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Los Angeles Unified School Dist. v. Garcia

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

January 28, 2014

LOS ANGELES UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Michael GARCIA, Defendant-Appellee.

Argued Dec. 9, 2011.

Barrett K. Green (argued) and Daniel L. Gonzalez, Littler Mendelson, P.C., Los Angeles, CA, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Paula D. Pearlman, Shawna L. Parks (argued), and Andrea F. Oxman, Disability Rights Legal Center, Los Angeles, CA; Linda Dakin-Grimm, Daniel M. Perry, and Delilah Vinzon, Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, LLP, Los Angeles, CA, for Defendant-Appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California, Valerie Baker Fairbank, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. 2:09-cv-09289-VBF-CT.

Before: ALEX KOZINSKI,[*] Chief Judge, and BARRY G. SILVERMAN and KIM McLANE WARDLAW, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

PER CURIAM:

When a student between the ages of 18 and 22 who is eligible for special education services in California is incarcerated in a county jail, who pays the cost of those services? The school district of the student's parent's residence? The county in which the jail is located? The State of California? To find out, we certified a question of California law— specifically, the interpretation of California Education Code section 56041— to the Supreme Court of California. L.A. Unified Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 669 F.3d 956 (9th Cir.2012).

On December 12, 2013, the California Supreme Court gave its answer: The cost of the student's education is borne by the school district where the student's parent resides. L.A. Unified Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 58 Cal.4th 175, 165 Cal.Rptr.3d 460, 314 P.3d 767 (2013). The facts of the case are detailed in our order certifying the question to the California Supreme Court, 669 F.3d at 958-59, and in the California Supreme Court's opinion, which is attached as an appendix to this opinion. The district court had affirmed a 2009 decision of the California Office of Administrative Hearings that the Los Angeles Unified

Page 923

School District was responsible for providing special education services to Michael Garcia. Because the district court's ruling is consistent with California Supreme Court's answer to the certified question, its judgment is AFFIRMED.

APPENDIX

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF CALIFORNIA

LOS ANGELES UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, Plaintiff and Appellant,

v.

MICHAEL GARCIA, Defendant and Respondent.

S19963

9th Cir. No. 10-55879

In California, an individual with a disability who is between 18 and 22 years of age and has not yet earned a regular high school diploma is entitled to continue to receive special education and related services, even while incarcerated in a county jail, so long as certain prerequisites have been satisfied. (Ed.Code, § 56040, subd. (b); see id., §§ 56000, 56026, subd. (c)(4); all unlabeled statutory references are to the Education Code.) Like the other states that receive substantial federal funds for special education and related services, California's policies and procedures governing special education programs must conform to the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (hereafter IDEA), and the federal regulations that implement and clarify its provisions. (20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.; 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.100-300.176 (2013).) But Congress has left it to each state to determine which public entity within the state is responsible for providing special education and related services to its eligible pupils, including those incarcerated in county jail.

One of the provisions in California's special education scheme that designates the entity responsible for providing a special education program is section 56041. We granted the request of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to answer the following question of California law, as reformulated by this court: Does California Education Code section 56041, which provides generally that for qualifying pupils between the ages of 18 and 22 years, the school district where the pupil's parent resides is responsible for providing special education and related services, affix responsibility for providing special education to a qualifying individual who is incarcerated in a county jail? (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.548(f)(5).)

We answer that question " Yes." As we shall explain, although section 56041 does not by its terms specifically address county jail inmates, the statutory language is broad enough to encompass special education programs for eligible county jail inmates between the ages of 18 and 22 years, and no other statute explicitly assigns responsibility for the provision of special education to such individuals. Applying the terms of section 56041 to assign responsibility in this setting is consistent with the purposes of the statute and the special education scheme as a whole, and does not create absurd or unworkable results.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Michael Garcia was born in June 1990. His mother has resided in the City of Bell, in Los Angeles County, from before Garcia's birth until the present time. Garcia first became eligible for special education services in the second grade, when he was identified as having specific learning deficiencies as well as speech and language impairment. His " district of residence," the Los Angeles Unified School District

Page 924

(L.A. Unified), provided the special education program in his early years. (See § 48200; Union School District v. Smith (9th Cir.1994) 15 F.3d 1519, 1525, fn. 1 [the compulsory education residency rule for children ages 6 through 18 also determines the local educational agency responsible for providing a special education program].) When Garcia was 15 years old, he left L.A. Unified and enrolled in the Soledad Enrichment Action Charter School, chartered by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which provided him with a special education program. (See §§ 47640, 47641.)

Thereafter, sometime before Garcia's 16th birthday, he was arrested on felony charges and held at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles County. While Garcia was being detained in the juvenile facility, he was provided a special education program by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which, by statute, is the entity responsible for providing general and special education in the county's juvenile court schools. (See §§ 48645.2, 56150.) Like L.A. Unified, the Los Angeles County Office of Education determined that Garcia was eligible for special education and related services due to his specific learning disability and speech and language impairment. In June 2008, when Garcia turned 18 years old, he was transferred from the juvenile facility to the Los Angeles County Jail to await trial.

In December 2008, counsel from the Disability Rights Legal Center filed on behalf of Garcia and other similarly situated individuals a request for a due process hearing before the California Department of General Service's, Office of Administrative Hearings, Special Education Division (OAH), alleging that Garcia and others like him were being denied a free appropriate public education (hereafter sometimes FAPE), as required by the IDEA, because there was no system for delivering special education services for eligible inmates in the Los Angeles County jail. (See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f); 34 C.F.R. § 300.151-300.153; Cal.Code Regs., tit. 5, §§ 3080, 3082, 4610.) The request named as defendants the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the County of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Office of Education, the California Department of Education, and other educational and public entities and officials. Because the OAH is not authorized to consider class actions, the OAH refiled the complaint as one by Garcia individually. The OAH also removed three of the named defendants from the complaint because they were not proper parties to a special education due process hearing. Notably, the initial complaint filed with the OAH did not name L.A. Unified as a defendant.

Most of the claims in Garcia's complaint were dismissed in January 2009, either because they alleged injuries to a class or because the legal basis of the claim, for example, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.), fell outside the OAH's jurisdiction. Of the remaining claims, which alleged that the defendants had failed to provide Garcia with the FAPE to which he was entitled, the administrative law judge (ALJ) granted each defendant's motion to be dismissed as a party and dismissed the complaint in its entirety. The ALJ noted there was no statute specifically allocating responsibility for providing a FAPE to an eligible individual who was incarcerated in a county jail. Accordingly, the ALJ looked to what it characterized as the " more general" rule set forth in section 56041, which the ALJ understood to assign responsibility to the school district in which the parent of a qualified pupil between the ages of 18 and 22 years resides. (See post, at pp. 928-29.)

Page 925

In concluding that section 56041 applied, the ALJ noted that " it is not uncommon for a responsible district to administer a distant placement," and expressed the view that any " difficulties in applying section 56041 in adult correctional facilities is a proper subject for the Legislature." ( Garcia v. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (OAH, Feb. 9, 2009, No. 2009010064).)

One month after the ALJ's decision, Garcia and others filed a class action in federal district court, alleging the same claims against the same parties named in the due process complaint. ( Garcia v. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, case. No. 09-1513 VBF (CTx); see 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A) [any party aggrieved by the findings or outcome of the due process hearing can bring a civil action in state or federal court].) Three months later, in late May 2009, the district court dismissed the action without prejudice. The district court concluded that plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies under the IDEA because they did not file an amended complaint at the administrative level " naming proper parties against whom relief could be sought." (See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f), (g), (i); Christopher S. ex rel. Rita S. v. Stanislaus County Office of Education, 384 F.3d 1205, 1209 (9th Cir.2004) [a plaintiff generally must exhaust his or her administrative remedies before seeking relief in federal or state court under the IDEA].) Dismissal also was warranted, the district court ruled, because plaintiffs failed to join L.A. Unified as a party to the class action.

In June 2009, within days of the dismissal of the class action in federal court, Garcia filed a second due process complaint with the OAH, this time naming only L.A. Unified as a party and arguing that L.A. Unified was responsible for providing him with a special education program in county jail. In November 2009, after a hearing, the OAH issued a decision reaffirming the ALJ's conclusion in the previous due process proceeding that section 56041 applied to designate the entity responsible for providing a special education program to Garcia. It further concluded that, because Garcia's mother resides within L.A. Unified's boundaries, L.A. Unified was responsible for Garcia's special education while he was incarcerated in county jail. ( Student v. Los Angeles Unified School District (OAH, Nov. 16, 2009, No. 2009060442).)

Pursuant to the November 2009 order by the OAH, L.A. Unified provided Garcia with a special education program in the Los Angeles County jail. Meanwhile, it filed in the federal district court a motion for relief from the OAH's decision. In May 2010, the district court affirmed the OAH decision, finding in relevant part that the OAH correctly determined section 56041 applies to allocate responsibility for providing special education and related services to Garcia in county jail and that, under that provision, L.A. Unified was responsible for providing such services.

L.A. Unified appealed the district court's order. While the appeal was pending, Garcia was transferred to state prison after pleading guilty to several charges in exchange for a sentence of 12 years. Acknowledging that the issue presented in the appeal was moot because Garcia, although still under the age of 22 years, was no longer incarcerated in county jail, the Ninth Circuit panel found nonetheless that the case presented an issue that was " capable of repetition yet [likely to evade] review" and that it therefore fell within an exception to the mootness doctrine. ( Los Angeles Unified School District v. Garcia, 669 F.3d 956, 958, fn. 1 (9th Cir.2012) [order certifying question to California Supreme Court].) As the federal appellate

Page 926

court observed, " the failure to provide special education services to eligible inmates in county jails is ongoing, and eligible inmates will usually not be incarcerated in the jail long enough to bring a legal challenge." ( Ibid. ) However, the Ninth Circuit then ordered proceedings stayed pending this court's decision whether to accept or reject its request pursuant to rule 8.548 of the California Rules of Court that we decide a question of state law that would determine the outcome of the appeal. Specifically, the Ninth Circuit asked this court to decide: " Does California Education Code § 56041— which provides generally that for qualifying children ages eighteen to twenty-two, the school district where the child's parent resides is responsible for special education services— apply to children who are incarcerated in county jails?" ( Los Angeles Unified School District v. Garcia, supra, at p. 958.)

By order dated March 28, 2012, this court granted the Ninth Circuit's request and agreed to decide the proffered state law issue. We have reformulated the question as follows to conform to California law: " Does California Education Code section 56041, which provides generally that for qualifying pupils between the ages of 18 and 22 years, the school district where the pupil's parent resides is responsible for providing special education and related services, affix responsibility for providing special education to a qualifying individual who is incarcerated in a county jail?" (See Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.548(f)(5).)

DISCUSSION

Pursuant to California's constitutional and statutory commands, the state is obligated to provide a free public education (Cal. Const., art. IX, § 5) to all children between the ages of 6 and 18 years who are not otherwise exempted from compulsory full-time or continuing education (§ 48200; see Cal. Const., art. IX, §§ 1, 3; §§ 48220-48232; Butt v. State of California, 4 Cal.4th 668, 680-681, 683, 15 Cal.Rptr.2d 480, 842 P.2d 1240 (1992); Jonathan L. v. Superior Court, 165 Cal.App.4th 1074, 1089-1091, 81 Cal.Rptr.3d 571 (2008).) When a child or young adult under the age of 19 years has been identified as an individual with a qualifying disability and has not received a high school diploma or otherwise met prescribed educational goals, federal and state law additionally require that he or she have available a free appropriate public education until reaching the age of 22 years. We discuss the relevant statutes below.

A. Statutory background

Congress enacted the IDEA in order " to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs...." (20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A).) The IDEA accomplishes that objective through partial federal funding. Under the IDEA, a state is eligible to receive federal financial assistance for educating disabled students by having in place policies and procedures that will ensure compliance with certain enumerated goals ...


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