United States District Court, D. Arizona
Decided March 20, 2013.
For Deer Valley Unified School District No. 97, named as: Deer Valley Unified School District, Plaintiff: Karl H Widell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gust Rosenfeld PLC - Phoenix, Phoenix, AZ.
For Krystal Schripsema, Parent of minor:, on behalf of L.P., Defendant: Amy G Langerman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Amy Langerman PC, Coronado, CA.
For Krystal Schripsema, Parent of minor:, Counter Claimant: Amy G Langerman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Amy Langerman PC, Coronado, CA.
For Deer Valley Unified School District No. 97, named as: Deer Valley Unified School District, Counter Defendant: Karl H Widell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gust Rosenfeld PLC - Phoenix, Phoenix, AZ.
Roslyn O. Silver, Chief United States District Judge.
Pending before the Court are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 18 and 21). For the reasons below, the cross motions for summary judgment will be granted in part and denied in part. The Court will affirm the ALJ's decision that the District committed a substantive IDEA violation, reverse the ALJ's decision that the District committed a procedural IDEA violation, and order the District to reimburse the parent for costs incurred sending L.P. to Sierra and place L.P. at Sierra at the District's expense.
I. Procedural Background
On July 21, 2011, Krystal Schripsema (" the parent" ) filed a complaint on behalf of her minor son (" the student" or " L.P." ), with the Arizona Department of Education (" ADE" ). ADE referred the complaint to the Arizona Office of Administrative Hearings (" OAH" ) for a hearing before an administrative law judge (" ALJ" ). The ALJ held a hearing, heard evidence and issued a decision granting the student's requested relief. The ALJ concluded Deer Valley Unified School District (the " District" ) denied L.P. a free appropriate public education (" FAPE" ) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (" IDEA" ), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. The District appealed the ALJ decision. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment.
II. Standard of Review
A party aggrieved by the findings and decision rendered in an administrative hearing has the right to bring a civil action for judicial review under the IDEA. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). " In an action for judicial review of an administrative decision, the burden of persuasion rests with the party challenging the ALJ's decision." L.M. v. Capistrano Unified School Dist., 556 F.3d 900, 910 (9th Cir. 2009).
While the district court's review is de novo, the district court must give the ALJ's determinations " due weight." Ashland Sch. Dist. v. Parents of Student R.J., 588 F.3d 1004, 1008-09 (9th Cir. 2009). The district court must " receive the records of the administrative proceedings," " hear additional evidence at the request of a party," and base " its decision on the preponderance of the evidence." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C). In reviewing ALJ rulings, courts are " free to determine independently how much weight to give the administrative findings [but] the courts are
not permitted simply to ignore [them]." Capistrano, 556 F.3d at 908. A court must " accord more deference to administrative agency findings that it considers thorough and careful." Id. A court must also defer to " judgments of education policy." Ojai Unified School Dist. v. Jackson, 4 F.3d 1467, 1472 (9th Cir. 1993).
The ALJ decision in this case is an 18-page order setting forth the witnesses, procedural history, evidence and issues at the hearing, detailed findings of fact with citations to the record, and a recitation and application of the law. (Doc. 17, Ex. 28). The ALJ decision states the ALJ " has read and considered each admitted Exhibit," and " the testimony of every witness," even if not mentioned in the decision. (Id., at 3, n. 6). The decision contains citations to the supporting documents and testimony and appears to be thorough and careful, particularly with regard to the IEP process and the parent's participation in that process. The ALJ's conclusions of law are thorough and set forth the legal standard with citations to case law and statute. It appears the ALJ was aware of the applicable legal standard and applied that standard. Under these circumstances, the Court concludes the ALJ's findings are entitled to significant weight.
Though not a " true motion for summary judgment, the appeal of an IDEA based due process hearing is properly styled and presented by the parties in a summary judgment format." Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. v. Wartenberg, 59 F.3d 884, 891 (9th Cir. 1995). But " [a] summary judgment approach to IDEA cases ... is different." T.Y. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 584 F.3d 412, 418 (2d Cir. 2009). Disputed issues of fact often exist in IDEA cases but do not prevent summary judgment. Wartenberg, 59 F.3d at 891. Instead, such disputes are the point of the district court's review of the administrative record. Ashland Sch. Dist., 588 F.3d at 1008. Statements of fact are helpful to present issues in dispute and facts in the record, but the Court reviews the entire record to reach a determination. T.Y., 584 F.3d at 418.
III. Findings of Fact
L.P. is a first-grader who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. L.P. is eligible for special education under the primary category of Autism and secondary category of Speech/Language Impairment. (Doc. 17, Ex. 23, at 75). L.P. has been characterized by some as " high functioning" because he has average cognitive abilities and pragmatic language skills. L.P. has deficits in communication and socialization that are typical of autism. L.P. has behavioral issues that can impede his learning.
L.P. is able to communicate his wants and needs to staff. He understands routine and functional directions, such as " put the game on the shelf." L.P. runs and interacts with his peers on the playground and is able to work in small groups with peers. (Doc. 17, Ex. 23, at 72, 75). However, L.P. refuses to follow teacher directions in the general education classroom. L.P. has difficulty waiting his turn and sometimes becomes angry, refuses to wait his turn or tries to change the activity. (Id., at 76). L.P.'s communication strengths include being able to express his wants, need and ideas with sentence length utterances. L.P. is able to follow two-part directions but not three-part instructions. L.P.'s speech is intelligible 90% of the time. L.P. demonstrates fluid speech but is repetitive. (Doc. 17, Ex. 23, at 74).
L.P. can communicate what words mean that are contained in an age-appropriate story read to him. He can match shapes, colors and foods into basic categories. L.P. has difficulty writing his name with
correct letter form and cannot read any letters independently. L.P. is unable to produce rhyming words and cannot identify the initial and final letter of a spoken word. (Doc. 17, Ex. 23 at 72-73). L.P. is not at grade level and is unable to read, identify sight words and recognize most letters and numbers. (Id., at 75).
Behaviorally, L.P. is a friendly student who tries very hard. L.P. generally responds well to choices and positive reinforcement. L.P. takes pleasure in helping adults. L.P. demonstrates weaknesses in behavioral areas, with the exceptions of anxiety, withdrawal and somatization.  L.P. engages in attention-seeking behaviors such as looking to see if anyone observed him when he falls out of a chair in a playful, smiling and apparently deliberate manner. L.P. ...