearing. (Docket No. 14 at 38; Docket No. 5-3). A due process hearing was subsequently conducted over a series of days on May 16, 2006, May 24, 2006 and June 23, 2006. (Docket No. 29 at 4).

At the due process hearing, AASD stipulated, on the record, that it had violated J.L.'s right to a free, appropriate education ("FAPE") for the school years of 2004-2005 and 2005-2006. (Docket No. 14-8 at 6).

[T]he Hearing Officer found that the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act ("IDEA") statute of limitations barred Plaintiffs' claims prior to March 3, 2004. [Docket No. 37-2] at 6-8. In so holding, the Hearing Officer found that the IDEA statute of limitations was applicable because of evidence presented at the hearing that the parents had previously requested due process hearings on three occasions, two of which requests were withdrawn by the parents, and that the parents had been represented by Charles Jelly, Esq. in their dealings with the Defendant AASD since at least 2002. Id. at 7. The Hearing Officer further found that the exceptions to the IDEA statute of limitations did not apply because "[n]o testimony was presented that the district misrepresented that it had not resolved the problem nor was there any evidence presented that the district withheld any information from the parents." Id. As J.L.'s claims for educational services for previous school years were time-barred, the Hearing Officer awarded 990 hours of compensatory education to remedy the violations in both the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 school years for a total of 1980 hours of compensatory education. Id. at 8.

The Plaintiffs set forth several exceptions to the Hearing Officer's decision before the Appeals Panel, including the calculation of the compensatory education award and the application of the IDEA statute of limitations. (Docket No. 14-4 at 36-55, 14-5 at 1-17).

[T]he Appeals Panel upheld the Hearing Officer's determination that the IDEA statute of limitations was applicable and that the parents had not met their burden of proving that the exceptions to the statute had been met. [Docket No. 14] at 41-42. Further, the Appeals Panel reversed the Hearing Officer's order of compensatory damages finding, that in addition to the grant of 1980 hours of compensatory education, J.L. was entitled to: an additional three (3) hours of compensatory education for every day from March 3, 2004 to the end of the 2004-2005 school year; and an additional five and a half (5 1/2) hours of compensatory education for every day from March 3, 2004 to the end of the 2005-2006 school year representing other services that J.L. would have received over that period. Id. at 46-47.

Id. at *2.

Plaintiffs filed their Complaint in this Court on December 13, 2006. (Docket No. 1). Later Plaintiffs amended their Complaint (Docket No. 37) and alleged that they are entitled to the following: (1) a de novo review of the final decisions of the Hearing Officer and Appeals Panel which limited Plaintiffs' relief under the IDEA to two years based on the IDEA statute of limitations;*fn2 (2) attorneys' fees and costs as Plaintiffs are prevailing parties under the IDEA; (3) damages and attorneys' fees and costs for violations of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act; and (4) appropriate relief, including attorneys' fees and costs for violations of J.L.'s and his parents' rights under the IDEA. (Docket No. 37).

In two previous decisions, this Court has addressed the IDEA statute of limitations. This Court granted in part and denied in part Defendant's motion to dismiss in which Defendant argued that Plaintiffs' claims were barred by the IDEA statute of limitations. J.L. v. Ambridge Area Sch. Dist. ("J.L. I"), Civ. A. No. 06-1652, 2008 WL 509230 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 22, 2008). Specifically, this Court denied Defendant's motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' IDEA claims based on the statute of limitations, but found that Plaintiffs were required to re-plead their claims to demonstrate that the exceptions to the IDEA statute of limitations applied, i.e., allegations that Defendant either made certain misrepresentations or omitted mandatory information to Plaintiffs which prevented them from filing a timely due process complaint. Id.

Plaintiffs were also ordered to file a proffer in support of their claim that this Court should accept additional evidence beyond the administrative record. (Docket No. 30). In their proffer, Plaintiffs requested that this Court hear additional testimony related to several issues, including testimony from the Parent Plaintiffs regarding the alleged misrepresentations and omissions of Defendant, arguing that the Supreme Court's decision in Winkelman v. Parma City School Dist., 550 U.S. 516 (2007) supported the introduction of additional evidence on that basis. (Docket Nos. 38, 39). Defendant filed a brief in opposition contending that the submission of additional evidence in these proceedings by Plaintiff was not warranted. (Docket No. 44). After careful consideration of the parties' arguments, this Court issued a Memorandum Opinion, holding that Plaintiffs were permitted to supplement the administrative record with the testimony of the Parent Plaintiffs regarding the application of the IDEA statute of limitations as well as the enumerated exceptions thereto and ordered that an evidentiary hearing be held to permit same. J.L. v. Ambridge Area Sch. Dist. ("J.L. II"), Civ. A. No. 06-1652, 2008 WL 2798306 (W.D.Pa. July 18, 2008).

The evidentiary hearing was held on October 24 and November 18, 2008, during which the Court accepted evidence and heard argument regarding the application of the IDEA statute of limitations to Plaintiffs' claims in this matter. (Docket Nos. 62 and 80). During the hearing, Defendant offered the testimony of Mr. Alan Friedman, its former Supervisor of Special Education and Plaintiffs offered the testimony of J.L.'s father, Mr. L.*fn3 (Docket No. 62-2). The parties were then ordered to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law at the close of the hearing and later ordered to file responses to same, all of which have been submitted to the Court. (Docket Nos. 84, 87, 91 and 92). In addition, the parties have submitted supplemental briefs regarding whether the application of the IDEA statute of limitations to Plaintiffs' claims in this case was impermissibly retroactive in light of recent decisions issued by district judges in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania addressing the issue. (Docket Nos. 59 and 80). Finally, the Court has held in abeyance the deadline for the parties' filing of summary judgment motions regarding the remaining claims in Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint pending the Court's resolution of the present issue. (Docket No. 90).

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

"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.'" Tereance D. v. School Dist. of Philadelphia, 570 F.Supp.2d 739, 743 (E.D.Pa. 2008) (quoting S.H. v. State-Operated Sch. Dist. of City of Newark, 336 F.3d 260, 270-71 (3d Cir.2003)). The amount of deference granted to the administrative proceedings is contingent upon a determination of whether the district court admits additional evidence pursuant to Section 1415(i)(2)(C)(ii) of the IDEA. If additional evidence is not admitted, the district court is "required to defer to the [administrative law judge]'s factual findings unless it can point to contrary non-testimonial extrinsic evidence on the record" and "must explain why it does not accept the [administrative law judge]'s findings of fact to avoid the impression that it is substituting its own notions of sound educational policy for those of the agency it reviews." S.H., 336 F.3d at 270 (citing Susan N., 70 F.3d at 757). If, however, additional evidence is admitted by the district court, it is "free to accept or reject the agency findings depending on whether those findings are supported by the new, expanded record and whether they are consistent with the requirements of the Act." S.H., 336 F.3d at 270 (quoting Oberti v. Board of Education of the Borough of the Clementon School District, 995 F.2d 1204, 1220 (3d Cir.1993)). The Court has accepted additional evidence in this matter (Docket Nos. 62-1, 66 80-1 and 81), but upon further consideration of same and in light of the decisions rendered by district judges in the Eastern District, has determined that the proper focus should be a legal determination of whether the IDEA statute of limitations applies retroactively. Accordingly, with respect to the retroactivity issue, the Court defers to the findings of fact made at the administrative level but conducts a plenary review of the legal conclusions contained in those decisions. S.H., 336 F.3d at 270. However, regarding the statutory exceptions, the Court has considered the evidence submitted by the parties at the additional evidence hearing and will address same below. Id.

IV. DISCUSSION

The Court turns initially to the issue of whether the IDEA statute of limitations applies retroactively to bar Plaintiffs' compensatory education claims for the 2001-2002, 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 school years. Given that a finding that the statute does not apply retroactively would moot the parties' contentions with respect to the application of the exceptions to the statute of limitations to the facts of this case, the Court will first address the retroactivity issue and then briefly address the parties' proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law as to the application of its exceptions.

A. IDEA Statute of Limitations and its Application at the Administrative Level

"In December 2004, Congress adopted the [Individuals with Disabilities in Education Improvement Act], which instituted a two-year statute of limitations for claims for compensatory education, to take effect on July 1, 2005." Mark v. Central Bucks School Dist., Civ. A. No. 08-571, 2009 WL 415767, at *4 (E.D.Pa. Feb 18, 2009)(citing Lawrence Twp. Bd. of Educ. v. New Jersey, 417 F.3d 368, 370 (3d Cir.2005)). Section 1415(f)(3)(C), the IDEA statute of limitations, provides that:

[a] parent or agency shall request an impartial due process hearing within 2 years of the date the parent or agency knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint, or, if the State has an explicit time limitation for requesting such ...


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