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Geniviva v. Hampton Township School District

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 23, 2018

JULIET GENIVIVA, by and through her parents and next friends, Albert Geniviva and Janice Geniviva, ALBERT GENIVIVA, and JANICE GENIVIVA, Plaintiff,
v.
HAMPTON TOWNSHIP SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

          OPINION

          ROBERT C. MITCHELL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Presently before this Court are cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings and/or judgment on the administrative record filed by defendant Hampton Township School District (the District), and plaintiffs Albert Geniviva and Janice Geniviva, on behalf of their daughter, Juliet Geniviva (collectively, the Genivivas). (ECF Nos. 22, 25). The motions address the Genivivas' appeal from the December 20, 2016 decision issued by Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer Cathy A. Skidmore, M. Ed., J.D. (Hearing Officer) in the underlying due process litigation brought by the Genivivas pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-82. (ECF No. 1). The parties ask this Court to consider (1) whether the hearing officer erred in determining that the District's proposed Individualized Education Program (IEP) provided Juliet with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment; (2) whether Juliet's subsequent placement in the St. Anthony School Program (the Program) for the 2016-17 school year was appropriate; and (3) whether, pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1412 (a)(10)(C), the Genivivas are entitled to reimbursement from the District for tuition and other expenses related to Juliet's private school placement. For the reasons that follow, this Court will grant the District's motion, deny the Genivivas' motion, and affirm the decision of the Hearing Officer.

         Factual and Procedural History

         Juliet is a twenty-one-year-old woman with Down Syndrome and an expressive language disorder who resides in the District. (ECF No. 27 ¶ 1; ECF No. 28-1 at 2). From 2012 until 2016, Juliet attended high school in the District. (ECF No. 28-1 at 2). As a student with an intellectual disability, Juliet was entitled to services pursuant to the IDEA. (ECF No. 27 ¶ 2). Each year, as required by the IDEA, an IEP was developed for Juliet. (ECF No. 28-1 at 4, ¶¶ 7-23). Throughout her high school career, the Genivivas disagreed with the IEPs proposed by the District. (Id.) Specifically, the Genivivas sought to focus Juliet's IEP on her academic goals, speech/language, and social skills, as opposed to the functional or vocational life skills recommended by the District. (ECF No. 28-1 at 4, ¶ 6). Ultimately, following a number of challenges to the District's recommendations, for the academic years from 2012 until her graduation in the spring of 2016, Juliet's IEPs reflected the wishes of her parents and limited her life skills and vocational programming while emphasizing traditional academics. (Id.) Under the IDEA, Juliet remained eligible for special education services in the District following her high school graduation. (ECF No. 27 ¶ 2, 4; ECF No. 28-1 at 2).

         The 2016-17 Proposed IEP

         On May 6, 2016, the District held an IEP team meeting regarding the program developed for Juliet for the upcoming 2016-17 school year. The meeting included a discussion of transition planning and transition services to help develop Juliet's post-secondary goals. (ECF No. 27 ¶ 5; ECF No. 28-1 at 6, ¶ 24; ECF No. 28-1, Ex. J-10, pg. 4). Present at the meeting were Juliet and Janice Geniviva, numerous District representatives, including the school principal, the assistant principal, and various teachers, a representative from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), and a Geniviva family friend. (ECF No. 28-1, Ex. J-10, pg. 2). While the Genivivas agreed with the IEP's stated goals of transition planning, they expressed concern regarding multiple aspects of the District's proposal, including the time Juliet would spend within a traditional classroom setting, what they perceived as a limited amount of community-based instruction, and the alleged lack of age-appropriate peers and activities available in the District. (ECF No. 28-1, ¶ 45). Instead, the Genivivas contended that Juliet's needs would be better served by enrollment in the Program, which is outside of the District. (Id. at ¶ 42, 45).

         The Program

The Program is located on [Duquesne University's] campus. All students in the Program are ages 18-21 and commute to campus daily.

The Program provides a curriculum that is focused on functional academic skill, vocational training, mobility training and public transportation, and social skills.

Program students attend classes attended only by Program students, although there are two groups of newer and older students who attend separate classes.

There are approximately thirty[-]two students within the Program. Students are placed into small groups for the majority of activities, which include work-experiences and community outings on and near campus. There is also a dedicated apartment for students in Program to visit in order to learn and practice independent living skills such as cooking and laundry.

Approximately twenty university students participate in the Program as a form of their own work-study experience, acting as a job coach and peer mentor. The university mentors support the students who are enrolled in the Program, and assist them in navigating the campus and performing tasks on and off campus.

***

An organization supported by the Program assigns a “buddy” to interested participants, where a university student is paired with the Program student. Various activities on- and off-campus are available for the university and Program students to attend together.

(ECF No. 28-1, ¶¶ 47-51, 53) (internal citations omitted).

         The 2016-17 School Year

         At some point prior to the May 2016 IEP meeting, the Genivivas began researching the Program as a possible placement for Juliet for the upcoming school year. (N.T, 11/16-17/2016, at 95). The Genivivas' desire to enroll Juliet in the Program was memorialized in an email sent to the District before the May IEP meeting. (Id. at 455-57). At the conclusion of the May IEP meeting, the Genivivas again expressed to the District their interest in enrolling Juliet in the Program. (Id. at 155-56).

         On June 29, 2016, the Genivivas filed their Due Process Complaint challenging the District's proposed IEP. (ECF No. 28-1, ¶ 42). On August 5, 2016, the Genivivas notified the District of their intention to enroll Juliet in the Program and to seek reimbursement of tuition and transportation expenses from the District. (N.T., 11/16-17/2016, at 97, 104). The Genivivas filed an Amended Due Process Complaint on August 22, 2016. (ECF No. 28-1, ¶ 54). Juliet began attending the Program at the end of August 2016. (Id. at ¶ 55). The Genivivas paid Juliet's 2016-17 tuition in full in late September of 2016. (Id. at 54).

         The Due Process Hearing

         On November 16-17, 2016, during Juliet's first semester in the Program, a hearing was held regarding the Genivivas' due process complaint. (ECF No. 28-1; N.T, 11/16-17/2016). Through their witnesses, including an expert in the field of special education transition programming, the Genivivas sought to establish that the District's proposed program failed to provide FAPE in the least restrictive environment to Juliet for the 2016-17 school year, particularly with respect to post-secondary transition services. The District maintained that the proposed May 2016 IEP, was appropriate for Juliet under the law and responsive to her needs, thus no remedy was warranted. (Id.) On December 20, 2016, the Hearing Officer issued a Memorandum and Order finding that the District's proposed IEP was appropriate and denying the Genivivas' request for relief. (ECF No. 28-1, pg. 22).

         On March 20, 2017, the Genivivas filed a complaint against the District, appealing the Hearing Officer's decision. (ECF No. 1). The District filed its answer on May 26, 2017. (ECF No. 6). On March 15, 2018, the District filed its motion for judgment on the pleadings (ECF No. 22), along with a brief in support thereof. (ECF No. 23). In response, the Genivivas filed a motion for judgment on the administrative record and accompanying brief. (ECF Nos. 25, 26). Both motions have been fully briefed and a ripe for review.

         In their motion and brief, the Genivivas claim that the Hearing Officer erred in determining that the District's proposed IEP for the 2016-17 school year was appropriate; thus, it was error to deny their request for tuition reimbursement. (ECF No. 26, pg. 7-25). In its motion and brief, the District asks this Court to affirm the factual findings and legal conclusions of the Hearing Officer, arguing that the IEP offered for Juliet's 2016-17 academic year met the requirements of the IDEA. (ECF No. 23).

         This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(A) and 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The parties have consented to proceed before the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) (ECF No. 9).

         Standard of Review

          “Any party aggrieved by the findings and decision” made in the administrative proceeding “shall have the right to bring a civil action” in 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. Board of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 205-06 (1982). This 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). 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. However, the district court's review of a hearing officer's application of legal standards and conclusions of law 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). Finally, “the party challenging the administrative decision [with respect to an appeal brought pursuant to the IDEA] bears the burden of persuasion before the district court as to each claim challenged.” M.R., 680 F.3d at 270 (internal citations omitted).

         Discussion

         At issue here is the Hearing Officer's determination that the District's proposed IEP offered Juliet a FAPE and the subsequent denial of the Genivivas request for tuition reimbursement. 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). 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), the Supreme Court established a three-step analysis to aid a district court in evaluating IDEA tuition reimbursement cases. Under Burlington/Carter, “a district court must first determine if the school district's proposed IEP offers FAPE. Carter, 510 U.S. at 16. If the school district does not offer a FAPE, the court must next determine “whether the ...


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