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Abington Heights School District Plaintiff v. A.C.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 2, 2014

ABINGTON HEIGHTS SCHOOL DISTRICT Plaintiff,
v.
A.C., et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ROBERT D. MARIANI, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Presently before the Court is a Motion for a Statutory Stay Put Injunction (Doc. 3) pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415 and FED. R. CIV. P. 65, filed by the Abington Heights School District ("Abington Heights") on February 27, 2014, to stay implementation of a Special Education Hearing Officer's "stay-put" order. The school district contends that the Hearing Officer erred in his application of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§1400-91 ("IDEA"), and specifically § 1415(j).

Subsequent to receiving Plaintiff's motion, and upon agreement by counsel for both parties, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on the narrow issue of whether A.C.'s difficulties with transitions, and the resulting educational and medical impact as well as the loss of access to his sibling[1], would negatively affect A.C.'s educational functioning and ability to access his school program if he were transferred to, and educated at, Clarks Summit Elementary instead of Waverly Elementary. At the end of this hearing, the Court ordered the parties to submit supplemental briefs, specifically on the issue of whether Abington Heights must meet the traditional prerequisites for the issuance of injunctive relief under FED. R. CIV. P. 65 as has been held by the Ninth Circuit in Johnson ex rel. Johnson v. Special Educ. Hearing Office, State of CA, 287 F.3d 1176 (9th Cir. 2002).

The parties have now fully briefed the motion, and it is ripe for decision. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will deny Plaintiff's motion.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A.C. is a nine year old boy who is currently in second grade. (Relevant Facts Stipulated by the Parties for Purposes of a Pendency Determination, Doc. 1, Ex. F, ¶ 1). He resides with his family in the Abington Heights School District and has attended Waverly Elementary School, one of four elementary schools within the District, since kindergarten. ( Id. at ¶¶ 1, 3). A.C. has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome and receives special education services under the eligibility category of "Intellectually Disabled." ( Id. at ¶ 2).

On January 2, 2014, counsel for A.C.'s parents informed the District that A.C. had been hospitalized from December 22 through December 24, 2013 and diagnosed with Type I Diabetes. ( Id. at ¶ 7).

Prior to A.C.'s hospitalization, his Individualized Education Program ("IEP") team was scheduled to meet in December, 2013, to develop his new IEP. ( Id. at ¶ 4). At this time, Dr. Kara Schmidt had also completed an Independent Educational Evaluation ("IEE") to be considered by the IEP team. ( Id. ). On December 19, 2013, a draft IEP was issued to A.C.'s parents and a full IEP meeting was scheduled for January 9, 2014, to review the draft IEP, speak with Dr. Schmidt about her IEE, and review the results of new occupational therapy and speech evaluations. ( Id. at ¶ 6). After learning of A.C.'s hospitalization and diabetes diagnosis, counsel for the parents and school district agreed that A.C. would need additional accommodations and that A.C.'s IEP team would consider the changes at the January 9, 2014, IEP team meeting. (Doc. 1, Ex. F, ¶ 7).

On January 9, 2014, A.C.'s IEP team, as well as counsel for both parties, met regarding A.C.'s draft IEP. ( Id. at ¶ 8). The team, in conjunction with the school nurse, also reviewed and developed several plans, including a care plan to help manage A.C.'s diabetes during the school day, an emergency plan for Hypoglycemia, an individual health plan, and a safety plan for A.C.'s bus driver and the transportation manager. ( Id. at ¶¶ 9, 10).

The draft IEP sent to A.C.'s parents in December, 2013, proposed supplemental learning support at Waverly Elementary, the same level and type of support that A.C. was receiving in his previous IEP from 12/20/2012. ( Id. at ¶ 5). However, monitoring A.C.'s blood sugar pursuant to the care plan developed at the January 9, 2014, meeting, as well as ensuring the emergency care discussed, requires a full-time nurse and Waverly Elementary is only staffed by a part-time nurse during the school day. ( Id. at ¶¶ 11, 12). At the January 9th meeting, the District proposed changing A.C.'s school to Clarks Summit Elementary, another school within the Abington Heights School District, which is staffed by a full-time nurse throughout the school day. ( Id. at ¶ 13).

While both the parents and school district agree that the IEP dated 12/20/2012 is A.C.'s pendent IEP until a new IEP is in place; that A.C. now requires the services of a full-time nurse during school hours; and that Waverly Elementary's part-time nursing services are inadequate; the parties disagree as to whether the pendent IEP must be implemented in a learning support classroom and general education environment at Waverly Elementary or a learning support and general educational environment at Clarks Summit Elementary. ( Id. at ¶¶ 14-17). Therefore, in response to the District's proposal to implement the pendent IEP at Clarks Summit Elementary in a learning support environment, A.C.'s parents contended that Clarks Summit Elementary was not the pendent placement and sought an order compelling Abington Heights to implement the 12/20/2012 IEP at Waverly Elementary. ( Id. at ¶¶ 20, 21). On February 20, 2014, Hearing Officer Brian Ford issued a Pendency Order naming Waverly Elementary School as A.C.'s pendent placement, in accordance with 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j). (Pendency Order, Doc. 1, Ex. 1). In response to the hearing officer's decision, Abington Heights filed an interlocutory appeal of the Pendency Order with this Court. The school district argues that under the IDEA, the Hearing Officer erred when he (1) "determined that a building is an educational placement"; (2) "determined that the District must provide additional staff at Waverly to implement pendency"; and (3) "credited the arguments of counsel as evidence instead of applying the proper legal standard." (Pl.'s Brief in Support of its Motion for a Statutory Stay-Put Injunction, Doc. 4, at 5).

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In reviewing an administrative officer's decision, the district court must apply a "modified de novo " standard wherein the court is required to make its own findings by a preponderance of the evidence while also giving due weight to the factual findings of the ALJ. L.E. v. Ramsey Bd. Of Educ., 435 F.3d 384, 389 (3d Cir. 2006); see also School Regional High School Bd. of Educ. v. P.S., 381 F.3d 194, 199 (3d Cir. 2004). Additionally, the district court is "required to defer to the ALJ's factual findings unless it can point to contrary nontestimonial extrinsic evidence on the record." S.H. v. State-Operated School Dist., 336 F.3d 260, 270 (3d Cir. 2003). However, "where the District Court hears additional evidence it is free to accept or reject the agency findings depending on whether those findings are supported by the new, expanded record and whether they are consistent with the requirements of the Act.'" Id. (quoting Oberti v. Bd. of Educ. of the Borough of the Clementon School Dist., 995 F.2d 1204, 1220 (3d Cir. 1993)). Nonetheless, a district court owes no deference to a Hearing Officer's conclusions of law. S.H. v. State-Operated School Dist., 336 F.3d at 270.

IV. ANALYSIS

A. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The IDEA's purpose is to provide disabled children with a "free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living, " as well as to "ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A-B). As such, the IDEA contains a "stay-put" provision which requires an educational agency to maintain ...


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