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R.B v. Mastery Charter School

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA


January 11, 2011

R.B., A MINOR, BY AND THROUGH HER PARENT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MASTERY CHARTER SCHOOL,
AND DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rufe,j.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This matter comes before the Court upon Defendant Mastery Charter School's Motion for Stay of Order Pending Appeal of this Court's December 29, 2010 Memorandum Opinion and Order to the Third Circuit.*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

The facts of this case were discussed in detail in this Court's December 29, 2010 Opinion and need not be repeated here.

On December 29, 2010, this Court issued an Opinion and Order granting R.B.'s Motion for an IDEA Stay-Put Injunction, based on its finding that Mastery Charter School, Pickett Campus ("Mastery"), changed R.B.'s educational placement by unilaterally disenrolling her on June 19, 2009.*fn2 For the reasons set forth in that opinion, this Court ordered the immediate reinstatement of R.B. at Mastery.*fn3 On December 30, 2010, Mastery appealed that judgment to the Third Circuit,*fn4 and now seeks a stay of the judgment order pending the Third Circuit's disposition of its appeal.*fn5

After careful consideration of the Defendant's Motion, Plaintiff's Opposition thereto, and for the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion is denied.

II. DISCUSSION

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 62(c) provides that "[w]hile an appeal is pending from an interlocutory order or final judgment that grants, dissolves, or denies an injunction, the court may suspend, modify, restore, or grant an injunction on . . . terms that secure the opposing party's rights." This type of injunctive relief is considered an "extraordinary remedy" which courts should only grant in "limited circumstances."*fn6 It is well settled that a party seeking the stay must show: (1) it will likely prevail on the merits of the appeal, (2) it will suffer irreparable injury if the stay is denied, (3) other parties will not be substantially harmed by the stay, and (4) the public interest will be served by granting the stay.*fn7 Although at least one court has held that this analysis is not required if the stay-put provision applies,*fn8 in the interest of conducting a comprehensive review, the Court will consider each factor in turn.

A. ANALYSIS

1. LIKELIHOOD OF SUCCESS ON THE MERITS OF THE APPEAL

Here, Defendants contend that they have a strong likelihood of success on the merits by reiterating legal arguments this Court has already considered-and rejected-in its December 29, 2010 opinion. Namely, Mastery argues that it did not unilaterally change R.B.'s educational placement because its actions complied with state law, and a change in school is not a per se change in educational placement. These are the issues are at the heart of this Court's ruling, which rejected Mastery's arguments as unpersuasive. Although Mastery has enunciated a legitimate appellate issue, and may ultimately prevail, a "colorable issue . . . is not what is required for a stay pending appeal."*fn9 Instead, the party arguing for a stay must demonstrate a "substantial likelihood of success."*fn10 Mastery's memorandum in support of its motion points this court to no intervening case law-or to any case law, for that matter, that alters this Court's view of the legal questions in this case.*fn11

2. IRREPARABLE INJURY TO MASTERY

Mastery argues that it will be irreparably injured if this stay is denied because "significant harm is imposed by requiring Mastery Charter School to hold open spaces for a student being withheld because of IEP disputes," and because re-enrolling R.B. will force Mastery to violate the age range restrictions set forth under Pennsylvania law pursuant to 22 Pa. Code § 14.146. Neither argument is persuasive. As to the former, Mastery does not explain why or how "hold[ing] open spaces for students being withheld because of IEP disputes" will cause irreparable harm. It neither explains the number of students currently being withheld because of such disputes, nor does it offer any evidence of any type of financial or programmatic harm.

The latter argument is similarly deficient. Under both federal and state law, Mastery is required to deliver a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE") to its special education students until graduation or age twenty-one. A charter school's responsibility to children with disabilities is codified in 24 Pa. Code §§ 711, et seq. Section 711.3 mandates that "[c]harter schools . . . assume the duty to ensure that a FAPE is available to a child with a disability in compliance with IDEA and its implementing regulations," and incorporates by reference 34 CFR §300.101, which requires a FAPE be "available to all children . . . between the age of 3 and 21, inclusive, including children with disabilities who have been suspended or expelled from school," and 34 C.F.R. § 300.102, which excuses a state's obligation to provide FAPE to students aged eighteen to twenty-one to the extent that "its application to those children would be inconsistent with State law or practice," unless a student between those ages has previously been identified as a child with a disability.*fn12 Since R.B. has already been identified as a student with a disability, Mastery's claim that "R.B.'s forced entry into the school would require the school to violate the age-range restrictions set forth in the School Code" falls short of consideration. Mastery appears to realize the weakness in its argument, as it omitted relevant and critical exceptions to the Pennsylvania statute it relies on.*fn13 Although 22 Pa. Code § 14.146, states that "[a] student with disability may not be placed in a class in which the chronological age from the youngest to the oldest student exceeds these limits," as Mastery noted, the statute concludes that age limits do not apply if " an exception is determined to be appropriate by the IEP team of that student and is justified in the IEP."

3. INJURY TO PLAINTIFFS FROM A STAY

In its Motion, Mastery argues that R.B. will be harmed if the stay is granted. Mastery claims that the "programming as [sic] Mastery Pickett has significantly changed," and consequently, is no longer is the "best possible environment for R.B,"*fn14 and that Germantown High School will provide a more suitable environment to R.B. In response, Plaintiff persuasively argues that simply identifying an alternative-and potentially superior-placement does not show irreparable harm to either the LEA or the student.*fn15

Mastery's argument is not compelling; Mastery's only duty to R.B. under the I.D.E.A., is to provide an "appropriate education,"*fn16 and it has not argued that is unable to do so. "An appropriate education does not mean the absolute best or 'potential maximizing' education available."*fn17

As this Court has stressed, the language of §1415(j) is unequivocal, and mandates that "the child shall remain in the then-current educational placement."*fn18 Therefore, "all handicapped children, regardless of whether their case is meritorious or not, are to remain in their current educational placement until the dispute with regard to their placement is ultimately resolved."*fn19

Whether or not that educational placement is an imperfect fit is irrelevant to the inquiry; the only tasks before the court on a §1415(j) stay-put motion are to identify if a change in educational placement occurred, and if so, to then determine the child's then-current educational placement. Neither case law nor the statute require any assessment of whether the child's then-current educational placement is the optimal program to meet the student's educational needs. The sole purpose of § 1415(j) is to protect the child during the pendency of proceedings.

The Court finds, however, that any harm that may result from re-enrollment at Mastery is vastly outweighed by the risk that R.B. will remain out of school for even one day more. As Mastery itself observes, in R.B.'s two-year-long absence, her speech, reading, and math levels have likely regressed.*fn20 It is difficult for this Court to understand how R.B.'s continued exclusion from Mastery will arrest the regression in R.B.'s academic and functional skills. Delay in implementing this Court's order will only result in further injury to R.B. Mastery has failed to show that the less-then-optimal environment it will provide R.B. will be more damaging then R.B.'s current exclusion from her educational placement.*fn21

4. PUBLIC INTEREST

Finally, Mastery nonsensically argues that because the public interest "categorically favors school attendance," this Court should grant a motion which would continue to exclude R.B. from attending Mastery. Mastery seems to assert that granting the stay will force parent to enroll R.B. in Germantown High School, her suggested placement if she re-enters the Philadelphia School District. This argument is plainly illogical. The Court agrees with Mastery that "[i]t is of utmost importance that R.B. receives educational programming," but finds that the best-and only-way to achieve that goal is to deny Mastery's motion for stay of order pending appeal. This Court's December 29, 2010 order represents a judicial recognition that R.B. has a statutorily vested right to remain in her current-educational placement during the pendency of proceedings-regardless of whether her LEA is a charter school or a public school. At base, Mastery argues that the "public interest" is served when a Parent is forced to abandoned their child's statutorily mandated educational rights. For obvious reasons, this Court rejects that argument.

III.CONCLUSION

Having carefully considered all the contentions of Mastery, Plaintiff's Opposition, and for the foregoing reasons, Mastery's Motion for Stay of Order Pending Appeal is hereby DENIED. The Court notes that the fact that the underlying judgment is on appeal does not deprive this Court of its normal contempt powers, and advises the Parties that the Court will respond swiftly to any violation of the underlying Order.*fn22 "The federal rules contemplate that, absent a stay, a victorious plaintiff may execute on the judgment even while an appeal of that judgment is pending."*fn23


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