Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

G.B. v. Easton Area School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 29, 2017

G.B., a minor, by and through his parent and natural guardian, SUSANNA H., Plaintiff,
v.
EASTON AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          EDWARD G. SMITH, J.

         The prevailing party in a proceeding brought pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) is entitled to reasonable attorneys' fees. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i). The plaintiffs in this action, a student and his parent, seek attorneys' fees related to a hearing officer's denial of the defendant's motion to dismiss during a due process proceeding in which the plaintiffs sought the production of the student's educational records. The plaintiffs contend that the hearing officer's order denying the defendant's motion to dismiss resulted in the defendants producing the records sought, and thus, that they are prevailing parties entitled to attorneys' fees. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment and judgment on the administrative record. Because the plaintiffs did not receive any judicially sanctioned relief, the court will deny the plaintiffs' motion for judgment on the administrative record, grant the defendant's motion for summary judgment and on the administrative record, and enter judgment in favor of the defendant.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         G.B., a minor student, and his mother, Susanna H., (“the plaintiffs”) filed a special education due process complaint before the Pennsylvania Office of Dispute Resolution (“ODR”) on July 19, 2016, under the IDEA. Complaint at ¶¶ 1, 8, Doc. No. 1. G.B. is a protected handicapped student under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794. Id. at ¶ 1. The plaintiffs filed the due process complaint with ODR pursuant to IDEA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1232g, against the defendant, Easton Area School District (“the District”), because they sought the release of educational records regarding G.B. that the District had previously withheld. Id. at ¶ 8. Specifically, the plaintiffs sought records related to a September 2015 alleged assault by a substitute paraprofessional who had provided G.B. one-to-one support during G.B.'s assigned paraprofessional's lunch hour. Memorandum of Law in Supp. of Pls.' Mot. for J. on the Admin. R. (“Pls.' Mem.”) at 3-4, Doc. No. 14. G.B.'s parents sought the records, which included, for example, witness interviews, an investigation report, staff and student statements, and email correspondence about the incident, in order to make a fully informed educational decision as to G.B. Complaint at ¶ 8; Pls.' Mem. at 3-6.

         After the plaintiffs filed their due process complaint, the District filed a motion to dismiss, contending that “the Parent may not request a special education due process hearing to obtain records, ” and “in the alternative that the type of records that the Parent seeks are not educational records and therefore . . . the Parent is not entitled to what they demand.” Hearing Officer's Order No. 18024-1617AS at ECF p. 2, Doc. No. 6-1. The hearing officer denied the motion to dismiss insofar as the District contended that the hearing officer lacked jurisdiction to hear the due process complaint, and held that “when a local educational agency . . . refuses a parental request to access a child with a disability's records, the parent may seek access by means of an ODR due process hearing.” Id. at ECF pp. 3-4. As to the nature of the records at issue, the hearing officer granted the District's motion as to one set of documents, including the substitute paraprofessional's personnel file, because he deemed that those documents did not constitute educational records and thus that the plaintiffs were not entitled to them. Id. at ECF p. 5. The hearing officer, however, denied the District's motion as to a second set of documents, which included investigation materials, reports, and e-mail correspondence, and held that those documents “may or may not be educational records” that “very likely relate to the Student” but that also might not be “directly related to the Student.” Id. at ECF pp. 5-6. Accordingly, the hearing officer ordered that: (1) “[t]he District must identify documentation of or about the September 2015 incident including investigation materials, reports to and from outside agencies, and email (both internal and external); but not including the Substitute's personnel file, credentials, training, criminal background check, pre-employment background checks/screenings, and disciplinary file;” (2) “[t]he District must voluntarily grant access to redacted records and/or must provide a list of withheld records;” and (3) “[t]he scope of the hearing is limited to the Parent's right to access any withheld record.” Id. Thus, the hearing officer held that some of the records were the proper subject of a due process hearing, but did not order the district to produce anything at the time and did not explicitly hold that any of the records were educational records.

         In response to the hearing officer's order, the District chose to provide some of the previously withheld records “in the spirit of compromise, ” and the plaintiffs thereafter determined that a due process hearing was no longer necessary. Brief in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. on Behalf of Def. (“Def.'s Mem.”) at 2, Doc. No. 13-1. The plaintiffs then voluntarily withdrew the request for a due process hearing, and the hearing officer issued a file closing order stating that the parties agreed a hearing was no longer necessary and that the due process complaint, motion to dismiss, and order were all part of the record. File Closing Order, Doc. No. 6-2.

         The plaintiffs filed this action against the District on February 6, 2017, seeking attorneys' fees as a prevailing party under the IDEA. See Complaint In its answer to the complaint, the District disputed that the plaintiffs were prevailing parties, and also asserted a counterclaim contending that the hearing officer's ruling that the records in question might be educational records was legally incorrect. Answer, Doc. No. 6. On July 21, 2017, the District filed a motion for summary judgment and judgment on the administrative record, and the plaintiffs filed a motion for judgment on the administrative record. Doc. Nos. 13, 14. On August 11, 2017, the parties filed briefs in opposition to each other's motions. Doc. Nos. 15, 16. On August 15, 2017, the court heard oral argument on the motions, Doc. No. 17, and on August 24, 2017, the plaintiffs filed a supplemental brief regarding the effect of the Third Circuit Court of Appeal's decision in M.R. v. Ridley School District, No. 16-2465, 2017 WL 3597707 (3d Cir. Aug. 22, 2017). Doc. No. 20. The motions are presently ripe for disposition, and the parties do not appear to dispute any issue of fact. Thus, the court may resolve this case as a matter of law.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Standards of Review

         A district court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Additionally, “[s]ummary judgment is appropriate when ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.'” Wright v. Corning, 679 F.3d 101, 103 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 482 (3d Cir. 1995)). An issue of fact is “genuine” if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Id. “When considering whether there exist genuine issues of material fact, the court is required to examine the evidence of record in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, and resolve all reasonable inferences in that party's favor.” Wishkin v. Potter, 476 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2007).

         When confronted with a motion for judgment on the administrative record,

district courts apply a nontraditional standard of review, sometimes referred to as “modified de novo” review. Under this standard, a district court must give “due weight” and deference to the findings in the administrative proceedings. Factual findings from the administrative proceedings are to be considered prima facie correct, and if the reviewing court does not adhere to those findings, it is obliged to explain why. The “due weight” obligation prevents district courts from imposing their own view of preferable educational methods on the states.

D.S. v. Bayonne Bd. of Educ., 602 F.3d 553, 564 (3d Cir. 2010) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Because the hearing officer did not address the legal question at hand, whether the plaintiffs are prevailing parties entitled to attorneys' fees under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I), the motions before the court do not involve review of the hearing officer's decision. Rather, the plaintiffs' complaint and parties' motions present a stand-alone legal question that has not yet been addressed, and thus, the motions ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.