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Mary Courtney T. v. School District of Philadelphia

July 31, 2009


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania District Court No. 2-06-cv-02278 District Judge: The Honorable Anita B. Brody.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Smith, Circuit Judge


Argued April 14, 2009

Before: MCKEE, SMITH, Circuit Judges and STEARNS, District Judge.*fn1


In this case concerning the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, appellant School District of Philadelphia ("School District") appeals a District Court order requiring it to reimburse Mary Courtney T. ("Courtney") and her parents (collectively, "Plaintiffs") for the cost of Courtney's placement in a residential health care facility from October 12, 2005 to January 26, 2006. Plaintiffs cross-appeal the District Court's denial of reimbursement for placement at the same facility from May 23, 2005 to October 12, 2005, and they seek compensatory education in the event that we deny their request for reimbursement. For the reasons that follow, we will affirm in part and reverse in part.



Courtney and her parents live in the School District. Courtney, who is now 22 years old, suffers from learning disabilities, speech and language impairments, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other mental health disorders. Because of her educational needs, the School District paid for Courtney to attend private schools beginning in 1993 when Courtney entered kindergarten.

Since 2001, Courtney's evolving needs have required a variety of educational and medical placements. In the fall of 2001, she was briefly hospitalized as a result of escalating behavioral problems including self-injury. Then, after she was diagnosed during a 2002 evaluation with a variety of educational and emotional special needs, Courtney's parents unilaterally placed her at the Rancho Valmora School ("Rancho Valmora"), a residential educational institution in New Mexico that specializes in the treatment of adolescents with educational, emotional, and behavioral problems. Courtney did well at the school, and she was discharged and returned to Philadelphia in June 2003. She was then placed at the Pathway School ("APS") for the 2003-2004 academic year. Courtney appeared to flourish, becoming valedictorian of her class at the end of the year. But by the beginning of the following school year, her emotional condition began to deteriorate and APS could no longer serve her needs. In December 2004, Courtney's parents placed her back at Rancho Valmora.

Courtney's condition continued to worsen in 2005. Rancho Valmora's educational plan from February of that year notes psychotic events, severe anger problems, the abuse of chemical substances, and self-harming behaviors. At the end of April, Rancho Valmora informed Courtney's parents that it could no longer provide sufficient care for Courtney because of her self-abusive and aggressive behaviors. Courtney's parents then placed her for a short period at the Menninger Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Houston, Texas. The Clinic discharged Courtney on May 22, 2005 because it was unable to serve her needs. The following day, Courtney's parents enrolled her in Supervised LifeStyles ("SLS").

SLS is a long-term psychiatric residential treatment center in New York. It is licensed by the New York State Office of Mental Health and is accredited with a national organization for the accreditation of rehabilitation facilities. It does not have any educational accreditation. It also has no on-site school, special education teachers, or school affiliation.

For more than six months at SLS, Courtney was treated in the acute care wing. She received twenty-four hour care provided on a one-to-one, staff to patient ratio. Courtney did not receive educational services during this period; most of her days were spent in intensive individual and group psychotherapy. The School District sought to conduct a neuropsychological evaluation in June 2005, but was unable to do so because Courtney's parents advised that she was not sufficiently stable at the time. Also, according to the School District, Courtney's parents stated that her educational plan from Rancho Valmora could not be implemented at SLS because of Courtney's emotional state. In fact, nearly every person to have evaluated Courtney appears to agree that her safety and emotional well-being were the predominate concerns for at least the first five months she was at SLS.

On October 12, 2005, Courtney's parents informed the School District that she could be evaluated. An evaluation, which the School District arranged to be conducted on October 17, 2005, noted Courtney's limited academic capacity at the time and recommended focusing her instruction on adaptive and vocational skills. Thereafter, on November 16, 2005, the School District assembled Courtney's educational team and developed an educational plan based on the evaluation. The plan provided for three hours per week of one-to-one tutoring in language arts, reading, and math; this instruction had a vocational and remedial focus as demonstrated, for instance, by Courtney's English instruction, which focused on vocabulary development and required her to give an oral presentation to improve her communication skills.

On December 6, 2005, Courtney was transferred from the acute care ward at SLS to the post-acute ward. Courtney received treatment at SLS from May 23, 2006 until her discharge on July 29, 2006.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") requires that a state receiving federal education funding provide a "free appropriate public education" ("FAPE") to disabled children. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1). School districts provide a FAPE by designing and administering a program of individualized instruction that is set forth in an Individualized Education Plan ("IEP"). 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d). The IEP "must be 'reasonably calculated' to enable the child to receive 'meaningful educational benefits' in light of the student's 'intellectual potential.'" Shore Reg'l High Sch. Bd. of Ed. v. P.S., 381 F.3d 194, 198 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Polk v. Cent. Susquehanna Intermediate Unit 16, 853 F.2d 171, 182--85 (3d Cir. 1988)).

A parent who believes that a school has failed to provide a FAPE may request a hearing, commonly known as a due process hearing, to seek relief from the school district for its failure to provide a FAPE. 34 C.F.R. § 300.507. In Pennsylvania, the hearing is conducted by a Hearing Officer. Carlisle Area Sch. v. Scott P., 62 F.3d 520, 527 (3d Cir. 1995). If challenged, the Hearing Officer's decision is then subject to an independent review of that decision by an appellate body, which is referred to as the Appeals Panel.*fn2 Id. Upon the completion of the Pennsylvania administrative process, a party may appeal the Appeals Panel decision to federal district court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e); Carlisle Area Sch., 62 F.3d at 527.

In November 2005, Plaintiffs requested a due process hearing pursuant to 34 C.F.R. § 300.507 and sought to compel the School District to (1) reimburse Plaintiffs for the cost of Courtney's stay at Rancho Valmora, from December 2004 to April 2005, and SLS from May 2005 up to the date of the hearing; (2) provide compensatory education for the period May 23, 2005 up to the date of the hearing, in the event that tuition reimbursement was denied; and (3) pay for an independent evaluation of Courtney. A hearing was conducted in January 2006. The School District agreed to reimburse Plaintiffs for Courtney's stay at Rancho Valmora, but opposed reimbursement for the SLS placement on the ground that a medical crisis precipitated Courtney's stay there.

The Hearing Officer faulted the School District for failing to develop an IEP in June 2005 and for not providing educational services beginning in May 2005 when Courtney entered SLS. He rejected arguments that Courtney's expenses at SLS were medical as opposed to educational, concluding that her educational needs were not severable from her medical needs. The Hearing Officer also determined that SLS was an appropriate placement. Accordingly, he awarded tuition reimbursement for Courtney's stay at SLS from May 2005 through January 2006.

The Appeals Panel reversed the decision of the Hearing Officer. The Panel noted the acute nature of Courtney's condition when she was admitted to SLS and concluded that Courtney's "admission to the New York facility was prompted by a psychiatric crisis, was necessary for medical reasons rather than educational purposes, and that the services provided to [Courtney] during the first four months there were medical rather than educational in nature." In such circumstances, it deemed it inappropriate to award tuition reimbursement for Courtney's stay at SLS.

Courtney appealed this decision to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In its analysis, the District Court separated Courtney's treatment into two distinct time periods-the first period covered Courtney's stay in SLS's acute care ward from May 23, 2005 to October 12, 2005, and the second period covered from October 12, 2005, when Courtney's parents informed the School District that she could be evaluated, until January 26, 2006, the date through which the Hearing Officer awarded tuition reimbursement.

For the first period, the District Court concluded that Courtney was not entitled to tuition reimbursement because SLS "did not constitute 'special education' within the meaning of the IDEA." It noted that Courtney's "SLS placement did not contain any appreciable academic component." Further, to the degree that Courtney's program included some behavioral and emotional strategies that could aid her education, the Court concluded that this treatment was aimed at stabilizing her medical condition and not at enabling academic instruction.

With regard to the second period, the District Court awarded tuition reimbursement. It stated that, once the School District began providing educational services to Courtney, it also had an obligation to provide related services. In that regard, the Court determined that Courtney's treatment at SLS was a related service. It also concluded that the costs of SLS were not excluded by the "medical services" exception to federal regulations requiring the provision of related services.

Finally, the District Court denied the Plaintiffs' request for compensatory education for May 2005 through October 2005 in lieu of tuition reimbursement. The Court held that the School District developed Courtney's IEP within a reasonable period of time. It reasoned that Courtney's parents did not consent to an evaluation until October 12, 2005, the School District conducted that ...

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