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Poway Unified School District v. Katelyn Cheng

September 23, 2011


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


Poway Unified School District challenges the decision of an Administrative Law Judge that K.C., a deaf student, is entitled to "word-for-word" transcription services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It is the District's position that "meaning-for- meaning" transcription is sufficient.*fn1 K.C., of course, believes that meaning-for-meaning transcription is substantially inferior to word-for-word transcription, and that the Administrative Law Judge got it right.*fn2

I. Legal Background

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires that "all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). The Supreme Court defined the contours of a "free appropriate public education," or FAPE, in Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist., Westchester County v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 203 (1982). Rowley is still controlling, even though IDEA has been amended multiple times since it was decided. "The proper standard to determine whether a disabled child has received a free appropriate public education is the . . . standard set forth by the Supreme Court in Rowley." J.L. v. Mercer Island Sch. Dist., 592 F.3d 938, 951 (9th Cir. 2010). It is critical, then, to be clear on the Supreme Court's holding in Rowley.

The Court began by looking directly at the IDEA statute and finding that a FAPE "consists of educational instruction specifically designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child, supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child 'to benefit' from the instruction." Rowley, 458 U.S. at 188. The Court then noted that it is access to education, not so much the substance of the education received, that matters. Id. at 192. Indeed, "the Act imposes no clear obligation upon recipient States beyond the requirement that handicapped children receive some form of specialized education." Id. at 195. This "specialized education" need not provide disabled students with "every special service necessary to maximize [their] potential," but rather a "basic floor of opportunity" and "some educational benefit." Id. at 199--200. So long as a disabled student is able to benefit educationally from a school, that school has provided her with a FAPE. Id. at 203.

The other major piece of IDEA, in addition to the FAPE requirement, is the Individualized Education Program, or IEP. This is a collaborative effort of the school system and the disabled student's parents, and the process by which a student's FAPE is conceived. See Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 53 (2005). IDEA requires that all disabled students receive an IEP, 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(2), and it must include, among other things, "a statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable, to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child, and a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided for the child." 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(IV). The IEP must be "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits." R.P. ex rel. C.P. v. Prescott Unified Sch. Dist., 631 F.3d 1117, 1121 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting N.B. v. Hellgate Elementary Sch. Dist., 541 F.3d 1202, 1207 (9th Cir. 2008)).

State standards are also part of the IDEA analysis. Rowley, 458 203.*fn3

California law, however, does not require accommodations beyond those required by IDEA. Cal. Educ. Code § 56000(e). If parents are dissatisfied with their child's IEP, they may seek an administrative hearing, referred to as an "impartial due process hearing," pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f). And after that hearing, any aggrieved party can bring a civil action in state or federal court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2).

II. Procedural History

On May 18, 2009, an IEP was convened to discuss K.C.'s transition from middle school to high school. That IEP lasted through June 9, 2009. K.C.'s IEP team agreed that she should receive transcription services, but it did not specify whether she should receive word-for-word transcription or meaning-for-meaning transcription. K.C.'s parents, who insisted on CART, did not consent to the IEP for this reason. Subsequently, on June 18, they sent an email requesting CART transcription and were informed by letter on June 25 that the District would offer only TypeWell.*fn4 On July 28, 2009 they requested the due process hearing that the District now asks this Court to review. Their request alleged that the District's failure to provide K.C. with CART denied her a FAPE and violated the California Education Code.

An Administrative Law Judge with the Office of Administrative Hearings heard testimony on four days in December and found for K.C.: "[T]he District failed to provide Student a FAPE in the May 18-June 9, 2009 IEP by its failure to provide her with CART in English, Geometry, Biology, and Health classes." (AR 132.) The District was ordered to provide K.C. with CART services immediately. (AR 134.)

III. Discussion

The ALJ summarized the law applicable to K.C.'s demand for CART and, in the Court's view, got it mostly right. He explained that "[i]n resolving the question of whether a school district has offered a FAPE, the focus is on the adequacy of the school district's proposed program." (AR 131 (citing Gregory K. v. Longview Sch. Dist., 811 F.2d 1307, 1314 (9th Cir. 1987).) He further explained that "[a] school district is not required to place a student in a program preferred by a parent, even if that program will result in greater educational benefit to the child." (AR 131.) The ALJ also gave significant attention to Rowley and explained that "the IDEA does not require school districts to provide special education students with the best education available or to provide instruction or services that maximize a student's abilities." (AR 131.) He continued, "school districts are required to provide only a 'basic floor of opportunity' that consists of access to specialized instructional and related services which are individually designed to provide educational benefit to the student." (AR 131--132.) This is all true.

The Court is mildly troubled, however, by the attention the ALJ gave to California special education law without recognizing that it "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. Educ. Code ยง 56000(e). The closest he came was to say "California law creates specific state standards to address the needs of deaf students, including the obligation to provide the pupil with equal opportunity for communication access that must be considered within the Rowley standard." (AR 132.) It is hard to know whether the ALJ actually and improperly relied on California law in ...

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