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J.H. v. Rose Tree Media School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 19, 2018

J.H., a minor, by and through his mother, L.H., Plaintiffs,
v.
ROSE TREE MEDIA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          Schiller, J.

         J.H. is a high school student with disabilities who is eligible for special education services. J.H., by and through his parent L.H., sued the Rose Tree Media School District under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and Pennsylvania law. Plaintiffs challenge the decision of a special education hearing officer that J.H.'s actions in a physical altercation with another student did not constitute a manifestation of his disabilities under the IDEA. Plaintiffs seek to supplement the administrative record with a psychological evaluation that they were barred by the hearing officer from introducing at an administrative hearing regarding the incident. Because the hearing officer's decision to exclude the evidence was proper and Plaintiffs have not offered a sufficient justification for supplementing the record with the evaluation, the Court denies the motion to supplement the administrative record.

         I. BACKGROUND

         J.H. is a fifteen year old who, at the time of the incident, was a ninth-grade student at Penncrest High School in the Rose Tree Media School District (the “District”). (Compl. ¶¶ 4, 9.) J.H. has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, as well as other disabilities. (Id. ¶ 5.) Because of this, J.H. is considered a “child with a disability” under the IDEA, and has received special education services since the seventh grade. (Id. ¶¶ 6, 10.) Since the incident, J.H. has also been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. (Id. ¶ 5.)

         On March 1, 2017, J.H. attempted to play a prank on another student at lunch by pushing the student's face into his food. (Id. ¶ 15.) The student became upset and struck J.H.'s chest. (Id. ¶ 16.) In response, J.H. punched the student in the face, causing serious injuries including a concussion, a broken nose and eye socket, and blurred vision in one eye. (Id. ¶17; Def.'s Resp. to Pls.' Mot. to Suppl. the Admin. R. [Def.'s Resp.] at 1.)

         The District suspended J.H. for ten days. (Compl. ¶¶ 5, 20.) It then held a manifestation determination meeting on March 7, 2017, as required by the IDEA, to determine whether J.H.'s action was a manifestation of his disabilities. (Id. ¶ 22.) The District determined that it was not. (Id. ¶ 24.)

         On May 5, 2017, the District notified J.H.'s parent that it would proceed with a formal expulsion hearing on May 25, 2017. (Id. ¶ 25.) On May 19, J.H.'s parent requested an expedited due process hearing, pursuant to IDEA regulations, appealing the District's decision that the incident was not a manifestation of J.H.'s disabilities. (Id. ¶ 26.) A hearing was scheduled for July 18, 2017.

         On Friday, July 14, 2017, four days before the hearing, Plaintiffs informed the District that they intended to introduce a psychological evaluation of J.H. describing his disabilities and symptoms, prepared by Dr. Jennifer Breslin (the “Breslin Report” or “Report”). (Pls.' Mot. for Leave to Suppl. the Admin. R. [Mot. to Suppl.] at 4; Compl. ¶ 30.) Plaintiffs informed the District that they had not yet received the Report. (Compl. ¶ 30(b).) Plaintiffs received the Report the day before the hearing and produced it to counsel for the District at approximately 11:20 p.m. that night; counsel did not see the report until 6:20 a.m. on the morning of the hearing. (Mot. to Suppl. at 8; Def.'s Resp. at 4.)

         At the hearing, the District objected to the introduction of the Report on the grounds that it was not disclosed in a timely manner. The hearing officer determined that Plaintiffs' last-minute disclosure unduly burdened the District and excluded the Report. (Def.'s Resp. at 6.) The hearing officer ultimately found that the District's manifestation determination was correct and that J.H.'s action was not a manifestation of his disabilities. (Mot. to Suppl. at 4.) Plaintiffs sued, alleging that the District failed to conduct an adequate manifestation determination in violation of the IDEA and Pennsylvania law. They then filed this motion, arguing that the hearing officer was wrong to exclude the Breslin Report and that the Court should allow them to supplement the administrative record with the Report. (Id.)

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Judicial Review under the IDEA

         The IDEA authorizes judicial review of administrative decisions under the statute. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). A court reviewing an administrative decision: “(i) shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; (ii) shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and (iii) basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate.” § 1415(i)(2)(C).

         Despite the statute's mandatory language, courts have consistently held that district courts have discretion to decide whether to admit additional evidence. E.g., Susan N. v. Wilson Sch. Dist., 70 F.3d 751 (3d Cir. 1995). In making the determination, courts must also keep in mind the “general framework of deference to state decision-makers that is dictated by the IDEA.” Id. at 758. The court must ensure that there is adequate justification for the admission of additional evidence; parties cannot be allowed to use the judicial review mechanism to “leapfrog the agency proceedings.” Antoine M. v. Chester Upland Sch. Dist., 420 F.Supp.2d 396, 403 (E.D. Pa. 2006). Allowing a party to do so would render the administrative hearing “a mere formality [and] would thwart the notion of cooperative federalism enshrined by the IDEA.” Id. at 402.

         B. The ...


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