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Methacton School District v. D.W.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

October 6, 2017

METHACTON SCHOOL DISTRICT Plaintiff
v.
D.W. and R.W., on behalf of G.W., a minor and individually on their own behalf Defendants

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NITZA I. QUIÑONES ALEJANDRO, U.S.D.C. J.

         INTRODUCTION

         Presently, before this Court are cross-motions for summary judgment and/or judgment on the supplemented administrative record filed by Plaintiff Methacton School District (“School District”), [ECF 26], and by Defendants D.W. and R.W. (“Parents”), individually and on behalf of their minor child G.W. (“Student”), [ECF 27].[1] These motions address the School District's appeal of the decision issued by a Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer (“Hearing Officer”) in the underlying due process litigation brought by Parents pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (“IDEIA”), [2] 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.[3]Specifically, the issues presented are whether the Hearing Officer erred in finding that the School District did not offer Student a free and appropriate public education (“FAPE”), that Student's placement at Delaware Valley Friends School (“DVFS”) was appropriate, and that Parents are entitled to the requested private tuition reimbursement. These issues have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated herein, Parents' motion is granted and the School District's motion is denied. Consequently, the decision of the Hearing Officer is affirmed.

         BACKGROUND[4]

         During the first grade year in 2006-2007, Student was identified by the School District as a student with learning disabilities in reading and written expression, and a speech/language impairment. (Administrative Record (“A.R.”) Ex. 2, (Hearing Officer's March 2, 2016 Decision (“Decision”), ¶ 1). Student was also identified as having impairments related to attention deficient hyperactivity disorder and anxiety. (Id.) In three separate reevaluation reports issued in 2012 and 2013, the School District continued to recognize Student's learning disabilities in reading and written expression. (Id.).

         Student attended the School District's schools through seventh grade. [ECF 26-1 at 2; ECF 27-1 at 2]. At the commencement of the 2013-2014 eighth grade school year, Parents enrolled Student at DVFS. [ECF 26-1 at 2; ECF 27-1 at 3]. Parents sought reimbursement from the School District for Student's private school tuition and, when the School District denied reimbursement, Parents filed a due process complaint. [ECF 26-1 at 2; ECF 27-1 at 3]. On November 3, 2013, the then-assigned hearing officer found in favor of Parents, and ordered the School District to reimburse Parents for the private school tuition costs. (Decision ¶ 2); [ECF 26-1 at 2; ECF 27-1 at 3]. Thereafter, the School District and Parents settled their dispute, with the School District agreeing, inter alia, to provide for Student's tuition at a private placement (DVFS) for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years; i.e., Student's eighth and ninth grade years. (Decision ¶¶ 3-5) (citing P- 35[5] (the “2013 Agreement”)). Under the terms of the 2013 Agreement, Parents agreed that Student would undergo a School District reevaluation process in the spring of 2015, with the Parents' permission and cooperation. (Id. ¶ 5).

         On March 26, 2015, Parents paid a tuition enrollment fee of $3, 450.00 for Student to attend DVFS during the tenth grade 2015-2016 school year. (P-40). The School District claims it was unaware of Parents' payment, and characterized the payment as a unilateral decision by Parents to enroll Student in DVFS for the 2015-2016 school year. [ECF 26-1 at 3]. Parents characterized the payment as one made to ensure Student would have a place at DVFS in the event the School District failed to offer him an appropriate education. [ECF 31 at 3].

         In the spring of 2015, in accordance with the 2013 Agreement, the School District commenced the reevaluation process of Student which culminated with an April 13, 2015 reevaluation report issued by the School District's school psychologist, Rachel Hawthorne (“Dr. Hawthorne”). (Decision ¶¶ 7-8) (citing S-1). Following the issuance of this report in April 2015, Student's individualized education program (“IEP”) team, which included Student, Student's father, a representative for the School District, Dr. Hawthorne, special education and regular education teachers, a speech therapist, and counsel for the parties, met to design an IEP for Student's 2015-2016 school year. (Id. ¶ 9); (S-4 at 1). The April 2015 IEP contained ten goals in the following areas; to wit: two in written expression, two in organization/study skills, two in speech and language, three in reading, and one in math. (Decision ¶ 10); (P-37 at 21-35). These goals did not contain any baseline information; instead the goals indicated that the baselines were identified in the present levels of educational performance section of the IEP, which essentially were the reports of standardized achievement testing from the evaluation process written in terms of the School District's curriculum, assignments, or instructional results and that further baseline data would be gathered during the summer of 2015 programming at the School District. (Decision ¶¶ 11-12); (P-37 at 7-12, 21-35). The April 2015 IEP provided a number of program modifications and specially designed instruction for Student, and indicated that Student would be in a regular education program for 67% of the school day. (Decision ¶¶ 13-14).

         On May 8, 2015, the School District issued a notice of recommended education placement (“NOREP”), which offered Parents the terms of the April 2015 IEP as Student's placement for the 2015-2016 year, recommended that Student attend a high school within the School District during that school year, and denied Parents' request for tuition reimbursement for the upcoming 2015-2016 school year. (Id. ¶ 15); (P-38 at 1-4). Parents rejected the May 2015 NOREP. (Decision ¶ 15); (P-38 at 4).

         On June 4, 2015, the School District revised the April 2015 reevaluation report to include information obtained from a subsequent reevaluation of Student's speech, language, and occupational therapy needs. (Decision ¶ 16); (S-2 at 1-20).[6] On June 8, 2015, the IEP team met to discuss the June 2015 reevaluation report and to revise Student's IEP. (Decision ¶ 16); (S-4 at 9-11). Thereafter, the School District issued a new NOREP which called for Student to be placed at the School District's high school for the 2015-2016 school year and, again, denied the request for tuition reimbursement. (S-3 at 17-20).

         In July 2015, Student underwent a private evaluation conducted by Mr. Arthur F. Moffa, II. (Decision ¶ 17); (P-43 at 1-8). On July 26, 2015, Mr. Moffa issued an independent educational evaluation (“IEE”), which included a reading assessment, a behavior assessment, and Mr. Moffa's review of the record and interviews with Student and Parents, (P-43 at 1-8), a copy of which Parents provided to the School District the following day. [ECF 26-1 at 4-5]. On July 28, 2015, Parents submitted their notice of intent to place Student at DVFS for the 2015-2016 school year. [ECF 26-1 at 5; ECF 31 at 14].

         In early August 2015, the School District again revised Student's IEP in light of Mr. Moffa's IEE. (Decision ¶ 18); (S-4 at 12-65). The goals of the August 2015 IEP were the same as those established in the April 2015 IEP, with the exception that some of the goals contained intermittent baseline information augmented by assessments of Student's evaluations or grades earned at DVFS. (Decision ¶ 19); (S-4 at 36-50). The August 2015 IEP also indicated that new baselines would be developed within two weeks of the implementation of the IEP, and that for certain goals that had not been assessed by DVFS, the School District would conduct probes to measure Student's current level of mastery, should Student attend a School District school. (Decision ¶ 20); (S-4 at 36-50). On August 20, 2015, the School District emailed the August 2015 IEP and a NOREP dated August 19, 2015, to Parents. (Decision ¶ 21); (S-5 at 1-5). The August 19, 2015 NOREP recommended that Student attend the School District's high school for 2015-2016, and denied Parents' requests for tuition reimbursement for the 2015-2016, 2016-2017, and 2017-2018 school years. (S-5 at 3). On August 21, 2015, Parents filed a special education due process complaint which led to the underlying proceedings. (Decision ¶ 22); (S-6 at 2-15).[7] Student remains in private placement at DVFS. (Decision ¶ 23).

         On October 23, 2015, an evidentiary due process hearing was convened before Hearing Officer Jake McElligott, held over three separate sessions, (id. at 1), [8] and concluded on January 11, 2016, with the submission of written closing arguments. (Id.); (A.R. Ex. 3-4). Essentially, the issues at the due process hearing were whether Parents were entitled to reimbursement for: (1) the cost of Mr. Moffa's IEE, and (2) Student's private tuition at DVFS for the 2015-2016 school year. (Decision at 3). Parents' argument was centered on their contention that the School District's proposed program and placement was not designed to provide Student a FAPE. (Id. at 2).

         On March 2, 2016, the Hearing Officer issued a decision applying the Burlington-Carter analysis, discussed infra, and found that the proposed August 20, 2015 IEP for the 2015-2016 school year was not reasonably calculated to yield meaningful education benefits to Student; that the program which was provided to Student by the private placement was appropriate, that equity did not impact the determination regarding tuition reimbursement; and, therefore, Parents were entitled only to tuition reimbursement.

         On May 25, 2016, the School District timely filed a complaint in federal court appealing the administrative decision and arguing that the Hearing Officer erred by: (1) concluding that the School District did not offer Student a FAPE; (2) concluding that Student's placement at DVFS was appropriate; (3) failing to find that the balance of equity favored the School District.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Under the IDEIA, institutions that receive federal education funding are required to provide all children with disabilities a “free and appropriate public education” or “FAPE.” 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A); § 1412(a)(1)(A); Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v. Douglas Sch. Dist., 137 S.Ct. 988, 993 (2017); D.K. v. Abington Sch. Dist., 696 F.3d 233, 244 (3d Cir. 2012). A free appropriate public education “includes both ‘special education' and ‘related services.'” Endrew F., 137 S.Ct. at 994 (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1401(26), (29)). Once a disabled child is identified, the School District must develop an IEP for the child that is “reasonably calculated to enable [the student] to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances.” Endrew, 137 S.Ct. at 1001; see also 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d) (defining individualized education program).[9] “The adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for who it was created.” Id. It must “set out a plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement.” Id. at 999 (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(I)-(IV)). Although the state is not required to “maximize the potential of every handicapped child, ” it must provide an education that confers a “meaningful benefit” to each child. Ridley School Dist. v. M.R. 680 F.3d 260, 268 (3d Cir. 2012). The benefit must be substantial, not minimal. Endrew F., 137 S.Ct. at 1001.

         The core of the IDEIA is the collaborative process between parents and schools officials to fashion the IEP. Endrew F., 137 S.Ct. at 994 (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1414). This collaboration among the parents and educators ensures careful consideration of the child's individual circumstances. Id. “It is through the IEP that [t]he ‘free appropriate public education' required by the Act is tailored to the unique needs of a particular child.” Id. at 1000 (internal quotations omitted). The IDEIA “requires that every IEP include ‘a statement of the child's present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, ' describe ‘how the child's disability affects the child's involvement and progress in the general education curriculum, ' and set out ‘measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals, ' along with a ‘description of how the child's progress toward meeting' those goals will be gauged.” Id. at 994 (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A). “An IEP is not a form document. It is constructed only after careful consideration of the child's present levels of achievement, disability, and potential for growth.” Id. at 999.

         If a school district fails to offer a FAPE, a child may be enrolled in an appropriate private school and the school district may be obligated to reimburse parents for the tuition expenses. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10)(C)(ii). Otherwise reimbursable tuition expenses, however, may be reduced for equitable reasons, including, the parents' failure to give written notice to the school district that they were rejecting the school district's proposed placement at least ten business days prior to the “removal of the child from the public school, ” or “upon a judicial finding of unreasonableness with respect to actions taken by the parents.” Id. § 1412(a)(10)(C)(iii)(I)(bb), (iii)(III); see also C.H. v. Cape Henlopen Sch. Dist., 606 F.3d 59, 67 (3d Cir. 2010) (“[E]ven where private placement is appropriate and reimbursement is otherwise due, the IDEA permits the equitable reduction or elimination of tuition reimbursement under certain circumstances.”) (relying on 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10)(C)(iii).

         Under the Supreme Court's precedents in Sch. Comm. of Town of Burlington, Mass. v. Dep't of Educ. of Mass., 471 U.S. 359 (1985) and Florence Cty. Sch. Dist. Four v. Carter By & Through Carter, 510 U.S. 7 (1993), a “a three-step analysis should be applied to determine whether to order tuition reimbursement.” Sinan L. v. Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia, 2007 WL 1933021, at *5 (E.D. Pa. July 2, 2007). Under the so-called “Burlington-Carter test, ” a district court must first determine if the school district's proposed IEP constitutes an offer of a “free, appropriate public education.” Id. (citing Carter, 510 U.S. at 16). If the school district does not offer a FAPE, the court must next determine “whether the parents' unilateral placement of the child at a private school was ‘proper.'” Id. (citing Carter, 510 U.S. at 16). Finally, the court should consider whether “equitable considerations are relevant in fashioning relief.” Id. (citing Burlington, 471 U.S. at 374).

         If parents believe that an IEP fails to provide their child with a FAPE, they may seek an administrative “impartial due process hearing.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f). “Any party aggrieved by the findings and decision” made in the administrative proceeding “shall have the right to bring a civil action” in state or federal court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). The district court shall review the record of the administrative proceedings, shall hear additional relevant, non-cumulative and useful evidence at the request of a party, and, based on a preponderance of the evidence, grant such relief as it deems appropriate. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C); Susan N. v. Wilson Sch. Dist., 70 F.3d 751, 760 (3d Cir. 1995). The district court must give “due weight” to the hearing officer's decision. Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 205-06 (1982).

         The concept of “due weight” requires a district court to conduct a “modified de novo review” of the administrative proceedings. Shore Reg. High Sch. Bd. of Educ. v. P.S., 381 F.3d 194, 199 (3d Cir. 2004); S.H. v. State-Operated Sch. Dist. of the City of Newark, 336 F.3d 260, 270 (3d Cir. 2003). Thus, courts are not free to “substitute their own notions of sound education policy for those of the educational agencies they review.” Susan N. v. Wilson Sch. Dist., 70 F.3d 751, 757 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Rowley, 458 U.S. at 205-06). A district court reviewing an administrative fact-finder's conclusions must defer to such factual findings unless the court identifies contrary, non-testimonial evidence in the record, or explains why the record, read in its entirety, compels a different conclusion. S.H., 336 F.3d at 270. The district court's review of a hearing officer's application of legal standards and conclusions of law, however, requires no deference to the administrative hearing officer's legal determinations; rather, the legal determinations are subject to plenary review. Id. at 271; Warren G. v. Cumberland Cnty. Sch. Dist., 190 F.3d 80, 83 (3d Cir. 1999).

         The party challenging the administrative decision bears the burden of persuasion before the district court as to each claim challenged. M.R., 680 F.3d at 270 (citations omitted). As the Supreme Court noted “[t]he burdens of pleading and proof with regard to most facts have been and should be assigned to the [party] who . . . seeks to change the present state of affairs.” Schaffer ex rel. Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 56 (2005) (quoting 2 McCormick on Evidence § 337 at 412 (7th ed.)). Under the IDEIA, it is the party “aggrieved by the findings and decision” of the hearing officer that seeks to change the present state of affairs. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). “Absent some reason to believe that Congress intended otherwise, ” the burden of persuasion falls where it usually does, on the party seeking relief. Schaffer, 546 U.S. at 57-58.

         DISCUSSION

         The issues before this Court are whether the Hearing Officer erred by concluding that: (1) the School District did not offer Student a FAPE; (2) Student's placement at DVFS was appropriate; and (3) that equity had no bearing on the decision rendered. ...


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