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Mahoney v. Carlsbad Unified School District

April 8, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marilyn L. Huff, District Judge United States District Court


On February 17, 2009, Plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment appealing an administrative decision holding that Defendant complied with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act with regard to Plaintiffs' child B.M. (Doc. No. 14.) On March 9, 2009, Defendant filed its response in opposition and cross-motion for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 17.) On March 16, 2009, Plaintiffs filed a reply in support of their motion for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 18.) Defendant filed its reply on March 23, 2009. (Doc. No. 21.) On April 6, 2009, the Court heard oral argument on the cross-motions for summary judgment. Ellen Dowd appeared on behalf of the Plaintiffs. Jonathon Reid and Tiffany Santos appeared on behalf of the Defendant. After due consideration of the administrative record, the parties' submissions, and the argument before the Court, the Court grants Defendant's motion for summary judgment and denies Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment for the following reasons.

Factual & Procedural Background

Plaintiffs are the parents of B.M., a twelve-year-old student. B.M. initially qualified for special education services in March 2005 under the category of "speech or language impairment." (AR 1498, 1183.) At that time, Carlsbad Unified School District ("the District") provided B.M. with small-group speech and language services through Cynthia Schmitz, a District-employed speech therapist. (AR 112, 1183.) Ms. Schmitz is highly qualified. She received her B.A. in Speech and Hearing and a subsequent M.S. in Speech and Hearing through Eastern Washington University in 1976. (AR 98-100.) She has approximately 27 years experience as a speech and language therapist and has more than 1200 students over the course of her career. (AR 106-108.)

In April 2005, Plaintiffs removed B.M. from the District and taught him at home. (AR 863, 1183.) In 2007, Plaintiffs requested a due process hearing before the California Office of Administrative Hearings. Plaintiffs eventually settled that claim against the District when the District agreed to fund services for B.M. at Foundations for Reading and Learning ("FRL"), a private program not certified by the California Department of Education as a nonpublic agency or a nonpublic school. (AR 845-46, 729.) Trish Padgett, the director of FRL, worked with B.M. through District funding beginning in June 2007. (AR 729.)

Later in 2007, District personnel began a series of evaluations of B.M. for the purpose of designing an Individualized Education Program ("IEP") to meet his needs. Speech therapist Cynthia Schmitz conducted two speech and language evaluations of B.M. (AR 130.) Ann Jordan, a District occupational therapist, conducted an assessment of B.M. with the goal of determining his need for in-class assistance. (AR 320-21.) Karissa Neilson, a District education specialist certified in disability education, conducted an academic assessment of B.M. (AR 1360-62, 1418.) John Pappas, Ph.D., a District psychologist, performed a psychological evaluation of B.M. (AR 1486-92.) Dr. Pappas's tests showed that B.M.'s IQ was at or slightly above average, but that he displayed signs of suffering from ADHD. (Id.)

Also in Fall 2007, Plaintiffs enrolled B.M. at the Encinitas Country Day School, a private school. (AR 877-86, 1185.) Plaintiffs did not inform the District IEP team about B.M.'s enrollment at the private school. Instead, Mrs. Mahoney informed District that B.M. was home-schooled during that time. (Id.) B.M. remained at Encinitas Country Day School for just one semester, after which Mrs. Mahoney removed him because she believed he was not obtaining any educational benefit at that institution. (AR 877, 887.)

On January 24, 2008, the District convened an IEP team meeting to review the results of B.M.'s assessments and develop an appropriate IEP. (AR 1336, 1188.) District representatives at the meeting included Schmitz, Pappas, Jordan, and Neilson, as well as J. Bruce Kramer (a school administrator), Hun Kaplowitz (a general education teacher from B.M.'s neighborhood school, Hope Elementary), Juanita Bass (a special education teacher at Hope), Hope's speech pathologist, and Hope's school psychologist. (AR 1188, 1353.) The District's attorney was also present, as was Mrs. Mahoney and her attorney. (Id.) The team was unable to complete the IEP at that meeting, and reconvened on February 20, 2008. (AR 1188, 1355.)

At that time, the team agreed that B.M. was eligible for special education under the category of "specific learning disability." (AR 1355.) The IEP designed by the team would entail B.M. enrolling at Hope Elementary in general education with 60 minutes of learning center instruction per day, 30 minutes of speech and language services per week and 30 minutes of occupational therapist services per week. (AR 1355-56.) To facilitate B.M.'s transition from home school, the team proposed that B.M. initially attend Hope for the first half of the day and participate in the familiar FRL program with Trish Padgett for the second half of the day. These supplemental sessions would gradually be reduced until B.M. was attending Hope for the entire day. (AR 1356.) The District offered to provide transportation from Hope to FRL. (Id.) The team also proposed that B.M. participate in a social skills group with the Hope school psychologist and 2-3 peers and provided that B.M. would be able to meet with the psychologist or the school learning center as needed to address any social or emotional problems during the school day. (Id.) Mrs. Mahoney rejected this IEP and requested that B.M. attend a nonpublic school. (Id.) The team unanimously agreed that its IEP did not warrant a level of service requiring a nonpublic school placement and formalized this decision in a written response to Mrs. Mahoney. (AR 700.)

On March 14, 2008, the District filed a due process request with the California Office of Administrative Hearings seeking a finding that its IEP offer to B.M. constituted a Free and Appropriate Public Education under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. (AR 1037.) Administrative Law Judge Susan Ruff conducted the due process hearing on May 13-15 and June 10, 2008. (AR 1182.) Plaintiffs and Defendant were represented by counsel. (Id.) The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") took the matter under submission after the parties filed their writen closing arguments on June 18, 2008. (Id.) On July 16, 2008, the ALJ issued a 22-page decision in favor of the District. (Id.)

Plaintiffs appeal the ALJ's decision on two grounds. First, Plaintiffs argue that the IEP team did not include individuals whose presence was required by statute. Second, Plaintiffs assert that the ALJ improperly relied on inadmissible evidence and reached factual conclusions outside the proper scope of the administrative proceedings.


I. IDEA Appeal -- Legal Standard

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") and related California statutes, students with disabilities have the right to a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"). 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.; CaL.Ed. Code § 56000 et seq. Section 56000 of the California statute states that "this part does not set a higher standard of educating individuals with exceptional needs than that established by Congress under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act." CaL.Ed. Code § 56000(e). The IDEA defines a FAPE as special education and related services that (1) are provided without charge at public expense and under public supervision and direction, (2) meet the standards of the State educational agency, (3) include an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school education within the State, and (4) are provided in accordance with an individualized education program ("IEP") -- a ...

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