United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
JULIET GENIVIVA, by and through her parents and next friends, Albert Geniviva and Janice Geniviva, ALBERT GENIVIVA, and JANICE GENIVIVA, Plaintiff,
HAMPTON TOWNSHIP SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.
C. MITCHELL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
and Procedural History
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).
2016-17 Proposed IEP
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 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
2016-17 School Year
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).
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).
Due Process Hearing
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,
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.
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).
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).
“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.
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
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 ...