United States District Court, D. Maryland
S.T. ex rel. S.J.P.T. and I.T.,
HOWARD COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM, et al.
J. FREDERICK MOTZ, District Judge.
Plaintiffs S.J.P.T. and I.T., parents of S.T., bring this lawsuit against the Howard County Public School System ("HCPSS") and Superintendent Renee A. Foose, (collectively "defendants"), alleging violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. Defendants seek to transfer S.T. to the Cornerstone Program at the Cedar Lane School ("Cornerstone"), while plaintiffs oppose moving S.T. from his current placement at the Trellis School. After a five-day administrative hearing in which plaintiffs alleged several procedural and substantive IDEA violations committed by defendants, Administrative Law Judge Mary Shock of the Maryland State Office of Administrative Hearings ruled in favor of defendants. Plaintiffs then appealed that decision to this court under Md. Code Ann., Educ. § 8-413(j).
The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The issues have been fully briefed, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6. For the following reasons, the court grants defendants' motion for summary judgment and denies plaintiffs' cross-motion for summary judgment.
S.T. is diagnosed with autism, a disability that affects several aspects of his cognitive, intellectual, social, and emotional functioning. (ALJ Decision, ECF No. 15-1 ¶¶ 2-3). Given his condition, S.T. qualifies as disabled under the IDEA and is eligible for special-education services, which he receives through an Individualized Educational Program ("IEP"). ( Id. ¶¶ 4-5). S.T. has received IEP services since 2010. ( Id. ¶¶ 1, 5). His first school placement was at Ilchester Elementary School in the Multiple Intensive Needs Classroom-Early Learning (MINC-EL) in 2011. ( Id. ¶ 7).
In November 2012, S.T.'s IEP team decided to transfer him because he was not progressing at MINC-EL. ( Id. ¶ 17). The IEP team referred the placement decision to the HCPSS Central Education Placement Team ("CEPT"), who decided in January 2013 to transfer S.T. to the Trellis Program at Cedar Lane School. The Trellis School, a private institution, operated a satellite program at Cedar Lane, a public HCPSS school, in 2012-13. ( Id. ¶¶ 19-20). S.T. was enrolled in that program on February 5, 2013. ( Id. ¶ 22).
When informed that the Trellis Program would not continue at Cedar Lane, S.T.'s IEP team met in June 2013 to determine his future placement. ( Id. ¶ 27). The IEP team initially 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 private Trellis School in Hunt Valley, located over 20 miles from Cedar Lane, until a October 2013 IEP meeting when his placement would be reviewed. Id. S.T. enrolled at the Trellis School in August 2013. ( Id. ¶ 28).
Upon their review in October 2013, members of S.T.'s IEP team decided that the Cornerstone Program was indeed an appropriate placement, although that determination was not unanimous. ( Id. at ¶ 36). 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, however, while the Cornerstone Program's duration is eleven months. ( Id. at ¶¶ 34-35). The parties dispute this fact, but Shannon Majoros, a HCPSS Autism Specialist, testified during the administrative hearing that the Cornerstone Program "is now an eleven-month program running five weeks during the summer." (ECF No. 15-1 at p. 37).
S.T.'s parents objected to the new placement. The IDEA provides parents of disabled children 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 filed a Due Process Complaint to challenge the IEP team's decision to transfer S.T. to Cedar Lane and several other procedural issues regarding the change. The hearing was held over five days in January and February 2014. (ECF No. 15-1). On March 4, 2014, ALJ Shock issued her decision. Id. In addition to 39 factual findings, ALJ Shock 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 a counterclaim (ECF No. 8) and a motion for a declaratory judgment and preliminary injunction (ECF No. 16), seeking to transfer S.T. to the Cornerstone Program pending the outcome of this dispute. I denied defendants' request for a preliminary injunction and granted plaintiffs' motion to dismiss defendants' counterclaim on September 25, 2014. (ECF No. 31). Both sides then filed cross-motions for summary judgment on October 10, 2014. (ECF Nos. 32, 33).
Summary judgment is appropriate when the record shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P 56(a); Celotex Corp v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A genuine dispute about a material fact exists only "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). When reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court must look at the facts and inferences drawn from there in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007).
When reviewing an administrative decision under the IDEA, district courts must make an "independent decision based on a preponderance of the evidence." Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 205 (1982) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court must give "due weight" to the ALJ's determinations, however, and not "substitute [its] own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which [it] review[s]." Id. at 206. In an IDEA case, if a district court chooses not to follow regularly made administrative findings that are considered prima facie correct under Rowley, the court must explain why. Hartmann v. Loudoun Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 118 F.3d 996, 1000-01 (4th Cir. 1997); see also Doyle v. Arlington Cnty. Sch. Bd., 953 F.2d 100, 105 (4th Cir. 1991).
To determine whether administrative findings are regularly made and entitled to deference under Rowley's "due weight" standard, the court should consider the methods the ALJ employed in making the decision below. Doyle, 953 F.2d at 105. Under this standard, a court should give deference even to a poorly explained administrative decision as long as the hearing officer used standard fact-finding methods. J.P. ex rel. Peterson v. Cnty. Sch. Bd. of Hanover Cnty., 516 F.3d 254, 262 (4th Cir. 2008). Moreover, when the parties are disputing the relative credibility and persuasiveness of witnesses, courts may not freely disregard an ALJ's determination ...