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Mary Struble, As Conservator For C.S., (Cab v. Fallbrook Union High School District

January 27, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorablelarryalanburns United States District Judge


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq., provides federal funding to states "to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education." 20 U.S.C. 1400(d). IDEA requires states who receive federal funding to provide disabled children with a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE). 20 U.S.C. §§ 1401(8) & 1412(a)(1). A school district is required to offer disabled students an appropriately-designed FAPE that provides a meaningful benefit. J.W. ex rel. J.E.W. v. Fresno Unified Sch. Dist., 626 F.3 431, 432--33 (9th Cir. 2010). The state, through the school districts, and a student's parents must cooperatively develop an individual education program (IEP) for each qualified child. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d).

If the parents are unsatisfied with the IEP offered by the state, parents may request an impartial due process hearing through the state educational agency to review the IEP and order a more appropriate educational program. 20 U.S.C. 1415(f). If the parents, or the school district, objects to the results of the agency hearing, then-and only then-they may appeal the case to a State court or U.S. district court. 20 U.S.C. 1415(i)(2). That court must review the administrative record, hear additional evidence upon request, and "shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate." 20 U.S.C. 1415(i)(2)(B)(iii). The parties may not bring their case before the courts until they exhaust these administrative procedures. Id.

This case consists of a complaint filed by Plaintiff Mary Struble, the conservator and mother of a young man ("C.S."), who alleges that the Defendant failed to provide a FAPE and seeking that C.S. be placed at the Fusion Learning Center , a nonpublic school which has not been certified by the state as an appropriate school for children with disabilities. The complaint seeks to modify the remedy prescribed by the administrative law judge (ALJ) who conducted an administrative due process hearing and agreed with Struble that the defendant failed to provide C.S. a FAPE. After she filed the complaint, Struble placed her son with Fusion, but does not seek reimbursement of those costs in this complaint. The complaint doesn't say what whether C.S. continued at Fusion, or what his status is now, but the Court assumes the parents continue to seek compensatory education for him. In addition, the Defendant, Fallbrook Union High School District, filed a counterclaim seeking to reverse the decision by the ALJ.

I. Facts and Procedural History

The Court referred this case to Magistrate Judge Cathy Bencivengo, who issued her report and recommendation ("R&R"), thoroughly canvassing the facts and procedural history. The Court ADOPTS the R&R's findings, which in summary establish the following. C.S. qualifies for special education because he is autistic. He attended Fallbrook High School from mid-2004 until approximately May 2007. In May 2007, about a month before the end of his senior year, C.S.'s parents pulled him out of school based on the recommendation of C.S.'s psychiatrist. Just before May 2007, Struble first learned that the Student was not on a high school "diploma" track, but rather on a "certificate of completion" track. She claims the District staff never informed her that C.S. would not receive a diploma even if he successfully completed all his classes.

In June 2007, the parties met to discuss C.S.'s IEP, during which the parties quarreled over whether Struble knew that C.S. was on a "certificate of completion" track. At the meeting, Defendant offered C.S. two options: (1) to return to Fallbrook High School as a "super senior," or (2) to attend the District's transition program, located on the Fallbrook High School campus. Neither option permitted C.S. to graduate with a diploma, and "the discussion focused around why C.S. was not currently capable of attaining a diploma." (Doc. No. 1, ALJ Decision, at 14).

Unsatisfied with this result, Plaintiff filed a due process complaint against the District with the California Office of Administrative Hearing, Special Education Division ("OAH"), alleging that Defendant failed to provide C.S. with a FAPE. The complaint accused the District of fifteen specific failures over the course of C.S.'s junior and senior years. On November 20, 2007, the ALJ ruled in Plaintiff's favor as to three specific allegations: (1) failure to provide parents with options for C.S. graduation while C.S. was in the eleventh grade; (2) failure to write any handwriting goals while C.S. was in the eleventh grade; and (3) failure to provide parents or C.S. with options for graduation, and/or predetermination of placement while C.S. was in the twelfth grade. The ALJ ruled in the District's favor on the remaining twelve issues. Even so, due to the District's failure to provide a FAPE to C.S., some form of compensatory education was appropriate. The ALJ ordered the parties to meet and discuss options which permitted C.S. to work toward a diploma, including placement at a nonpublic school. The order specifically permitted the parties to file a new impartial due process complaint regarding any proposal made at that meeting. Struble considered this remedy unacceptable because she hoped to place C.S. at Fusion and have the District pay the tuition. By this time, the parties had lost rapport with one another and Struble believed the District had essentially abandoned any hope of C.S. graduating high school with a diploma.

On December 13, 2007, Plaintiff filed this complaint in the District Court. The parties then met on February 7, 2008, as ordered by the ALJ, to discuss a new IEP. The District offered to allow C.S. to participate in the high school curriculum leading to a diploma, with a proposed graduation date of June 10, 2011. Plaintiff rejected this offer, requesting that the District reimburse the family for the past and future costs of sending C.S. to Fusion. Defendant refused because, according to the District, Fusion could not provide a FAPE because Fusion was not certified by the state. It is not clear whether C.S. continued his education at Fusion.

The District also filed a counterclaim, essentially challenging the ALJ's findings that the District had failed to provide a FAPE to C.S.. The R&R recommends that the Court:

1. Dismiss the District's counterclaim with prejudice in its entirety;

2. As to the complaint, stay the action and remand the matter to the OAH for a final determination by a hearing officer as to the following two issues: (A) whether the new IEP (presented at the 2/7/08 IEP meeting) violated the IDEA and, if so (B) whether the private [unilateral parent] placement at Fusion was appropriate under the Act?;

3. Declare that Struble was the prevailing party in the ALJ hearing; and 4. Declare that Struble waived her right to appeal the ALJ's decision as to twelve of the fifteen issues contained in the original complaint.

Both parties object to the R&R. Struble objects only to the second recommendation, and requests that this Court hold a hearing and make a final determination on the case, rather than sending the case back to the OAH to start again. The District objects to the first and third recommendations, asking the Court to overturn the ALJ's findings and declare the District the prevailing party on all issues. In addition, the District objects to the way the R&R frames the issues for review in the second recommendation. Neither party objects to the fourth recommendation.

II. Standard of Review

A. De Novo Review of the R&R

A district court has jurisdiction to review a Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation on dispositive matters. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). "The district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to." Rule 72(b)(3). "A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). The Court reviews de novo those portions of the R&R to which specific written objection is made. United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003). In this case, both parties made specific objections, so the Court reviews those issues de novo.

B. Review of the ALJ Opinion

When reviewing a complaint under the IDEA, "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." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(2)(C). A full de novo review is inappropriate. J.W., 626 F.3d at 438. This is "an unusual formulation of the standard for district court review of an administrative decision." Capistrano Unified School District v. Wartenberg, 59 F.3d 884, 890 (9th Cir. 1995). The statutory requirement that the district court should "receive the records of the administrative proceedings" is not a simple matter of reading the record; rather, the Court must give the administrative record "due weight," which is to say some amount of deference Bd. of Educ. of the Hendrick Hudson Central Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982). How much deference is a matter of discretion for the courts. Gregory K. v. Longview Sch. Distr., 811 F.2d 1307, 1311 (9th Cir. 1987). The amount of deference accorded the hearing officer's finding increases where they are "thorough and careful." A.M. ex rel. Marshall v. Monrovia Unified Sch. Dist., 627 F.3d 773, 778 (2010) (citation omitted). In the end the Court must "read the administrative record, consider [any] new evidence, and make an independent judgment based on a preponderance of evidence and giving due weight to the hearing officer's determinations." Wartenberg, 59 F.3d at 892.

III. Discussion

A. The District's Objections ...

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