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Z.F. et al v. Ripon Unified School District

January 8, 2013

Z.F. ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
RIPON UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANT.



ORDER

Plaintiffs*fn1 Z.F. and his mother appeal a decision issuing from the State of California, Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH") under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). Plaintiffs move for summary judgment, alleging that the OAH decision incorrectly found that defendant, Ripon Unified School District ("District"), offered Z.F. a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") as required by the IDEA. (ECF 12.) Defendant cross-moves for summary judgment, urging this court to affirm the OAH decision. (ECF 15.) The court heard oral argument on October 19, 2012; George D. Crook appeared for plaintiffs and Ileana Butu appeared for the District. For the following reasons, plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment is DENIED and defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

I. STATUTORY, PROCEDURAL, AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History and Statutory Background The IDEA requires all states receiving federal education funds to provide disabled children a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE"). 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). The FAPE must be tailored to each student's unique needs through an individualized education program ("IEP"). 20 U.S.C. § 1401(9). An IEP is a written statement for each disabled student that includes, for example, goals, measures of progress, and a statement of special education and supplementary aids and services the student will be provided. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i). An IEP is formulated by the school district in conjunction with a student's parents and others. A school district or a parent can request an administrative due process hearing before a state administrative law judge ("ALJ") to receive a determination on whether an IEP in fact offers a student a FAPE as required by the IDEA. 20 U.S.C. §1415(f)(1)(A).

On February 17, 2011, plaintiffs refused to agree to the IEP at issue in this case. AR*fn2 Vol. 5 at 1242. In response, the District filed with the OAH a request for a due process hearing, styled as a complaint, on March 17, 2011, to determine whether the IEP accorded with the IDEA. AR Vol. 5 at 1242. The District filed its second amended complaint on March 24, 2011. Id. The ALJ assigned to the case held a three-day hearing from May 17 through May 19, 2011. Id. In her July 18, 2011 written decision, the ALJ found for the District on all issues, concluding that the District's February 17, 2011 IEP adhered to the IDEA's requirements and therefore offered Z.F. a FAPE. AR Vol. 5 at 1264. Plaintiffs timely filed this action, as authorized by 20 U.S.C. §1415(i)(2)(A), to seek this court's review of the ALJ's decision.

B. Facts*fn3

Z.F. is an 11-year-old boy with autism who is eligible for special education services under the IDEA. AR Vol. 5 at 1245. At all times relevant to this action, Z.F. attended Weston Elementary School within Ripon Unified School District. Id. When Z.F. began kindergarten in 2006, he was placed in a general education classroom for most of the day; however, he was always accompanied by a one-to-one aide from Genesis, a non-public agency ("NPA")*fn4 under contract with the District to provide behavioral intervention services for a number of District students. Id. Each of Z.F.'s IEPs, including the February 17, 2011 IEP at issue here, provided that Z.F. shall receive behavior intervention services from any NPA under contract with the district; Genesis was never specifically prescribed in Z.F.'s IEPs. AR Vol. 4 at 928; AR Vol. 5 at 1251. Genesis provided Z.F. these services for over four years. During this time, ten different Genesis aides, including four in Z.F.'s last school year alone, and four or five different Genesis case managers worked with Z.F. AR Vol. 5 at 1255. Z.F. had no difficulty with transitions from one Genesis aide to another, except during the 2007-2008 school year. AR Vol. 5 at 1255-56. On January 24, 2011, the District and Genesis executed a mutual agreement to terminate Genesis's services for the District, with termination to take effect on or before February 17, 2011. AR Vol. 6 at 1619-20. The District notified plaintiffs on January 19, 2011 that another NPA, Learning Solutions, would replace Genesis. AR Vol. 5 at 1355.

As the ALJ noted, the District's decision to replace Genesis with Learning Solutions is at the heart of this matter. AR Vol. 5 at 1245. The District began discussing replacing Genesis during Z.F.'s November 16, 2009 IEP process. AR Vol. 6 at 1810. At that point in time, the District intended to replace Genesis with district aides, not with another NPA. Id. Z.F.'s 2009 IEP team concluded that switching from Genesis to district aides would require a transition plan. Id. Z.F.'s mother stated she would sign "no" to an IEP that replaced Genesis with district aides. AR Vol. 6 at 1811. On August 6, 2010, plaintiffs received a letter notifying them that Genesis had been terminated.*fn5 AR Vol. 3 at 661. In the end, however, the District retained Genesis, in part because it was not able to conclude arrangements for a replacement NPA at that time. AR Vol. 2 at 402. Genesis remained Z.F.'s NPA until the mutual rescission agreement reached by the District and Genesis on January 19, 2011. AR Vol. 5 at 1355.

In a meeting on February 17, 2011, the District offered the IEP challenged here, which plaintiffs rejected and which the ALJ found complied with the requirements of IDEA. AR Vol. 5 at 1246. This IEP was drafted over three IEP team meetings. Z.F.'s mother attended the first meeting held on November 8, 2010, which lasted several hours. AR Vol. 5 at 1247. The group meeting there, including the mother, selected November 22, 2010 as the next meeting date, because it had not satisfactorily completed the new IEP. AR Vol. 5 at 1247. Approximately one and-a-half hours before the November 22 meeting, the mother called the District to say she would not be able to attend. Id. The ALJ concluded that the mother must not have objected to the meeting occurring without her, as the meeting was held and she did not complain of her absence from the meeting in the due process hearing. Id. An additional meeting, set first for December 16, 2010 and then January 25, 2011, was never held: the first date was cancelled because the District's Special Education Director, an indispensable IEP team member, had to attend to a hospitalized parent; the second was cancelled because Z.F.'s mother had to leave the country upon the death of a parent. AR Vol. 5 at 1248-1249. The mother was present for the final meeting, held on February 17, 2011, at which the challenged IEP was offered. AR Vol. 5 at 1246.

The District provided Z.F a transition between NPAs, and Z.F.'s mother had some input on this transition. The District arranged for a Learning Solutions aide to overlap with a Genesis aide for four days, from February 14, 2011 until Genesis's contract expired on February 17, 2011. AR Vol. 5 at 1380. However, because Z.F. did not attend school on February 16 and 17, aides from the two NPAs overlapped on only two days. AR Vol. 5 at 1614. Z.F.'s mother participated in email and in-person discussions about the transition from Genesis to Learning Solutions. AR Vol. 3 at 682, 685; AR Vol. 5 at 1358-1359, 1366-1367, 1379-1394, 1398-1399. Both sides testified that Z.F.'s mother had email exchanges with Erin Chargin, the owner and director of Learning Solutions, and with Susan Harper, the District's Coordinator of Student Support. AR Vol. 3 at 491, 682. Additionally, the mother asked Ms. Chargin several questions about Learning Solution's practices and its ability to replace Genesis at the February 17, 2011 meeting at which the District offered the IEP at issue here. AR Vol. 3 at 493.

Plaintiffs allege that the District violated IDEA procedures by predetermining the nature of Z.F's transition from Genesis to Learning Solutions, without giving Z.F.'s parents input on the transition. ECF 12 at 1.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In IDEA cases, courts give less deference to an administrative decision than in other administrative cases, but at the same time full de novo review is inappropriate. J.L. v. Mercer Island Sch. Dist., 592 F.3d 938, 949 (9th Cir. 2010) (citing J.G. v. Douglas County Sch. Dist., 552 F.3d 786, 793 (9th Cir. 2008); see also Bd. Of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982) (stating that "due weight" should be given to the administrative proceedings below). Congress provides the following guidance regarding standard of review:

In any action brought under this paragraph, the court-

(i) shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings;

(ii) shall hear additional evidence at the request ...


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