United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiffs A.S., a minor student, and L.G., her parent (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), bring this against Defendant William Penn School District ("the District") alleging that the District failed to provide A.S. with a free and appropriate public education, in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. Plaintiffs also allege that they were denied an impartial due process hearing, in violation of the IDEA and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The District has moved to dismiss the complaint, and the Court, after notice to the parties and an opportunity to supplement, has treated that motion as one for summary judgment, in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(d). For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the motion and dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint in its entirety.
A.S. was enrolled as a student in the District from September 2011 to November 2012. Compl. ¶ 8, ECF No. 3; Hearing Officer Decision ¶ 30, ECF No. 23-2. Due to concerns about A.S.'s academic performance, the District conducted an evaluation of her during the spring of 2012 and issued a final Evaluation Report on May 25, 2012. Compl. ¶ 13; Hearing Officer Decision ¶ 10. Among other findings, the Evaluation Report found that A.S. met the eligibility criteria for a specific learning disability in the areas of reading, written expression, and math. Hearing Officer Decision ¶ 17.
In August 2012, A.S.'s parent was informed that the District intended to place A.S. at a different elementary school for the 2012-13 school year. Id . ¶ 23; Compl. ¶ 14. The parent retained counsel in September 2012, and subsequently filed a "stay put" complaint with the Office of Dispute Resolution ("ODR") to prevent the transfer from happening. Compl. ¶¶ 15-16, 19. After the "stay put" complaint was denied, allowing the transfer to occur, the parent filed a complaint with the ODR alleging that the District had denied A.S. a free and appropriate public education by not timely and appropriately evaluating her for a disability (the "FAPE Complaint"). Compl. ¶¶ 16-17; Br. Supp. Mot. Dismiss 2, ECF No. 10-1. On October 28, 2012, the parent amended the FAPE Complaint to add claims of discrimination and other violations of the IDEA. ECF No. 15-4.
At around the same time, the parent also requested that the District pay for an "Independent Educational Evaluation" ("IEE") of A.S., contending that the District's Evaluation Report was inadequate. The District rejected that request and initiated its own due process hearing against the parent to defend its report (the "IEE Complaint"). Compl. ¶ 21; Hearing Officer Decision 2. Although the IEE Complaint had a distinct case number from the FAPE Complaint filed by the parent, as it constituted a separate action brought by the District, the ODR assigned the two complaints to the same Hearing Officer and they were consolidated into one due process hearing. Hearing Officer Decision 2. On November 19, 2012, the parties were notified that the due process hearing was scheduled to occur on January 23-25, 2013. Id.
On the morning of January 17, 2013, Plaintiffs' counsel sent the Hearing Officer an email stating that a "family emergency" had developed and as a result the parent would be out of the state during the hearing dates. ECF No. 31-2, at 2. Counsel advised the Hearing Officer that she had given the parent the option of either requesting a continuance of the hearing, or withdrawing the complaint and refiling it at a later date. A few hours later, Plaintiffs' counsel sent a second email informing the Hearing Officer and the District that Plaintiffs were moving to voluntarily dismiss the complaint because the parent could not attend the hearing. See ECF No. 10-9.
The Hearing Officer responded that evening, and explained that Plaintiffs could dismiss the FAPE Complaint but not the IEE Complaint, which had been filed by the District. Id . The Hearing Officer further noted that Plaintiffs' counsel had not actually requested a continuance. If Plaintiffs intended to move for a continuance, the Hearing Officer indicated that the motion "must explain what the emergency is and when the Parent will be available for the hearing." Id.
A few days later, on January 21, Plaintiffs' counsel sent another email. She reiterated Plaintiffs' intent to "voluntarily dismiss without prejudice [the] due process hearing complaint due to exigent circumstances." ECF No. 10-7. She also asked that the hearing be continued in order to enable the parent to participate. Id . She did not elaborate on the nature of the "exigent circumstances, " however, nor did she specify when the parent might be available.
That afternoon, the Hearing Officer responded with two emails. First, he confirmed that the parent had withdrawn the FAPE Complaint and formally dismissed the matter. ECF No. 10-8. That email clearly stated at the top in bold letters: "This email pertains to ODR # XXXX-XXXXAS only." Id . Second, he addressed the request for a continuance, which he interpreted to be in reference to the remaining IEE Complaint. ECF No. 10-9. He explained that counsel's email failed to comply with his instructions, as it did not describe the emergency or say when the parent would be available. Concluding that "[i]t is insufficient for the Parent to simply announce that there is an emergency that precludes participating during any of the three hearing dates that were scheduled over two months ago without saying what that emergency is or estimating when that emergency will be over, " the Hearing Officer denied the request for a continuance, but granted Plaintiffs leave to file a new request that complied with his instructions. Id.
Plaintiffs' counsel responded the next day, January 22, 2013 (the day before the scheduled hearing), but did not provide any more details regarding the parent's family emergency. She explained that she could not offer a date that the parent would be available for another hearing, and that she "believe[d] she ha[d] complied with the Hearing Officer's request to know the nature of the parents [sic] emergency: It was a family emergency." ECF No. 10-10 (emphasis in original). Counsel also objected to what she perceived to be the Hearing Officer's decision to "bifurcate" the two matters, stating that the parent did not "want the two hearings separated since the Hearing Officer has scheduled them to [be] conducted together." Id.
The Hearing Officer replied that evening, explaining that no hearing on the FAPE Complaint would be held because it had been dismissed, but that oral argument would proceed as scheduled on the IEE Complaint. He stated that "[c]ounsel for both parties are expected to be present even if the Parent himself cannot attend, " and he explained that it was not within his power to grant an indefinite continuance of the proceeding. Id . Nonetheless, he indicated that he would entertain a renewed continuance request at the hearing and that Plaintiffs' counsel should be prepared "to answer questions about when the Parent may be able to attend a hearing in the future." Id.
The due process hearing on the District's IEE Complaint began as scheduled the next morning, on January 23, 2013. Hearing Officer Decision 1. Neither the parent nor Plaintiffs' counsel attended. At the start of the hearing, the Hearing Officer again considered Plaintiffs' written motion for a continuance and heard the District's renewed objection to the motion. Id. at 3. He denied the motion for the same reasons expressed previously, and the hearing then proceeded without the parent or counsel in attendance. Id . Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, which included both parties' documentary evidence but only the District's witnesses, the Hearing Officer concluded that the District's Evaluation Report was appropriate and that the parent was not entitled to an IEE at public expense. Id. at 11.
Plaintiffs filed the instant action on April 29, 2013. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss and to strike Plaintiffs' complaint, as well as a motion for sanctions. After Plaintiffs failed to respond to either motion, the Court held a hearing on October 8, 2013. Then, pursuant to a Court order, Plaintiffs filed a nunc pro tunc motion for extension of time to respond and attached a proposed response. Upon consideration of the parties' submissions, the Court gave notice that it intends to treat Defendant's motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment, in accordance with Federal ...