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A.A. v. Goleta Union School District

United States District Court, C.D. California

February 22, 2017

A.A., a minor, by and through his Guardian Ad Litem, CATHERINE ABARCA, Plaintiff,
GOLETA UNION SCHOOL DISTRICT, a local Education Agency, Defendants.


          DEAN D. PREGERSON United States District Judge.

         Presently before the court is Plaintiff's Complaint seeking reversal of a decision by the California Office of Administrative Hearings finding that (1) Plaintiff did not meet his burden to show that Defendant Goleta Union School District ("the District") failed to timely provide him with an independent psychoeducational assessment and (2) the District adequately showed that Plaintiff was not entitled to an independent evaluation by the evaluator of his choosing, Dr. Ann Simun. Having considered the submissions of the parties and conducted a court trial, the court affirms the Administrative Law Judge's decision and adopts the following Order.

         I. Background

         In 2013, the District conducted a psychoeducational assessment of Plaintiff and concluded that he was eligible for special education due to autism, with secondary eligibility for intellectual disability. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 576-77.) The District's Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) team later reversed the eligibility categories, listing “intellectually disabled” as the primary category and “autism” as a secondary disability. (AR 583.).

         The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and its implementing regulations require that parents who disagree with a school district's educational assessment of a child be allowed to obtain an independent educational evaluation at public expense. 20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(1); 34 C.F.R. § 300.502.[1] On May 4, 2014 Plaintiff's parent (“Parent”) requested a “comprehensive developmental assessment.” (AR 606.) District official Dr. Margaret Saleh (“Saleh”) responded on May 13 and attached Santa Barbara County's Special Education Local Plan Area (“SELPA”) independent educational evaluation guidelines, including a non-exhaustive list of approved evaluators. (AR 607-646.)

         On May 15, Parent reiterated her request for a “comprehensive developmental assessment.” (AR 610.) On May 19, Saleh sent a letter explaining that the district would fund a “pyschoeducational” evaluation, and again attached the SELPA's guidelines. (AR 612.) Among the guidelines were “cost criteria” limiting the amount the SELPA would pay to a qualified independent evaluator. Saleh's letter further explained that if Parent selected an evaluator who did not meet the cost criteria, Parent would have to “show why it is necessary that an assessor with unique qualifications is warranted.”[2] (Id.) On May 23, Parent selected Dr. Ann Simun to conduct the independent evaluation. (AR 647).

         Dr. Simun's office informed the District that Simun charged $5, 000 for a psychoeduactional assessment, and intended to conduct a $6, 000 “neuropsychological assessment” of Plaintiff. Simun would not agree to accept the District's maximum fee. (AR 673-74.) On May 30, the District informed Parent that Dr. Simun did not meet the SELPA cost criteria, and asked parent to provide an “explanation of circumstances unique to [Plaintiff] that might justify funding” an over-guidelines cost evaluation, including “complex medical, educational, and/or psychological needs such that there are no other qualified evaluators.” (AR 677-78.)

         On June 2, 2014, Parent responded that Dr. Simun was “uniquely qualified . . . due to her extensive training and expertise assessing children and adolescents with complex and challenging needs. Dr. Simun has broad experience measuring the IQ of nonverbal and low-speech students. . . . Given that [Plaintiff] has a diagnosis of Classic Autism, is virtually non-verbal, and uses an [Augmentative Alternative Communication] device to communicate, it is essential that he be evaluated by a professional who understands the neurological, communicative, and behavioral challenges of autism . . . No other Neuropsychologist in the region has the education, training, and experience of Dr. Simun.” (AR 679.)

         On June 17, the District responded that the circumstances identified by Parent were not unique enough to merit deviation from the cost guidelines, and asked Parent to provide additional information. The District explained that it would reconsider its cost criteria determination if Parent could show unique circumstances “such as a complex medical, health, or educational needs, such that Dr. Simun is the only qualified assessor.” (AR 684.) On June 23, Parent reiterated essentially the same reasons as in her June 2 letter, stating that the District should either fund the assessment by Dr. Simun or file for a due process hearing.[3] (AR 726, 728.)

         On July 7, the District again disagreed that Parent had identified “unique circumstances” warranting a deviation from the Santa Barbara SELPA's independent evaluator cost criteria, and again indicated that it would agree to Dr. Simun's above-cap fee if Parent could provide further information justifying the departure. (AR 733-34.) On July 14, Parent informed the District that she was proceeding with an evaluation by Dr. Simun, and declined to produce any further information. (AR 748).

         The District filed for a hearing two weeks later, on July 28. Student also later filed a request for hearing. The California Office of Administrative Hearings Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) consolidated the two requests and addressed two issues: (1) “Did District deny Student a free appropriate public education by failing to timely provide Student with an independent psychological evaluation following Parent's May 2014 request” and (2) “Was Student entitled to an independent psychosocial or neuropsychological evaluation by an evaluator of Student's choice which exceeded District's cost criteria?” (AR 797.) After holding a five-day hearing, the ALJ issued a twenty-eight page decision finding in the District's favor on both questions. Plaintiff now seeks review of that decision.

         II. Standard of Review

         Plaintiff, as the party challenging the administrative decision, bears the burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that the ALJ erred. L.M. v. Capistrano Unified School District, 556 F.3d 900, 910 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Clyde K. v. Puyallup School District No. 3, 35 F.3d 1396, 1398 (9th Cir. 1994)). District court review of a state administrative IDEA decision is less deferential than that generally afforded to other agency actions. Ojai Unified School District v. Jackson, 4 F.3d 1467, 1471-72 (9th Cir. 1993). The court must nevertheless give “due weight” to administrative judgments regarding education policy. Id. “Thorough and careful” administrative findings are entitled to particular deference, in the court's discretion. Id.; see also J.L. v. Mercer Island School District, 592 F.3d 938, 949 (9th Cir. 2007). Here, given the length of the administrative hearing, which included live testimony from multiple witnesses, and the thoroughness of the ALJ's analysis, this court will review the ALJ's decision with substantial deference. See, e.g. Cupertino Union School District v. K.A., 75 F.Supp.3d 1088, 1098 (N.D. Cal. 2014) (“A court should give particular deference where the hearing officer's administrative findings are thorough and careful or are based on credibility determinations of live witnesses.” (internal quotation marks and citations omitted)); Z.F. v. Ripon Unified School District, No. 2:11-CV-02741-KJM-GGH, 2013 WL 127662 at *3-5 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 9, 2013) (affording substantial deference where ALJ held three-day hearing and issued twenty-three page decision).

         III. Discussion

         The parties' various arguments relate to two main questions: (1) did the ALJ correctly determine that the District's independent educational evaluation cost criteria were reasonable and, if so, (2) did Plaintiff fail to demonstrate unique circumstances warranting a deviation from the cost cap. To the extent Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ “never determined Plaintiff's issue” (Opening Brief (“OB”) at 21:1), namely that the District denied Plaintiff a free appropriate public education by failing to timely provide him with an independent evaluation, that assertion is not supported by the record. The ALJ explicitly found that the District reasonably offered to fund a qualifying evaluation within two weeks of Parent's initial request, and that the District reasonably filed for a hearing within two weeks of the breakdown of the parties' discussions regarding the independent evaluator. (AR 817-18.) Thus, there is no ...

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