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M.R. and J.R., Parents of Minor Child, E.R v. Ridley School District

August 13, 2012

M.R. AND J.R., PARENTS OF MINOR CHILD, E.R., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
RIDLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANT.



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

Memorandum Opinion

This matter arises under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1401 et seq., and requires us to interpret what is commonly referred to as the stay-put provision of that Act, § 1415(j).

The dispute between the parties initially and primarily involved allegations by Plaintiffs, M.R. and J.R. (hereinafter "Parents"), that Defendant, Ridley School District (hereinafter "Ridley"), had violated the IDEA in failing to timely identify their daughter, E.R., as a child with a disability. Parents also claimed that Ridley had not developed an appropriate individualized education program ("IEP") for E.R. and had engaged in discrimination by failing to comply with E.R.'s § 504 health plan.*fn1 In disagreeing with the Administrative Hearing Officer's conclusions, we resolved the IDEA and § 504 issues in Ridley's favor. Ridley Sch. Dist. v. M.R., 2011 WL 499966 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 14, 2011) (hereinafter "Ridley I"). Parents appealed and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently affirmed this ruling. Ridley Sch. Dist. v. M.R., 680 F.3d 260 (3d Cir. 2012).

Presently before the Court is Parents' claim that Ridley has failed to fund the pendent placement of E.R. pursuant to § 1415(j) of the IDEA. Under thissubsection, Parents seek payment for tuition and transportation costs from April 21, 2009 (the date of the Administrative Hearing Officer's ruling) through the exhaustion of their appeal in Ridley I. This dispute comes before us through cross motions for judgment on the pleadings, and raises the following issues:

- Whether Parents timely raised their request for stay-put compensation; - Whether an unfavorable district court decision on the merits of Parents' underlying IDEA claim precludes stay-put relief; and - If stay-put relief is warranted, whether Parents are entitled to have E.R.'s private school placement funded by Ridley during the pendency of their federal appeal.

For the reasons set forth below, we will grant Parents' motion and deny Ridley's motion.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

E.R. is a special needs student who attended the Ridley School District through first grade (2007-2008). After first grade, having rejected Ridley's recommended placement for the 2008-2009 school year, Parents removed E.R. from Ridley and enrolled her in the Benchmark School (hereinafter, "Benchmark"), a private school that specializes in teaching students with learning disabilities.

On December 4, 2008, Parents filed a due process complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which primarily challenged Ridley's IEP. On April 21, 2009, following a multi-day hearing, the Administrative Hearing Officer ruled, inter alia, that Ridley failed to provide an appropriate educational program for E.R. for the 2008-2009 school year, and was thus required to reimburse Parents for tuition at the Benchmark School for that year. The Hearing Officer also awarded Parents compensatory education for the 2007-2008 school year.

Ridley filed a petition for review in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2), and Parents subsequently removed the action to this Court. Parents properly treated Ridley's petition as a complaint,*fn2 and filed an answer and counterclaims, which alleged that: (1) Ridley had violated the IDEA in failing to provide a free and appropriate education for E.R. in the 2006-2007 academic year; (2) Ridley had violated § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act; (3) Ridley had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act; and (4) Parents were entitled to attorneys' fees and costs on the Hearing Officer's decision and their counterclaims if they prevailed. Parents' responsive pleading did not assert a counterclaim for funding of E.R.'s private school placement under the stay-put provision.

The parties subsequently filed cross motions for judgment on the administrative record. On February 14, 2011, we granted Ridley's motion, denied Parents' motion and entered judgment in favor of Ridley. Ridley Sch. Dist., 2011 WL 499966. On February 15, 2011, Parents filed a notice of appeal to the Third Circuit. As noted above, the Third Circuit affirmed our ruling on May 17, 2012. Ridley Sch. Dist., 680 F.3d at 260.

After filing their appeal, and through correspondence dated March 17, 2011, Parents requested that Ridley provide compensation for E.R.'s placement at the Benchmark School pursuant to § 1415(j) of the IDEA. Ridley responded shortly thereafter, declining Parents' request. Parents subsequently filed the instant lawsuit on March 29, 2011. In their complaint, Parents seek a declaration that Ridley is obligated to reimburse them for E.R.'s tuition and travel to Benchmark from the date of the Hearing Officer's decision through the exhaustion of appeals. The cross motions for judgment on the pleadings currently before the Court were filed on May 4, 2011 and June 10, 2011.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12(c), judgment on the pleadings "will not be granted unless the movant clearly establishes that no material issue of fact remains to be resolved and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Rosenau v. Unifund Corp., 539 F.3d 218, 221 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Jablonski v. Pan Am. World Airways, Inc., 863 F.2d 289, 290 (3d Cir. 1988) (internal quotation marks omitted)). When ruling on a Rule 12(c) motion, the court must view the facts presented in the pleadings and the inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.*fn3 Jablonski, 863 F.2d at 290-91.

III. DISCUSSION

A. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j) - Statutory and Precedential Background The IDEA mandates that children with disabilities have access to "free appropriate public education" ("FAPE"). 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). To provide FAPE, school districts are obligated to design and administer a program of individualized instruction that is set forth in an individualized education program, or IEP. Id. § 1414(d). The IEP must be "'reasonably calculated' to enable the child to receive 'meaningful education benefits' in light of the student's 'intellectual potential.'" Shore Regional High Sch. Bd. of Educ. v. P.S., 381 F.3d 194, 198 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Polk v. Cent. Susquehanna Interm. Unit 16, 853 F.2d 171, 181 (3d Cir. 1988)).

Compliance with the IDEA is monitored by federal review and through procedural safeguards provided to disabled children and their parents. Susquenita Sch. Dist. v. Raelee S., 96 F.3d 78, 82 (3d Cir. 1996). These safeguards are intended to "guarantee parents both an opportunity for meaningful input into all decisions affecting their child's education and the right to seek review of any decisions they think inappropriate." Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311-12 (1988). Procedural safeguards include, but are not limited to: the right to challenge the identification, evaluation or educational placement of a child, or the provision of FAPE by filing a due process complaint; the right to an impartial due process hearing on that complaint; the right to bring an action seeking state or federal judicial review of the administrative decision; and the right of the child to remain in his or her current educational placement during the pendency of such proceedings. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6), (f), (i)(2), (j).

The pendent placement safeguard-or stay-put provision-currently at issue provides, in relevant part, that: "during the pendency of any proceedings conducted pursuant to this section, unless the State or local educational agency and the parents otherwise agree, the child shall remain in the then-current educational placement of the child . . . until all such proceedings have been completed." Id. § 1415(j). The United States Supreme Court has described this language as "unequivocal," in that it plainly states that "the child shall remain in the then current educational placement." Honig, 484 U.S. at 323 (internal quotation marks omitted). The provision functions, in essence, as an automatic preliminary injunction. Drinker v. Colonial Sch. Dist., 78 F.3d 859, 864 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing Zvi D. v. Ambach, 694 F.2d 904, 906 (2d Cir. 1982)). "Once a court ascertains the student's current educational placement, the movants are entitled to an order without satisfaction of the usual prerequisites to injunctive relief." Id.

In determining what constitutes the student's current placement, courts generally look to the operative placement actually functioning at the time the dispute arose-that is, the placement indicated in the IEP. Id. at 867. However, where, as here, parents have removed their child from a placement and a hearing officer agrees that the change of placement is appropriate, that change of placement "must be treated as an agreement between the State and the parents" for purposes of the stay-put provision.*fn4 34 C.F.R. § 300.518(d); see also Raelee S., 96 F.3d at 84, 86 (finding that special appeals panel's ruling in favor of parents must be treated as an agreement of the state and noting that "[w]hile parents who reject a proposed IEP bear the initial expenses of a unilateral placement, the school district's financial responsibility should begin when there is an administrative or judicial decision vindicating the parents' position."). Although § 1415(j) does not address which party bears the cost of maintaining the pendent placement, the Third Circuit has held that the provision "requires a school district to pay for a private pendent placement at least through the date of a district court's final order in an IDEA case." J.E. ex rel. J.E. v. Boyertown Area Sch. Dist., 2011 WL 5838479, at *3 (3d Cir. Nov. 21, 2011) (citing Drinker, 78 F.3d at 867 (internal quotation marks omitted)).

The Third Circuit has alsonoted that the stay-put provision "represents Congress' policy choice that 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." Drinker, 78 F.3d at 864. Importantly, the purpose of the provision is to prevent disruption of the child's education by preserving the status quo during disputes about the child's placement, L.Y. ex rel. J.Y. v. Bayonne Bd. of Educ., 384 Fed. Appx. 58, 62 (3d Cir. 2010); Ringwood Bd. of Educ. v. K.H.J., 469 F. Supp. 2d 267, 270 (D.N.J. 2006) (citing N. Kitsap Sch. Dist. v. K.W., 123 P.3d 469, 482 (Wash. Ct. App. 2005)), and to "strip schools of the unilateral authority they had traditionally employed to exclude disabled students, particularly emotionally disturbed students, from school." Honig, 484 U.S. at 323. Parents cannot "lose their stay put protection except by affirmative agreement to give it up." Drinker, 78 F.3d at 868 (in addressing whether parents had waived their stay-put right, the court stated that it found no cases that have interpreted the stay-put provision as being waiveable except by parents' explicit agreement).

B. The Parties' Respective Positions

Parents argue that the Hearing Officer's April 21, 2009 decision in their favor established the Benchmark School as E.R.'s pendent placement, which, by operation of law, triggered Ridley's stay-put obligations. Parents contend that Ridley is thus liable for the cost of E.R.'s tuition and transportation from the date of the Hearing Officer's decision through the ...


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