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C.D. v. Natick Public School District

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 20, 2018

C.D., by and through her parents and next friends, M.D. and P.D., Plaintiffs,
v.
NATICK PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT and BUREAU OF SPECIAL EDUCATION APPEALS, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON PLAINTIFFS' SUPPLEMENTAL MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          F. Dennis Saylor IV United States District Judge

         This dispute arises out of an administrative decision by the Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education (“BSEA”) concerning individualized education programs (“IEPs”) proposed by the Natick School District. The BSEA found that the IEPs were adequate to provide C.D., a student with learning disabilities, with a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”), as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), and denied tuition reimbursement for her placement in a private school. C.D. and her parents then brought suit against the School District and the BSEA seeking to overturn the BSEA's decision.

         On July 21, 2017, the Court denied plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment but remanded the case in part to the BSEA to determine whether the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school year IEPs provided a FAPE in the least restrictive environment possible. The BSEA issued its order on March 22, 2018, concluding that the IEPs were reasonably calculated to provide a FAPE in the least restrictive environment.

         Plaintiffs have since moved for supplemental summary judgment to reverse that order. For the reasons stated below, the motion will be denied.

         I. Background

         The factual background, statutory framework, and procedural history of this matter are set forth in the Court's earlier memorandum and order dated July 21, 2017. See C.D. by & through M.D. v. Natick Pub. Sch. Dist., 2017 WL 3122654 (D. Mass. July 21, 2017). For brevity's sake, the Court will not repeat that history here. That order denied plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and remanded the matter in part to the BSEA to determine whether the 2012-13 and 2013-14 IEPs provided a FAPE in the least restrictive environment possible.

         On March 22, 2018, the hearing officer issued an order affirming her previous opinion, stating that Natick had rationally balanced the benefits of mainstreaming against the restrictions associated with the Access classes. (See generally Docket No. 87).[1] She concluded that the 2012-13 and 2013-14 IEPs proposed by Natick were “reasonably calculated to provide [C.D.] with a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.” (Id. at 3).

         II. Legal Standard

         Plaintiffs have moved for supplemental summary judgment on their challenge to the BSEA's conclusions. However, “[i]n a case like this, summary judgment is merely the device for deciding the issue, because the procedure is in substance an appeal from an administrative determination, not a summary judgment.” North Reading Sch. Comm. v. BSEA, 480 F.Supp.2d 479, 480 n.1 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The burden of proof rests on the party challenging the hearing officer's decision. Hampton Sch. Dist. v. Dobrowolski, 976 F.2d 48, 54 (1st Cir. 1992).

         Essentially, “judicial review [of administrative decisions on claims brought under the IDEA] falls somewhere between the highly deferential clear-error standard and the non-deferential de novo standard.” Lessard v. Wilton-Lyndeborough Coop. Sch. Dist., 518 F.3d 18, 24 (1st Cir. 2008) (citing Roland M. v. Concord Sch. Comm., 910 F.2d 983, 989 (1st Cir. 1990)). The IDEA provides that courts reviewing agency decisions “(i) shall receive the records of the administrative proceeding; (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.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C). The Supreme Court has explained that a district court's review entails both procedural and substantive aspects. Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 205 (1982) (“When the elaborate and highly specific procedural safeguards embodied in § 1415 are contrasted with the general and somewhat imprecise substantive admonitions contained in the Act, we think that the importance Congress attached to these procedural safeguards cannot be gainsaid.”). Thus, in reviewing the appropriateness of an IEP, a court “must ask two questions: ‘First, has the State complied with the procedures set forth in the Act? And second, is the individualized educational program developed through the Act's procedures reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits?'” Roland M., 910 F.2d at 990 (quoting Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206-07).

         A reviewing court must ensure that the school district and state education agency adhere scrupulously to the procedural requirements of the statute and relevant regulations and rules. See Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206 (noting that the Act “demonstrates the legislative conviction that adequate compliance with the procedures prescribed would in most cases assure much if not all of what Congress wished in the way of substantive content in an IEP.”). However, in reviewing an agency's substantive decisions on FAPEs and IEPs, a reviewing court's “principal function is one of involved oversight.” Roland M., 910 F.2d at 989. “[C]ourts should be loathe to intrude very far into interstitial details or to become embroiled in captious disputes as to the precise efficacy of different instructional programs.” Id. at 992; see also Lt. T.B. ex rel. N.B. v. Warwick Sch. Comm., 361 F.3d 80, 83 (1st Cir. 2004) (“The Rowley standard recognizes that courts are ill-equipped to second-guess reasonable choices that school districts have made among appropriate instructional methods.”). Nonetheless, it is the reviewing court's role to render “an independent ruling as to the IEP's adequacy based on a preponderance of all the evidence, including the hearing officer's duly weighted findings.” Lenn v. Portland Sch. Comm., 998 F.2d 1083, 1089 (1st Cir. 1993).

         In short, on matters that implicate educational expertise, heightened deference is due to an agency's administrative findings. Mr. I v. Maine Sch. Admin. Dist. No. 55, 416 F.Supp.2d 147, 156 (D. Me. 2006). However, “when the issue is more a matter of law, the educational expertise of the agency is not implicated, and less deference is required.” Id. at 157.

         As to the evidence, the administrative process is to be accorded “its due weight” such that “judicial review does not become a trial de novo, thereby rendering the administrative hearing nugatory.” Roland M. at 996. The First Circuit has directed district courts reviewing appeals of administrative decisions under the IDEA to

review[ ] the administrative record, which may be supplemented by additional evidence from the parties, and make[ ] an independent ruling based on the preponderance of the evidence. That independence is tempered by the requirement that the court give due weight to the hearing officer's findings. This intermediate level of review reflects the concern that courts not substitute their own notions of ...

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