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R.B. v. Napa Valley Unified School Dist.

June 2, 2005


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bernard Zimmerman United States Magistrate Judge


On January 9, 2004, F.B., on behalf of herself and her child, R.B., sued the Napa Valley Unified School District ("the District") under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1401, et seq.*fn1

Plaintiffs assert that R.B. was eligible for IDEA services for the 2001-02 and 2002-03 school years based on an emotional disturbance or other health impairment, and that the District failed to provide a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE"). See 20 U.S.C. § 1401(3)(A),(8). They seek reimbursements in the amount of $140,643.00 for the cost of R.B.'s private placement at Intermountain Children's Home and Services ("Intermountain"),*fn2 $1,500 for an expert's assessment, and $3,000 paid to an educational consultant to locate Intermountain. They also seek reasonable attorneys' fees and costs. Now before me are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment.

The facts set forth in the administrative record are largely undisputed. R.B. was born in May 1991, and as an infant was placed in foster care. At one year of age, a neurologist evaluated her and found that she was having problems associated with exposure to illicit drugs in utero, including irritability, delayed visual maturation, central hypertonia, and delayed gross motor skills. At eighteen months she was placed with F.B., a single mother, who subsequently adopted her. At approximately two-and-a-half years of age, R.B.'s biological father allegedly sexually abused her during an unsupervised visit. Following the incident, she displayed severe emotional symptoms, including self-mutilation and inappropriate displays of affection.

In June 1994, she was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD") and was prescribed medication to treat her symptoms. In September 1994, she was diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ("PTSD").

R.B. was assessed in February and March 1996. The assessment noted that R.B. had made significant progress, and did not demonstrate developmental delays in gross and fine motor skills, speech and language, self-help skills, and cognitive ability. Her primary areas of difficulty remained in the "social and emotional domain." The assessment concluded that although she had strong language skills and cognitive abilities, she nonetheless qualified for special education based on a learning disability, and an individualized education program ("IEP") was developed to address these issues.*fn3

At the beginning of the 1997-98 school year, R.B.'s mother placed R.B. in private school, but within several months she returned to the District. In January 1998, the District assessed R.B., and following an IEP meeting, concluded that she no longer qualified for special education services. R.B.'s mother disagreed, and requested a reassessment. Emily Jordan, Ph.D., a District psychologist, reassessed R.B. In her evaluation, Dr. Jordan noted that R.B. was making excellent academic progress, and her difficulties maintaining interpersonal relationships were not adversely impacting her school performance. Although the District concluded that R.B. did not meet the criteria for either a learning disability or serious emotional disturbance, it developed an accommodation plan pursuant to section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 ("504 Plan"), to address R.B.'s ADHD, and a Classroom Behavioral Intervention Plan to address R.B.'s behavioral difficulties.*fn4

During the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 school years, R.B. had several behavioral incidents at school, one of which resulted in a one-day suspension. During the 2001-02 school year, the first year at issue in this case, R.B. was suspended for a total of four-and-a-half days for twisting another child's arm during recess and for defiant behavior at recess and in class. On two occasions, the school called on local law enforcement to assist in removing her from the premises. She was also removed from her music class for several weeks after commenting that she hoped her music teacher would "die." R.B.'s behavioral difficulties were particularly pronounced during the second trimester of the 2001-02 school year. On February 22, 2002, the District implemented a Behavior Support Plan, and her behavior improved during the third trimester of the 2001-02 school year.

R.B.'s grades were consistently average to above average, and by the 2000-01 school year, her achievement test scores had increased to the 80th and 90th percentile. Her achievement test scores declined slightly during the 2001-02 school year, but remained average to above average. On a scale of one through five she received grades of four and five in all subjects. According to R.B.'s teacher, Joseph Silveira, although she was in fifth grade her vocabulary scores on one test placed her somewhere between an eighth and tenth grade level.

During the 2001-02 school year, R.B.'s mother contacted an educational consultant, and eventually retained Paula Solomon, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and clinical director at a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed adolescents. Dr. Solomon assessed R.B. in Spring 2002. In her evaluation, Dr. Solomon concluded that although R.B. made "significant academic progress each year, and is at average in most subjects, and above average in math, most of her academic skills are not at the level expected given her intelligence." Administrative Record ("A.R.") at Tab 29. She further stated that "public schools have been able to meet [R.B.'s] cognitive needs, but have repeatedly failed to address her emotional and behavioral needs." Id. Her diagnostic impression was that R.B. suffered from ADHD, intermittent explosive disorder, recurrent, moderate, early onset, major depressive disorder, and PTSD. Based on her assessment, she recommended that R.B. be placed in a residential treatment program.

On July 15, 2002, R.B.'s mother notified the District that she intended to place R.B. in a residential program. On August 6, 2002, she requested a due process hearing pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1).*fn5 On August 16 2002, R.B.'s mother placed her in Intermountain, a private residential treatment program located in Montana. Denise Struven, a District psychologist, assessed R.B. at Intermountain in December 2002. Struven concluded that R.B. had superior intellectual ability; that her academic skills tested at or above grade level; and that although she had some difficulty with interpersonal relationships and exhibited symptoms of depression, she did not meet the relevant special education eligibility criteria. On January 31, 2003, the District held an IEP meeting, and the IEP team determined that R.B. was not eligible for special education.*fn6

During the 2002-03 school year, R.B. attended Intermountain. At Intermountain, she exhibited some inappropriate behavior, most of which appears to have occurred outside of the classroom. Her grades generally remained average to above average. She developed relationships with Intermountain staff, including her teacher, and began to make friends.

A due process hearing was held pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1) before a Hearing Officer for the California Special Education Hearing Office ("the hearing officer") over the course of six days in June and August 2003. In a sixteen-page written decision issued on October 15, 2003, the hearing officer concluded that R.B. did not meet the eligibility criteria for special education as a student with an emotional disturbance and/or other health impairment for either the 2001-02 or 2002-03 school year. Based on this conclusion she determined that the District was not required to provide special education or related services; nor was R.B.'s mother entitled to reimbursement for tuition at Intermountain. Following the decision, R.B.'s mother, on behalf of both herself and her child, filed this complaint.

In an IDEA action, the party challenging the hearing officer's decision bears the burden of persuasion. Clyde K. v. Puyallap Sch. Dist. No. 3, 35 F.3d 1396, 1399 (9th Cir. 1994). The court shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant appropriate relief. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(B). Although judicial review of state administrative proceedings under the IDEA is less deferential than review of other agency actions, Ojai Unified Sch. Dist. v. Jackson, 4 F.3d 1467, 1471 (9th Cir. 1993), "the provision that the reviewing court is to base its decision on the 'preponderance of the evidence' is by no means an invitation to the courts to substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review." Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Central Sch. Dist., Westchester County v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982). "The amount of deference accorded the hearing officer's findings increases where they are thorough and careful." Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. v. Wartenberg, 59 F.3d 884, 891 (9th Cir. 1995). After considering the hearing officer's findings carefully and endeavoring to respond to the hearing officer's resolution of each material issue, the court is "free to accept or reject the findings in part or in whole." Capistrano Unified, 59 F.3d at 891 (quoting Gregory K. v. Longview Sch. ...

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