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C.L. v. Lucia Mar Unified School District

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

January 9, 2014

C.L
v.
LUCIA MAR UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT

CIVIL MINUTES - GENERAL

CHRISTINA A. SNYDER, District Judge.

Proceedings: (In Chambers:) ORDER RE: COURT TRIAL HELD NOVEMBER 15, 2013

REQUEST FOR JUDICIAL NOTICE (Dkt. #76, filed November 16, 2013)

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff C.L., through his mother V.L., brought this action in this Court on November 19, 2012, against the Lucia Mar Unified School District (the "District"). Plaintiff seeks to reverse a decision of the California Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH").[1] The OAH decision ("OAHD") found that the District properly implemented plaintiff's individualized education plan ("IEP") dated January 18, 2011, and also found that the IEP offered to plaintiff on February 3, 2012, was an offer of a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE") under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415 et seq. ("IDEA"). OAHD Legal Conclusions ¶¶ 1-22. Plaintiff seeks reimbursement for private school placement, behavioral support at the private school, and 50 hours of private tutoring. Second Amended Complaint ("SAC") ¶ 92.

Plaintiff filed a motion for leave to submit additional evidence on August 13, 2013, dkt. #39, and the District filed an opposition on August 26, 2013, dkt. #46. The Court granted plaintiff's motion by order dated August 30, 2013, but granted the District leave to renew its objections to the additional evidence at the time of trial. Dkt. #51. Plaintiff filed an opening trial brief on September 23, 2013. Dkt. #73. The District filed an opposition on October 22, 2013, dkt. #74, and plaintiff replied on November 7, 2013, dkt. #75. The Court held a bench trial on November 15, 2013, and thereafter took the matter under submission. Dkt. #77. The Court also granted the District leave to file a request for judicial notice of the OAH decision in OAH case number XXXXXXXXXX. Id . The District filed that request on November 16, 2013, dkt. #76, and plaintiff filed a response on November 25, 2013, dkt. #78. After considering the parties' arguments, the Court finds and concludes as follows.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

The IDEA provides federal funds to assist state and local agencies in educating children with disabilities. 20 U.S.C. § 1412; Ojai Unified Sch. Dist. v. Jackson , 4 F.3d 1467, 1469 (9th Cir. 1993). The purpose of the IDEA is to provide all children with disabilities "a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for employment and independent living; to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected; and to assist States, localities, educational service agencies, and Federal agencies to provide for the education of all children with disabilities...." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d). This purpose is implemented through development of individualized education plans ("IEP"), which are crafted by a team including a student's parents, teachers, and the local educational agency. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d). The IEP prepared by the team contains the student's current level of performance, annual goals, short and long term objectives, specific services to be provided and the extent to which the student may participate in regular educational programs, and criteria for measuring the student's progress. Id . The IDEA requires that educators also guarantee certain procedural safeguards to children and their parents, including notification of any changes in identification, education and placement of the student, as well as permitting parents to bring complaints about matters relating to the student's education and placement, which may result in a mediation or a due process hearing conducted by a local or state educational agency hearing officer. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)-(i).

Under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(I), "[a]ny party aggrieved by the findings and decision" made pursuant to a state's administrative hearings process for resolving complaints made under the IDEA may "bring a civil action... in a district court of the United States." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). The burden of persuasion in such an action rests with the party challenging the administrative decision. L.M. v. Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. , 556 F.3d 900, 910 (9th Cir. 2008). In any action brought under § 1415, "the court shall receive the record of the [state] 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(i)(2)(C). As the Supreme Court explained in Board of Education v. Rowley , 458 U.S. 176 (1982), "a court's inquiry in suits brought under [§ 1415] is twofold. First, has the State complied with the procedures set forth in the Act? And second, is the individualized educational program developed through the Act's procedures reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits." Id. at 207.

Courts review state administrative decisions regarding the appropriateness of a special education placement de novo. County of San Diego v. Cal. Special Educ. Hearing Office , 93 F.3d 1458, 1466 (9th Cir. 1996); see also Ojai Unified Sch. Dist. v. Jackson , 4 F.3d 1467, 1471 (9th Cir. 1993) ("[J]udicial review in IDEA cases differs substantially from judicial review of other agency actions, in which courts generally are confined to the administrative record and are held to a highly deferential standard of review."). When applying de novo review, however, a district court must give "due weight" to judgments of educational policy, and "should not substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review." Gregory K. v. Longview Sch. Dist. , 811 F.2d 1307, 1311 (9th Cir. 1987). Deference to an administrative officer is appropriate in matters arising under the IDEA "for the same reasons that it makes sense in the review of any other agency action-agency expertise, the decision of the political branches to vest the decision initially in an agency, and the costs imposed on all parties of having still another person redecide the matter from scratch." Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. v. Wartenberg , 59 F.3d 884, 891 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting Kerkam v. McKenzie , 862 F.2d 884, 887 (D.C. Cir. 1988)).

The amount of deference appropriate in a particular case is within the reviewing court's discretion. Gregory K , 811 F.2d at 1311. When determining the degree of deference to grant a hearing officer's findings, a particularly important factor is the thoroughness with which they have been reached. Capistrano , 59 F.3d at 891.

III. FACTUAL FINDINGS

The OAH decision below contains detailed and thorough factual findings. See generally OAHD. The Court finds that the factual findings in the decision below are accurate, and adopts them as they are set out. To provide context for the Court's decision, the Court summarizes the relevant facts.

At the time of the administrative hearing, which took place in late May and early June 2012, plaintiff was nine years old. OAHD Factual Findings ¶ 1. He is eligible for special education as a child with autistic-like behaviors and also has a specific learning disability, as well as a speech and language impairment. Id . Plaintiff received home behavioral services when he first came to the District in 2005. Id . ¶ 6. At that time, plaintiff's behavior included frequent tantrums and attempts to run away from his caregivers. Id . At the time of the hearing in 2012, plaintiff's behaviors included noncompliance, outbursts such as pushing things off of his desk, as well as verbal and physical aggression. Id . ¶ 7. Plaintiff has had a behavioral support plan ("BSP") or behavioral intervention plan ("BIP") included in his IEP since 2007.

A. The 2010-11 School Year

Plaintiff attended Nipomo Elementary School in the District during the 2010-11 school year. Id . ¶ 8. He attended a special day class for most of the day, and attended a general education class for the last part of the day. Id . In October 2010, plaintiff filed a complaint against the District with the Office of Administrative Hearings. Id . ¶ 9. The parties entered into a settlement agreement resolving that proceeding on January 13, 2011, and developed an IEP on January 18, 2012 pursuant to the terms of the settlement agreement. Id.

The IEP provided for plaintiff's placement at Lange Elementary School. Id . ¶ 10. The IEP further provided for plaintiff's placement in a general education program for all but 115 minutes of each day. Id . For the rest of the day, plaintiff was to be placed in a special education classroom called a "resource specialist program" classroom, with a credentialed special education teacher. Id . The IEP also required that plaintiff receive a full-time instructional aide, five 25-minute sessions of speech and language services each month, and 30 minutes of occupational therapy each week. Id . The IEP also included a BSP. Id . Additionally, the IEP provided that plaintiff would attend an extended school year program in the summer of 2011. Id . ¶ 24.

The settlement agreement and the IEP required that plaintiff's instructional aide receive 25 hours of training. Id . ¶ 11. At least six of those were to be provided by a nonpublic agency supervisor with a master's degree.[2] Id . The remainder of the training was to be provided by an autism behavior specialist with a master's degree who was employed by the District. Id . In the following month, the agency supervisor and the District's specialist were each required to provide three hours per week and six hours per month of additional training. Id . Thereafter, the autism behavior specialist was to provide ongoing training to the instructional aide for 60 minutes per week, and the agency supervisor was to provide one hour of supervision and training each month. Id.

The BSP included in the January 18, 2011 IEP was designed to address plaintiff's noncompliant behaviors, as well as physical and verbal aggression. Id . ¶ 12. Plaintiff exhibited these behaviors regularly at Nipomo by, among other things, screaming, crying, throwing objects such as desks and chairs, and hitting and kicking other students. Id . The BSP called for the use of replacement behaviors, such as asking to take a break outside the classroom, that plaintiff would learn to use in place of the verbal and physical aggression. Id . ¶ 13. The BSP provided for an incentive system to encourage the replacement behaviors. Id . Plaintiff would receive coins throughout the day in exchange for engaging in positive behaviors, and was permitted to exchange these coins for toys and other items at the end of each day. Id.

Plaintiff's mother consented to the IEP in its entirety, and plaintiff began attending Lange on January 25, 2011. Id . ¶ 14. Jacqueline Williams, an autism behavior specialist employed by the District, and Stephanie Dale of the nonpublic agency Autism Partnership provided the IEP-mandated training to plaintiff's instructional aide. Id . ¶ 15. At an IEP team meeting on February 24, 2011, plaintiff was reported to be doing well at Lange under the new IEP. Id . ¶ 17.

The settlement agreement also called for the preparation of a functional analysis assessment report. Id . ¶ 18. The District contracted with Dr. Randall Ball to prepare this report. Id . In preparing the report, Ball interviewed plaintiff's mother, as well as his teachers, autism behavior specialist Jacqueline Williams, and the school psychologist. Id . He also reviewed school records as well as plaintiff's psychological, medical, and behavioral records. Id . Ball also observed plaintiff at school on multiple occasions in March 2011. Id . Finally, Ball reviewed plaintiff's IEP as well as his current and former BSP's, and data collected by the District regarding plaintiff's behavior. Id . Ball's report described "functionally equivalent replacement behaviors" that could be used to target plaintiff's noncompliant and aggressive behaviors. Id . ¶ 20. The report also identified environmental antecedents to plaintiff's targeted behaviors, as well as potential indicators for when plaintiff was on the verge of engaging in an aggressive or noncompliant behavior episode. Id . The report concluded by recommending that a BIP be developed based on the then-current BSP. Id . ¶ 21.

In response to Ball's report, an IEP team meeting occurred on March 31, 2011. Id . ¶ 22. In the subsequent weeks, Williams, Dale, and Ball collaborated to develop a BIP based on the current BSP and the findings contained in Ball's functional analysis assessment report. Id . The IEP team met on June 8, 2011, to review the proposed BIP developed in consultation with Ball. Id . ¶ 23. Plaintiff's mother and her advocate closely reviewed the proposed BIP at the meeting. Id . Several changes were made during the meeting, ...


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