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S.T. v. Howard County Public School System

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 25, 2014

S.T., S.J.P.T., and I.T., Plaintiffs,
v.
Howard County Public School System and Renee A. Foose, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

J. FREDERICK MOTZ, District Judge.

S.T., a seven-year-old[1] autistic child residing in Howard County, by and through his parents S.J.P.T and I.T., (collectively "plaintiffs") brings suit against Howard County Public School System ("HCPSS") and Superintendent Renee A. Foose (collectively "defendants"), seeking review of a decision of a Maryland Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") rendered on March 4, 2014, relocating him from a private school in Baltimore County to a public school within HCPSS. In a counterclaim, (ECF No. 8), and separate petition, (ECF No. 16), defendants seek declaratory and injunctive relief, ordering that S.T. be relocated to the HCPSS school during the pendency of this court's review of the ALJ's findings. The plaintiffs filed a motion to dismiss the counterclaim (ECF No. 11) and a response in opposition to defendants' petition (ECF No. 20). For the reasons set forth below, the motion to dismiss the counterclaim is granted and the petition is denied. For the duration of this court's review, S.T. shall remain at his current school.

BACKGROUND

S.T. is diagnosed with autism, a disability that affects his articulation, expressive and receptive language, cognitive and intellectual functioning, social and emotional functioning, fine and sensory motor skills, attention, and concentration. (ALJ Decision, Findings of Fact, ¶¶ 2-3, ECF No. 15-1). Given his condition, S.T. is eligible for special-education services in HCPSS, which he receives through an Individualized Educational Program ("IEP"). ( Id. at ¶¶ 4-5). S.T. has received IEP services since 2010. ( Id. at ¶¶ 1, 5). His first school placement was at Ilchester Elementary School in the Multiple Intensive Needs Classroom-Early Learning (MINC-EL) in 2011. ( Id. at ¶ 7).

In November 2012, S.T.'s IEP team determined that he should be placed in a new program because he was not progressing at MINC-EL. ( Id. at ¶ 17). The IEP team referred the placement decision to the HCPSS Central Education Placement Team ("CEPT"), who decided in January 2013 that S.T. should be moved to the Trellis Program at Cedar Lane, a HCPSS school six miles from S.T.'s home. ( Id. at ¶ 19). The Trellis School is a private school in Hunt Valley, Maryland that offers comprehensive services for autistic children. ( Id. at ¶ 20). In 2012-13, the Trellis School operated a program at Cedar Lane through a partnership with HCPSS. Id. S.T. was enrolled in this program at Cedar Lane on February 5, 2013. ( Id. at ¶ 22).

S.T.'s IEP team met in June 2013 to determine his future placement because it was decided that the partnership between the Trellis School and Cedar Lane would not continue in 2013-14. ( Id. at¶ 27). The IEP team rejected placing S.T. in the Cornerstone Program, a HCPSS program at Cedar Lane modeled on the Trellis School's program. Id. Instead, the team placed S.T. at the Trellis School until his October 2013 IEP meeting when placement would be reviewed. Id. S.T. enrolled at the Trellis School in August 2013. ( Id. at ¶ 28).

Upon their review in October 2013, members of S.T.'s IEP team determined that the Cornerstone Program was an appropriate placement. ( Id. at ¶ 36). This was not a consensus decision. ( Id. ). The Cornerstone Program is similar to the Trellis Program. Both are accessible, self-contained special education schools that use the ABA/VBA method for autistic students. ( Id. at ¶¶ 32-33). The Trellis School is in session twelve months a year. ( Id. at ¶ 34). The Cornerstone Program operates eleven months a year. ( Id. at ¶ 35).

S.T.'s parents objected to the new placement. (ALJ decision, Background, ECF No. 15-1). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") provides that parents of disabled children have the right to convene an "impartial due process hearing" to resolve complaints regarding their child's IEP. 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (f). On November 26, 2013, S.T.'s parents convened a hearing to challenge the IEP team's decision to transfer S.T. to Cedar Lane and several other procedural issues regarding the change. On December 18, 2013, the ALJ adjudicating the hearing determined that the Trellis School was S.T.'s "stay put" placement, or where he should remain for the pendency of the hearing. (ALJ Ruling on Motion, ECF No. 16-1). S.T. has been enrolled at the Trellis School since the date of the ALJ's decision.

The hearing was held over five days in January and February 2014. (ECF No. 15-1). On March 4, 2014, ALJ Shock issued her opinion. Id. She determined that the Cornerstone Program at Cedar Lane School provides S.T. with the Free Appropriate Public Education ("FAPE") required by the IDEA. Id.

On March 10, 2014, the plaintiffs filed a complaint with this court challenging the ruling pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (h)(i)(2)-(3). (Compl., ECF No. 1). Defendants filed an answer and a counterclaim. (Answer and Counterclaim, ECF No. 8.) In their counterclaim, defendants seek declaratory, temporary and permanent injunctive relief from the "stay put" placement at the Trellis School. Id. Plaintiffs filed a motion to dismiss this counterclaim on May 29, 2014. (ECF No. 11). On June 23, 2014, defendants filed a response in opposition. (ECF No. 15). Defendants also filed a separate petition seeking a declaratory judgment and preliminary injunction ordering that the "stay put" location of S.T. during the pendency of these proceedings be the Cornerstone Program at the Cedar Lane School. (ECF No. 16). Plaintiffs filed a response in opposition. (ECF No. 20). Defendants then filed a reply to this response. (ECF No. 26). A schedule has established a deadline for filing of simultaneous motions for summary judgment, oppositions, and replies. (ECF No. 27).[2]

STANDARD

A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary and drastic remedy. See Munaf v. Geren, 553 U.S. 674, 689-90 (2008). To obtain a preliminary injunction, a movant must demonstrate: 1) that he is likely to succeed on the merits; 2) that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief; 3) that the balance of equities tips in his favor; and 4) that an injunction is in the public interest. See Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc, 555 U.S. 7, 20-23 (2008); The Real Truth About Obama, Inc. v. Federal Election Commission, 575 F.3d 342, 346 (4th Cir. 2009), vacated on other grounds, 559 U.S. 1089 (2010), reinstated in relevant part on remand, 607 F.3d 355 (4th Cir. 2010) (per curiam); Germain v. Arnold, CIV.A. JFM-12-3240, 2013 WL 2635110 (D. Md. June 11, 2013) aff'd, 547 F.Appx. 353 (4th Cir. 2013).

ANALYSIS

I. The Court's Authority to Adjudicate S.T.'s ...


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