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Stapleton v. Penns Valley Area School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 12, 2017

DR. ANN STAPLETON, et al., Plaintiffs
v.
PENNS VALLEY AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM

          KANE, JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 by Plaintiffs Dr. Ann Stapleton, Mark Benfer, and Benjamin Benfer (Doc. No. 47), and Defendant Penns Valley Area School District (the “School District”) (Doc. No. 44). At the request of the School District, the Court entertained oral argument on the fully-briefed cross-motions for summary judgment on October 2, 2017. (Doc. No. 59.) Upon detailed consideration of the memoranda filed in connection with the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (Doc. Nos. 45, 46, 48, 49, 52, 53, 54, 56, 57), the stipulations of fact entered into by the parties (Doc. No. 39), and the arguments presented during oral argument, for the reasons provided herein, the Court will grant the School District's motion for summary judgment (Doc. No. 44), deny Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment (Doc. No. 47), enter judgment in favor of the School District, and close this case.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         The above-captioned action was initiated on December 2, 2012, through the filing of a two-count complaint in this matter by Plaintiffs Benjamin Benfer, a former Penns Valley Area School District student (“Student”), and his parents Dr. Ann Stapleton and Mr. Mark Benfer (“Parents”), against the School District, asserting violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1401 et seq, , (the “IDEA”), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and its implementing regulations. (See Doc. No. 1). Through this lawsuit, Plaintiffs challenge the alleged failure of the School District to comply with the terms of a favorable administrative decision issued on January 28, 2008, awarding the Student 990 hours of compensatory education upon finding that the School District deprived the Student of a free, appropriate public education (“FAPE”), for the 2005-2006, 2006-2007, and 2007-2008 school years.

         The facts of record relevant to the instant dispute are presented as follows. The Student attended a public school in the School District from Kindergarten to Tenth Grade. (Doc. No. 39 at 3 ¶ 12.) In 2001, the Parents obtained an evaluation from a psychiatrist diagnosing the Student with Asperger's Disorder, which later qualified him to receive certain special education services related to that documented disability. (Id. ¶ 19; Doc. No. 39-3 at 4.) Over the course of the Student's enrollment at the School District, several individualized education programs (“IEP”), were implemented to address identified learning deficits exhibited by the Student in the areas of reading comprehension and written and oral expression.[2] (Doc. No. 39 at 4 ¶21.) However, the Parents were dissatisfied by the measures taken by the School District to account for the Student's learning disabilities. In May of 2007, the School District denied the Parents' requests for tuition reimbursement for extended school year services and for an independent educational evaluation for the Student to be conducted at the School District's expense. (See Doc. No. 39-3.) Ultimately, both the Plaintiffs and the School District filed due process complaints with the Pennsylvania Office for Dispute Resolution. (Doc. No. 39 at 4 ¶ 22.)

         A due process hearing before Hearing Officer William Culleton, Jr. (the “Hearing Officer”), convened on September 25, 2007, and the administrative record closed on January 9, 2008. (Doc. No. 39-3.) On January 26, 2008, following six days of proceedings, the Hearing Officer issued a decision in which he found that the School District failed to administer educational services reasonably calculated to provide the Student a meaningful educational benefit. (Id.) Significantly, the Hearing Officer mandated that the School District prepare a new IEP for the Student and directed that the School District provide the Student 990 hours of compensatory education. (Id. at 29-30.) As to the form of the compensatory education, the Order provided as follows:

8. The compensatory education ordered above shall not be used in place of services that are offered in the current IEP or any future IEP. The form of the services shall be decided by the Parent, and may include any appropriate developmental, remedial, or enriching instruction that furthers the goals of the Student's current or future IEP. The services may be used after school, on weekends, or during the summer, and may be used after the Student reaches 21 years of age. The services may be used hourly or in blocks of hours. The costs to the District of providing the awarded hours of compensatory education shall not exceed the full cost of the services that were denied. Full costs are the salaries and fringe benefits that would have been paid to the actual professionals who should have provided the District services and the actual costs for salaries, tuition and transportation for any contracted services. The District has the right to challenge the reasonableness of the hourly cost of the services.

(Id. ¶ 8.) Neither party appealed the Hearing Officer's final Order.

         In the ensuing months following the January 26, 2008 decision, the Parents and the School District disagreed as to what specially designed instruction and related special education services the School District would be required to provide to the Student in order to comply with the Hearing Officer's directives.[3] In a February 24, 2008 letter addressed to the School District, counsel on behalf of Plaintiffs requested that the School District convert the 990 hours of compensatory education awarded the Student into a fund totaling $75, 000.00, at an hourly rate of $75.00, to be administered to the Student for “any education purposes even after he turns 21.” (Doc. No. 39 at 24 ¶ 43.) The School District repeatedly disputed the reasonableness of Plaintiffs' proposed uniform hourly rate of $75.00, but acknowledged in a response on June 25, 2008 that “[o]n a case-by-case basis, . . . given the particular service for which you may request payment by the [School] [D]istrict, it is quite possible that the hourly rate for the service selected would be reasonable if it were $75.00 per hour, or for that matter a greater or lesser amount.” (Id. ¶¶ 74, 75). On June 26, 2008, the Parents wrote to the School District's Superintendent, Brian Griffith, again requesting that the 990 hours of compensatory education at “$75.00/ hour be paid to [the Student] by check or that the 990 hours be established in a trust fund to be used for [the Student].” (Id. ¶77.) On July 1, 2008, the Superintendent replied to the Parents' June 26, 2008 letter, informing them that the School District did “not intend to establish any fund, ” but would nevertheless “agree to comply with the order to provide services at [the Parents'] discretion within the parameters of the [H]earing [O]fficer['s] directives/order.” (Id. ¶ 77.)

         Despite this ongoing exchange regarding the implementation of the Hearing Officer's January 26, 2008 Decision, the parties continued an open dialogue about the provision of services available to the Student. (Id. ¶ 79.) As part of that dialogue, the School District set forth available options for the Plaintiffs to consider regarding the Student's upcoming 2008-2009 school year. (Id. ¶ 80.) Among those options was enrollment in a public charter school. Consequently, in the fall of 2008, the Student withdrew from the School District and enrolled in the PA Cyber Charter School.[4] (Id. ¶ 81.) Over the course of the Student's enrollment at the PA Cyber Charter School, several IEPs existed for the Student. (Id. ¶ 96.) The last operative IEP implemented for the Student, dated April 14, 2011, included certain transition goals relating to post-secondary education and employment. (Id. ¶¶ 99-102.)

         The Student eventually graduated from the PA Cyber Charter School in 2011. (Id. ¶ 109.) After graduation, the Student attended St. Francis University for one school year before transferring to Penn State University at Mont Alto in the fall of 2012, where he completed an associate's degree in Forest Technology in 2014. (Id. ¶¶ 111-114.) In the fall of 2014, the Student enrolled at Penn State University's main campus to pursue a bachelor's degree in Forestry Ecosystem Management. (Id. ¶ 114.)

         No request was made to the School District during this period to dispense compensatory education funds for tutoring or other instructional support until 2013, when the Student contacted the Superintendent seeking to use the compensatory education award to cover part of the costs of his college tuition. (Id. ¶ 112.) Rather than refusing the request outright, the School District engaged Plaintiffs in several months of communications, requesting more information linking the college tuition costs to the goals of the Student's previous IEP. The impasse over payment for the Student's college tuition continued, culminating in the filing of this action. (Doc. No. 1.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) requires the court to enter summary judgment "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “[T]his standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original). A factual dispute is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law, and is genuine only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis that would allow a reasonable fact finder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). Thus, where no material fact is in dispute, the moving party need only ...


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