United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
G.B., a minor, by and through his parent and natural guardian, SUSANNA H., Plaintiff,
EASTON AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.
G. SMITH, J.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Standards of Review
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).
confronted with a motion for judgment on the administrative
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
D.S. v. Bayonne Bd. of Educ., 602 F.3d 553, 564 (3d
Cir. 2010) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
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 ...