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Gl v. Ligonier Valley School District Authority

United States District Court, Third Circuit

December 30, 2013

G.L., and MR. G.L. & MRS. E.L., in their own right, Plaintiffs,
v.
LIGONIER VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT AUTHORITY, Defendant.

OPINION

MARK R. HORNAK, District Judge.

This is an action brought by G.L. and his parents, Mr. G.L. and Mrs. E.L. ("Plaintiffs"), in their own right, seeking review of the administrative decision of a Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer ("Hearing Officer") that a portion of Plaintiffs' claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1419, were time-barred by the relevant statute of limitations.[1] Plaintiffs also seek money damages and attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ("Section 504"), 29 U.S.C. § 794, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12131-12165, from the Defendant, Ligonier Valley School District Authority ("The District"), on the basis of the Hearing Officer's determination that the District discriminated against Plaintiffs by failing to provide them with G.L.'s academic records and retaliated against Plaintiffs after they complained about the discrimination.

Before the Court are two Motions - one filed by the District to dismiss a number of Plaintiffs' claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim, and the other filed by Plaintiffs seeking reversal of the Hearing Officer's decision as to the timeliness of the asserted claims in order to allow Plaintiffs to proffer additional evidence as to their claims. The Court has considered the parties' moving, opposition, and reply papers, has had the benefit of oral argument, and for the reasons that follow, will deny both motions and remand the case to the Hearing Officer. The Court will also include in its Order the certification of the matter for permission to seek interlocutory review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) as to the interpretation and application of Sections 1415(f)(3)(C) and 1415(b)(6)(B) of IDEA.

I. BACKGROUND AND FACTS

According to the Complaint, G.L. began attending school in the District in the 2008-09 school year when he enrolled in the District High School for 9th grade. CP ¶ 30. On October 14, 2009, after Mr. G.L. and Mrs. ("the parents") requested that G.L. be evaluated for special education purposes, the District issued an Evaluation Report District finding that G.L. had a specific learning disability. Id. at ¶¶ 49, 63, 66. Pursuant to that finding, the District drafted a proposed Individualized Education Plan ("IEP")[2] for G.L. by November 3, 2009. Id. at ¶ 69. The parents found the proposed IEP inadequate, and they contend that the District continually failed to address G.L.'s special needs with a satisfactory IEP. Id. at 70, 72, 78-80. On November 24, 2009, the parents filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Bureau of Special Education ("PDE")[3], alleging that the District had failed in its duty to evaluate G.L. for special education services during the 2008-09 school year. Id. at ¶ 72. G.L. stopped attending the District High School after January 15, 2010. Id. at ¶ 83.

Plaintiffs filed for a special education due process hearing pursuant to IDEA on January 9, 2012.[4] Id. at ¶¶ 2, 122. Specifically, they alleged that the District had denied G.L. a free appropriate public education ("FAPE")[5], a right guaranteed to special needs children by IDEA[6] and Section 504[7], as the result of inappropriate IEPs and the District's failure to prevent G.L. from being harassed by other students. ECF No. 1-6, at 2. Plaintiffs also claimed that they suffered unlawful discrimination when the District repeatedly failed to provide them with G.L.' s comprehensive academic records upon request, and that the District unlawfully retaliated against them for pursuing protections for students with disabilities guaranteed by IDEA and Section 504 by challenging their residence within the District. Id.

In a preliminary ruling on March 23, 2012, the Hearing Officer barred Plaintiffs from asserting claims of alleged IDEA violations prior to January 9, 2010 (the date two years prior to the date of the due process hearing request). ECF No. 1-2, at 11. The Hearing Officer concluded that two separate sections of IDEA, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(b)(6)(B) and 1415(f)(3)(C), as well as their corresponding implementing federal regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 300.507(a)(2) and 34 C.F.R. § 300.511(e), limited the scope of Plaintiffs' IDEA claims to claims for relief as to matters occurring within two years of the date they filed their due process hearing request. Id. at 7-11. The Hearing Officer's determination therefore restricted Plaintiffs' viable claims to those arising during the three months before G.L. withdrew from the District High School on March 9, 2010. Id. at 11.

In his October 9, 2012 merits decision, the Hearing Officer concluded that Plaintiffs had not met their burden of showing that the District denied G.L. a FAPE under IDEA and Section 504 and awarded no compensatory education. ECF No. 1-6, at 11-13. However, the Hearing Officer also found that under Section 504, the District discriminated against Plaintiffs by failing to provide them with comprehensive school records and retaliated against Plaintiffs for seeking a special needs evaluation of G.L. by challenging the family's residency in the District. Id. at 13-18.

Plaintiffs filed their Complaint in this Court on January 7, 2013, requesting review of the Hearing Officer's determination on the IDEA statute of limitations, seeking authority for the submission of additional evidence as to their IDEA claims[8], and monetary damages on the basis of the Hearing Officer's conclusion that the District had violated Section 504. ECF No.1 at 2-3. The District filed a Partial Motion to Dismiss the Complaint on March 11, 2013, seeking to dismiss Plaintiffs' request for review of the Hearing Officer's ruling on the IDEA statute of limitations and their related request for submission of additional evidence on their IDEA claims, and their claims under Section 504 and Title II of the ADA, along with a Brief in Support of its Motion. ECF Nos. 9, 10. Plaintiffs filed a Reply on May 24, 2013, ECF No. 12, and two Supplemental Memoranda in Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss on July 26, 2013. ECF Nos. 25, 26. Plaintiffs also filed a Motion for the Proffer of Additional Evidence on May 24, 2013, ECF No. 15, to which the District filed a Response on June 7, 2013. ECF No. 18. Oral argument was held on August 6, 2013. Finally, on August 26, 2013, both parties filed copious supplemental authority regarding the District's Partial Motion to Dismiss. ECF Nos. 38-52.

II. DISCUSSION

The primary issue before the Court involves the interplay between 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(f)(3)(C) and 1415(b)(6)(B). Section 1415(f)(3)(C)[9] states:

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 a hearing under this subchapter, in such time as the State law allows.

Section 1415(b)(6)(B)[10], on the other hand, provides:

The procedures required by this section shall include the following... (6) An opportunity for any party to present a complaint-... (B) which sets forth an alleged violation that occurred not more than 2 years before the date the parent or public 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 presenting such a complaint under this subchapter, in such time as the State law allows, except that ...

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