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F.C. v. Montgomery County Public Schools

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 27, 2016

F.C., by and through his parents, E.C. and J.C., Plaintiff,
v.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS, MONTGOMERY COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION and JOSHUA STARR, in his official capacity as Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          THEODORE D. CHUANG United States District Judge

         Plaintiff F.C., by and through his parents, E.C. (the "Mother") and J.C. (collectively the "Parents"), brings this action against Defendants Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery County Board of Education, and Joshua Starr, the Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (collectively, "MCPS"), seeking reversal of an April 15, 2014 decision by an administrative law judge ("ALJ") dismissing the Parents' due process claim under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-82 (2012). Presently pending before the Court are the Parents' Motion for Summary Judgment and MCPS's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court heard oral argument on the Motions on June 22, 2016. For the reasons set forth below, the Parents' Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and MCPS's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         F.C. is student with disabilities who has attended Rockville High School ("RHS") in Montgomery County and has been eligible for special education under the IDEA. In 2009, MCPS conducted a comprehensive educational evaluation of F.C, including a psychological evaluation, an educational assessment, a speech/language assessment, and an occupational therapy evaluation. Such evaluations are to be conducted every three years, unless the parent and school agree that a reevaluation is not necessary. 34 C.F.R. § 300.303(b)(2) (2015). On May 24, 2012, MCPS convened a Reevaluation Planning and Determination Meeting at RHS attended by F.C.'s mother. At the meeting, the attendees reviewed and discussed existing data relating to F.C, including records of the 2009 evaluation, F.C.'s report cards, and teacher observations. At the conclusion of the meeting, school officials concluded that no new data was needed to determine F.C.'s educational and service needs, that F.C. continued to have a disability, and that F.C. continued to have educational needs that require special education services. No additional evaluations or specialized assessments were ordered.

         On January 13, 2014, the Parents requested that MCPS provide F.C. with an independent educational evaluation ("IEE"), at public expense, consisting of a neuropsychological evaluation, a speech and language assessment, and an occupational therapy evaluation, because he had not had an evaluation since May 2009. An IEE is an "evaluation conducted by a qualified examiner who is not employed by the public agency responsible for the education of the child." 34 C.F.R. § 300.502(a)(3)(i). By regulation, a student is entitled to an IEE at public expense if "the parent disagrees with an evaluation obtained by the public agency." 34 C.F.R. § 300.502(b)(1). If a parent requests an IEE at public expense, the public agency must take one of three actions without unnecessary delay: (1) ensure that an IEE is provided; (2) file a due process complaint to defend the agency's evaluation of the student; or (3) show through a hearing why the parent's proposed IEE does not meet agency criteria. 34 C.F.R. § 300.502(b)(2).

         On January 28, 2014, MCPS offered to have school personnel conduct a full evaluation, including a psychological evaluation, educational evaluation, speech and language evaluation, and occupational therapy evaluation. The Parents rejected this offer. On January 31, 2014, MCPS reiterated to the Parents by letter that it would conduct an MCPS evaluation of F.C. but declined to fund an IEE.

         The Parents filed a due process complaint on February 27, 2014, then an amended due process complaint on February 28, 2014, in which they requested a hearing under the IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 701-961 (2012), the Education Article of the Code of Maryland, and Title 13A of the Code of Maryland Regulations. They specifically sought an IEE "under the authority of 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(1); 34 C.F.R. § 300.502(b)(1) and Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49 (2005), " based on their "disagreement with MCPS's failure to evaluate" [F.C] since 2009, in violation of "the federally mandated three-year time period." Pls.' Due Process Compl. Letter at 1-2. During the administrative proceedings, MCPS filed a motion for summary decision, arguing that the Parents were not entitled to a publicly funded IEE because they did not disagree with an evaluation obtained by a public agency, as required by 34 C.F.R. § 300.502(b)(1). On April 15, 2014, after an evidentiary hearing, the ALJ granted MCPS's motion for summary decision. The ALJ concluded that the Parents were not entitled to an IEE at public expense because they did not disagree with an evaluation obtained by a public agency. In so ruling, the ALJ found that the May 24, 2012 Reevaluation Planning and Determination Meeting, at which the participants "reviewed and discussed existing data pertaining to the Student, " including "the 2009 assessments, report card data, and teacher observations, " did not constitute an "evaluation" within the meaning of the 34 C.F.R. § 300.502(b). Ruling on MCPS's Mot. Summ. Decision ("ALJ Decision") at 5, 10. The Parents appealed the ALJ's decision to this Court. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A); Md. Code Ann., Educ. §8-413(j) (West 2015).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Legal Standards

         The Court grants summary judgment if the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In doing so, the Court views the facts in a light, most favorable to the nonmoving party, Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986), who has the burden of showing that a genuine dispute exists, Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). "[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48 (emphasis in original). A material fact is one that might affect the outcome of a party's case. Id. at 248; JKC Holding Co. v. Wash. Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001). A genuine issue of material fact arises when the evidence is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         In this instance, and in accordance with IDEA procedures, the Parents have appealed a ruling of an ALJ of the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A); Md. Code Ann., Educ. § 8-413(j). In reviewing such state administrative decisions, courts are required to "make an independent decision based on a preponderance of the evidence, while giving due weight to the state administrative proceedings." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C); Doyle v. Arlington Cty. Sch. Bd, 953 F.2d 100, 103 (4th Cir. 1992). Findings of fact of hearing officers are entitled to be considered "prima facie correct." Doyle, 953 F.2d at 105. However, where the only dispute consists of "legal conclusions to be drawn from those facts, the state administrative officials were in no better position than the district court to make conclusions, " so the ALJ decision is subject to de novo review. See Muller v. Comm. on Special Educ. of the E. Islip Union Free Sch. Dist., 145 F.3d 95, 102 (2d Cir. 1998). Because the ALJ in this case made findings of fact that were undisputed, the legal conclusions drawn from those facts, including those regarding whether there was an evaluation obtained by a public agency with which the Parents disagreed, are subject to de novo review. See Id.

         II. The 2012 Reevaluation Planning and Determination Meeting

         The ALJ ruled that the Parents did not have a right to an IEE at public expense because they did not meet the prerequisite that they had "disagree[d] with an evaluation obtained by the public agency." 34 C.F.R. § 300.502(b)(1). "The right to a publicly funded independent education evaluation does not obtain until there is a reevaluation with which the parents disagree." G.J. v. Muscogee Cty. Sch. Dist., 668 F.3d 1258, 1266 (11th Cir. 2012); see Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 60 (2005). "The parental right to an IEE is not an end in itself; rather it serves the purpose of furnishing parents with the independent expertise and information they need to confirm or disagree with an extant, school-district-conducted evaluation." T.P. v. Bryan Cty. Sch. Dist., 792 F.3d 1284, 1293 (11th Cir. 2015); see also Schaffer, 546 U.S. at 61 (stating that an IEE following parental disagreement with the school's evaluation is necessary to ensure that parents have a "realistic opportunity to access the necessary evidence" and are not left "without an expert with the firepower to match the opposition").

         In concluding that there had been no public evaluation with which the Parents disagreed, the ALJ found that the May 24, 2012 Reevaluation Planning and Determination Meeting did not constitute an "evaluation obtained by the public agency" with which they could have disagreed. 34 C.F.R § 300.502(b)(1). Although the Parents had originally taken the position, in their due process complaint, that there had been no evaluation since 2009, they now claim in their Motion for Summary Judgment that the ALJ Decision should be reversed because the meeting was in fact an evaluation, while MCPS asserts in its Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment that the ...


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