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J.P. v. Ripon Unified School Dist.

April 14, 2009

J.P. A MINOR, BY AND THROUGH HIS MOTHER E.P. AND E.P., INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
RIPON UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Morrison C. England, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Through the present proceeding, Plaintiffs appeal a decision rendered by the Special Education Division of the California Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH") pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1401, et seq ("IDEA"). Plaintiffs specifically challenge the OAH's decision finding that certain special education assessments evaluating the minor Plaintiff, J.P., were legally sufficient. Both Plaintiffs and Defendant Ripon Unified School District now move for summary judgment. As set forth below, the District's Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted.

BACKGROUND

At the time the educational assessments at issue in this case were obtained, Plaintiff J.P. was a nine-year old student eligible for special education services under the category of Other Health Impairment (OHI), due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), tics, and dysgraphia. He was enrolled in the fourth grade at Ripon Elementary School, a school within the purview of Defendant Ripon Unified School District ("District"). J.P. became eligible for Special Education services as a second grader in December of 2004.

In August of 2006, after J.P. had been receiving special education services for nearly two years, J.P.'s mother asked a psychologist, Dr. David Rose to assess her son. Dr. Rose concluded that J.P. was suffering from both Autism Spectrum Disorder and Depression. J.P.'s mother forwarded Dr. Rose's report to the District in September of 2006 and requested that additional services be provided commensurate with Dr. Rose's diagnosis.

In response both Dr. Rose's report and consistent with its obligation to assess J.P., as a special needs student, at least once every three years, the District's credentialed school psychologist, Sean Henry, conducted a psychoeducational assessment of J.P. in the Fall of 2006. Cheryl Ramey, a District resource specialist program teacher, also administered academic testing reflected within the actual psychoeducational assessment report prepared by Mr. Henry and dated December 15, 2006.

That 26-page report, contained within the Administrative Record ("AR") at pages 106-131, concluded that J.P. was not autistic, although it recommended that J.P. continued to qualify for special education and related services under the OHI category.

In addition to the psychoeducational report, two District speech and language pathologists, Judi Gladen and Sharon Filippi, administered a speech and language assessment to J.P. on October 2, 2006, and thereafter prepared a report summarizing their findings. Given Dr. Rose's diagnosis of autism, Ms. Gladen and Ms. Filippi were asked to determine whether J.P. exhibited the difficulty in communicative social skills normally associated with the disorder. They concluded that J.P. did not exhibit pragmatic dysfunction in that regard despite the fact he had difficulty in applying certain social skills. See AR 132-136.

J.P.'s mother did not agree with the conclusions reached in either of the District's assessments and instead, pursuant to 34 C.F.R. § 300.502, requested Independent Educational Evaluations ("IEEs") at the District's expense. She believed that the district's testing did not validly measure J.P.'s unique needs. The District refused to authorize the requested IEEs and filed a due process hearing request, under 34 C.F.R. § 300.502(b)(2), on February 26, 2007.

The hearing on that request was held over two separate days in May of 2007, and was limited to two narrow issues: first, whether the District's Fall 2006 psychoeducational assessment of J.P. was appropriate and second, whether the concurrently prepared speech and language assessment was also sufficient.

See AR 97, 849, Reporter's Transcript ("RT"),*fn1 May 14, 2007, 22:2-6.

The finding in favor of the District on those two issues (AR 848-60) by the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") prompted the present appeal.

STANDARD

In adjudicating an appeal from an administrative decision regarding the rights of students with disabilities, the court is charged with receiving the record of the administrative proceeding which, in essence, forms the undisputed facts of the case. Though not a "true motion for summary judgment, the appeal of an IDEA-based due process hearing decision is properly styled and presented by the parties in a summary judgment format. Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. v. Wartenberg, 59 F.3d 884, 892 (9th Cir. 1995).

The standard for district court review under the IDEA is set forth in 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2), which provides as follows:

"In any action brought under this paragraph 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 such relief as the court determines is appropriate."

This standard requires that "due weight" be given to the administrative proceedings. Hendrick Hudson Central Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982). The amount of deference so accorded is subject to the court's discretion. Gregory K. v. Longview Sch. Dist., 811 F.2d 1307, 1311 (9th Cir. 1987). In making that determination, the thoroughness of the hearing offer's findings should be considered, with the degree of deference increased where said findings are "thorough and careful." Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. v. Wartenberg, 59 F.3d 884, 892 (9th Cir. 1995), citing Union Sch. Dist. v. Smith, 15 F.3d 1519, 1524 (9th Cir. 1994). Such deference is appropriate because "if the district court tried the case anew, the work of the hearing officer would not receive 'due weight,' and would be largely wasted." Capistrano, 59 F.3d at 891.

Because of the deference potentially accorded the administrative proceedings, complete de novo review is inappropriate. Amanda J. v. Clark County Sch. Dist., 267 F.3d 877, 887 (9th Cir. 2001). Instead, the district court must make an independent judgment based on a preponderance of the evidence and giving due weight to the hearing officer's determination. Capistrano, 59 F.3d at 892. After such determination, the court is free to accept or reject the hearing officer's findings in whole or in part. Ojai Unified Sch. Dist. v. Jackson, 4 F.3d 1467, 1473-73 (9th Cir. 1993).

While the petitioning party bears the burden of proof at the administrative level, Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 57 (2005), the party challenging an administrative decision in federal district court has the burden of persuasion on his or her claim. Clyde ...


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