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T.E. v. Cumberland Valley School District

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 7, 2014

T.E., et al., Plaintiffs
v.
CUMBERLAND VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

WILLIAM W. CALDWELL, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Before the Court are motions for judgment on the administrative record filed by Plaintiffs, T.E., a minor, by and through her parent (Doc. 22), and Defendant, Cumberland Valley School District (Doc. 24). This is an appeal from the decision of a Due Process Hearing Officer ("Hearing Officer, " or "Officer"), brought pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act ("IDEA"). See 20 U.S.C. § 1401 et seq. The due process hearings were held on October 31, 2012, December 7, 2012, and December 18, 2012. On January 22, 2013, the Hearing Officer issued an opinion in the Defendant's favor. On March 11, 2013, Plaintiffs filed this appeal, seeking to reverse the Hearing Officer's decision. Pursuant to the IDEA, we have jurisdiction over this appeal "without regard to the amount in controversy." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(A). For the reasons that follow, we find for the Defendant and will deny Plaintiffs' appeal.

II. Background

T.E. is a sixteen-year-old student residing in Cumberland Valley School District who has severe dyslexia. (Doc. 1-1 at 3). While T.E.'s verbal comprehension tests in the average range, she has a poor auditory short term memory, making it difficult for her to process words and sentences before she forgets what she has learned. (Doc. 22, ¶ 2; Doc. 27 at 4). T.E. attended Cumberland Valley schools until seventh grade. (Doc. 1-1 at 3). During that time, T.E. received special education in the form of an Individualized Education Plan ("IEP"). In November 2010, during her seventh grade year, T.E.'s parents withdrew her from the district and enrolled her in the Jemicy School, a private school in Maryland that specializes in educating students with language-based reading disabilities. (Doc. 1-1 at 3). T.E. attended the Jemicy School for the remainder of her seventh grade year. T.E.'s parents filed a due process complaint seeking reimbursement from the school district for the tuition and transportation costs for the 2010-2011 school year. (Doc. 1-1 at 3). The parties resolved the complaint through a settlement agreement. Under the terms of this agreement, the District agreed to reimburse T.E.'s parents for the 2010-2011 school year, and to fund T.E.'s placement at Jemicy through 2011-2012. (Doc. 1-1 at 3). The parties also agreed to participate in a re-evaluation in the spring of 2012, at which time the District would issue a new IEP for T.E. (Doc. 1-1 at 4).

In April 2012, the District issued an IEP identifying the following needs relating to T.E.'s disability: "basic reading skills, fluency, writing mechanics, spelling, application of synthesis of language concepts learned in reading and spelling, and memory strategies." (Doc. 1-1 at 4). The IEP set goals for T.E.'s "written expression, reading fluency, reading comprehension, decoding multi-syllabic words, and encoding multi-syllabic words." (Doc. 1-1 at 5). The IEP "calls for one period per day of direct instruction in a multisensory approach to reading instruction with continuing instruction in vocabulary, decoding, and encoding skills. This instruction will be rooted in the Wilson model and will take place outside of the regular education setting." (Doc. 1-1 at 5). Additionally, the IEP provides for one period per day of English writing instruction to take place outside the regular education setting, as well as access to several educational resources such as "a word processing program, graphic organizers/writing models/peer & teacher editing, memory aides, prompting, preview and review of novel academic material, preview and review of content area vocabulary, transition survey, and an extra set of texts for highlighting." (Doc. 1-1 at 5).

T.E.'s parents rejected the IEP, and T.E. returned to Jemicy for the 2012-2013 school year. (Doc. 1-1 at 6). In August 2012, T.E.'s parents filed a second due process complaint, seeking a ruling that the IEP was inappropriate and reimbursement for the costs of sending T.E. to Jemicy. (See Doc. 9-6). As indicated, a due process hearing was conducted over three days. In January 2013, the Hearing Officer issued a decision in the school district's favor. (Doc. 1-1). This appeal followed. Neither party has requested to supplement the record. Both parties now move for judgment on the administrative record.

III. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

The IDEA guarantees every child a "free appropriate public education, " or "FAPE." Carlisle Area Sch. v. Scott P. ex rel. Bess P., 62 F.3d 520, 526 (3d Cir. 1995). For disabled children, this education is provided in the form of an IEP, which is "the package of special educational and related services designed to meet the unique needs of the disabled child." Id . Parents who are dissatisfied with their child's IEP may unilaterally transfer their child to a private school "at their own financial risk." Florence Cnty Sch. Dist. v. Carter , 510 U.S. 7, 15 (1993). Parents may then seek reimbursement of tuition and travel costs if it is subsequently determined that the public school placement failed to provide their child with a FAPE. Id . Parents seeking reimbursement must request "an impartial due process hearing" at the state level with a Hearing Officer. Carlisle Area Sch., 62 F.3d at 526 (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b); 34 C.F.R. § 300.506-512). If the parents are displeased with the findings of the Hearing Officer, they may appeal to the federal district court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e).

"The issue of whether an IEP is appropriate is a question of fact." S.H. v. State-Operated Sch. Dist. of City of Newark , 336 F.3d 260, 270 (3d Cir. 2003). We exercise a "modified de novo " review of the Hearing Officer's findings and afford those findings "due weight." D.K. v. Abington Sch. Dist., No. 08-cv-4914 , 2010 WL 1223596, at *4 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 25, 2010) (citing Lauren W. ex rel . Jean W. v. Deflamanis , 480 F.3d 259, 266 (3d Cir. 2007)). "When reviewing an administrative proceeding in an IDEA case, the district court should defer to the hearing officer's factual findings, ' unless it can point to contrary non-testimonial extrinsic evidence in the record." Id . If the court chooses to depart from the findings of the Hearing Officer, it must provide an explanation for the departure. S.H , 336 F.3d at 270. "The court is not, however, to substitute its own notions of sound educational policy for those of local school authorities." Id . (internal quotations omitted). We are not bound by the Hearing Officer's conclusions of law. D.K. , 2010 WL 1223596 at *4.

B. The Legal Standard Used by the Hearing Officer

Plaintiffs argue that the Hearing Officer misapplied the law when evaluating the appropriateness of the IEP. (Doc. 23 at 4-7). Specifically, Plaintiffs claim that the Hearing Officer failed to conduct a "student by student analysis" as required ...


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