United States District Court, D. Arizona
NEIL V. WAKE, District Judge.
Before the Court are Pointe Educational Services' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 33), the response (Doc. 40), and the reply (Doc. 42); and Pointe's Motion for Partial Remand of Certain Issues (Doc. 39), the response (Doc. 45), and the reply (Doc. 46). The parties also presented oral argument on August 6, 2014. The Court addresses the Motion for Summary Judgment first and the Motion for Partial Remand second. For the following reasons, the Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted and the judgment of the administrative law judge reversed, and the Motion for Partial Remand will be denied.
I. MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
A.T. is an eight-year old autistic student who qualifies for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. The IDEA "seeks to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education[.]' Under IDEA, school districts must create an individualized education program' (IEP) for each disabled child." Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 51 (2005) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A)).
In the 2012-13 academic year, A.T. attended first grade at a school within Pointe Educational Services' school district. His school developed an IEP, which included "goals and services in academics, speech and language, Occupational Therapy... and social/emotional/behavior supports." Doc. 1-1 at 4; Doc. 41 at 11.
A.T. exhibited disruptive behavior during the academic year. The parties offer competing characterizations, but the behavior itself is undisputed: A.T. whined, cried, yelled, argued, disrupted class, was noncompliant, and walked into the wrong classrooms. See Doc. 34 at 2; Doc. 41 at 2-3. His most physically aggressive behavior involved "removing a teacher's hand from his arm." Doc. 1-1 at 6. His behavior problems culminated in a Manifestation Determination Review and IEP meeting in January 2013, in which his IEP team determined that A.T. "would benefit from placement in a private day school as the interventions implemented to address his behaviors have not been successful." Id. The IEP team concluded that private day placement would address both behavioral and academic needs. See Doc. 34 at 3; Doc. 41 at 5.
Pointe selected the Austin Center for Exceptional Students (ACES) and provided written notice to A.T.'s parents on January 17, 2013. A.T.'s father responded the same day and expressed concern over the logistics of his son attending ACES. A.T.'s mother would be unable to pick up A.T. from ACES and A.T.'s brother from a different school, Gateway Academy, because of the release time at ACES. On January 21, Pointe informed A.T.'s father that placement decisions are based on services provided rather than schedules. See Doc. 34-1 at 61. The next day, A.T.'s father again emailed Pointe to express concern over whether the placement would meet A.T.'s IEP needs. He informed Pointe he would visit ACES, and he asked Pointe to consider and tour two other schools: Gateway Academy and New Way Learning Academy. Id. at 57. The IEP team met in early February to discuss placement at ACES, Gateway, and New Way. Pointe maintained its decision to send A.T. to ACES. Doc. 1-1 at 20.
Perceiving IDEA violations, A.T.'s parents filed a due process complaint. Among other claims, they challenged Pointe's decision to place him at ACES. Because A.T.'s family sought relief from Pointe's decision, they bore the burden of persuasion at the due process hearing. See Schaffer, 546 U.S. at 51. An administrative law judge (ALJ) held a two-day evidentiary hearing and invited post-hearing briefs. She subsequently issued a 21-page order concluding, in relevant part, that Pointe violated the IDEA because placement at ACES did not provide a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) as required by 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). The ALJ made explicit that she had "considered the entire record, including the testimony and Exhibits, " in finding facts and making conclusions of law, and noted that she had "read and considered each admitted Exhibit, even if not mentioned in this Decision. The Administrative Law Judge has also considered the testimony of every witness, even if the witness is not specifically mentioned in this Decision." Doc. 1-1 at 4 & n.5.
The ALJ reached the following conclusions regarding A.T.'s placement:
24. After the IEP Team determines the educational placement, the school district may select the location at which the services will be provided. "[C]hoosing which school the student will attend is an administrative decision." [ Deer Valley Unified Sch. Dist. v. L.P., 942 F.Supp.2d 880, 887 (D. Ariz. 2013)]. While it is an administrative decision, the location must still be appropriate for Student in that it provides the individualized educational services necessary to provide a FAPE to Student.
25. The Administrative Law Judge concludes ACES is not an appropriate location because of the excessive transitions, the inclusion of significantly older students for academic classes, and the severe behavior issues prevalent in other students. At ACES, Student would be expected to transition approximately half the day. More significantly, those transitions would include students up to five years older than Student transitioning into Student's academic classes. These significantly older students exhibit more severe behavior issues than Student has been described as having including physical aggression, sexual acting out, and drug issues.
26. Also of note was that ACES was at capacity at the time Respondent Pointe proposed to enroll Student. Therefore, even if ACES had been appropriate in terms of meeting Student's needs, ACES was not appropriate at the time because it was not an available option.
Id. at 20-21 (footnote omitted). She then concluded Pointe must place A.T. at Gateway Academy.
27. The evidence submitted by Petitioners establishes that Gateway Academy is an appropriate location for Student. The classmates, curriculum, and structure are appropriate for him to make progress towards the IEP goals. Student would only be with other students his age. Its focus on autism spectrum students ensures that Gateway Academy can address Student's behavioral and emotional needs. While there are transitions, there are fewer transitions and the transitions are used as teaching opportunities. Student attended Gateway Academy for a half day and was deemed eligible for admission by the staff.
28. Based on the IEP, the Administrative Law Judge Concludes the appropriate location is Gateway Academy.
Id. at 21.
B. STANDARD OF REVIEW
"A party aggrieved by the findings and decision of an ALJ in a due process hearing may seek review through a civil action in United States district court." L.M. v. Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist., 556 F.3d 900, 908 (9th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)). "Though the parties may call the procedure a motion for summary judgment' in order to obtain a calendar date from the district court's case management clerk, the procedure is in substance an appeal from an administrative determination, not a summary judgment." Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. v. Wartenberg, 59 F.3d 884, 892 (9th Cir. 1995). The IDEA provides three specific instructions to reviewing district courts. They "(i) shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; (ii) shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and (iii) basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C).
Notably, however, "judicial review in IDEA cases differs substantially from judicial review of other agency actions, in which courts generally are confined to the administrative record and are held to a highly deferential standard of review." Ojai Unified Sch. Dist. v. Jackson, 4 F.3d 1467, 1471 (9th Cir. 1993). The Ninth Circuit has construed § 1415(i)(2)(C) "as calling for de novo review of the state hearing officer's findings and conclusions, " but also as impliedly instructing district courts to give "due weight" to the administrative proceedings. Ashland Sch. Dist. v. Parents of Student R.J., 588 F.3d 1004, 1008 (9th Cir. 2009). This requires giving "deference to the state hearing officer's findings, particularly when they are thorough and careful, and avoid[ing] substituting its own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which it reviews." Id. at 1008-09 (alterations, citations, and quotation marks omitted); see also L.M., 556 F.3d at 908 ("A district court shall accord more deference to administrative agency findings that it considers thorough and careful.") (quotation marks omitted). Ultimately, however, the Court "is free to determine independently how much weight to give the state hearing officer's determinations." Ashland, 588 F.3d at 1009.
A.T.'s placement at ACES provides a FAPE-and thus satisfies the IDEA-if it "(1) addresses his unique needs, (2) provides adequate support services so he can take advantage of the educational opportunities and (3) is in accord with the individualized education program." Park v. Anaheim Union High Sch. Dist., 464 F.3d 1025, 1033 (9th Cir. 2006). Notably, a free appropriate public education "does not mean the absolutely best or potential-maximizing education for the individual child. The states are obliged to provide a basic floor of opportunity through a program individually designed to provide educational benefit to the handicapped child." Jackson, 4 F.3d at 1474 (alterations and quotation marks omitted). The educational benefit must be "meaningful." N.B. v. Hellgate Elementary Sch. Dist., 541 F.3d 1202, 1212-13 (9th Cir. 2008) ("Under the 1997 amendments to the IDEA, a school must provide a student with a meaningful benefit' in order to satisfy the substantive requirements of the IDEA.").
Pointe contends that the ALJ lost sight of her primary inquiry-whether ACES could provide a FAPE-and impermissibly compared ACES with Gateway Academy, the school she and A.T.'s parents perceived as superior. See Gregory K. v. Longview Sch. Dist., 811 F.2d 1307, 1314 (9th Cir. 1987) (Review "must focus primarily on the District's proposed placement, not on the alternative that the family preferred. Even if the tutoring were better for Gregory than the District's proposed placement, that would not necessarily mean that the placement was inappropriate."). Although the ALJ did in fact conclude Gateway was a better placement, she began with the conclusion that ACES was not appropriate. The question is whether that conclusion was correct.
As the excerpted decision above reflects, the ALJ rejected ACES based on its excessive transitions, the inclusion of significantly older students for academic classes, and the severe behavior issues prevalent in other students. Finally, she concluded that in any event ACES could not provide a FAPE because it was at capacity when Pointe selected it. Pointe objects to each of these explanations. This case posed difficult challenges both to this Court and the ALJ. That Gateway Academy appears to be a better fit for A.T. quite reasonably affects evaluation of Pointe's placement. Despite the better fit, however, A.T. did not prove that ACES's perceived shortcomings precluded it from providing a FAPE. Because Pointe did not violate the IDEA, the decision below will be reversed.
A.T.'s IEP reflects challenges with transitions between classes. Although not a separate, explicit focus, the transition goal was "embedded in other things." Reporter's Transcript of Proceedings, April 2, 2013, at 114:23-24 [hereinafter "AR029, 4/2/2013"]; see also id. at 121:3-6, 123:17-23. Pointe believes the ACES approach to transitions provides a FAPE, and it makes two arguments in support.
First, most ACES students also struggle with transitions. Pointe offers testimony of Gay Hardy, school psychologist at ACES, that "90 percent of [ACES] kids have difficulty transitioning from class to class. That's just kind of a given with students who come to the ACES." Reporter's Transcript of Proceedings, April 1, 2013, at 26:9-11 [hereinafter "AR029, 4/1/2013"]. Second, ACES helps students manage transition problems. Pointe offers Hardy's testimony affirming that "ACES is designed to help students with [transitions]." Id. at 29:8-10. She elaborated, "The students, when they changes classes, are taken in line with staff. So there's the teacher, teaching assistant, and behavior coaches escorting students to classes in a line." Id. at 29:10-13. Indeed, relying on the testimony of Katie Sprouls, a school psychologist "who contracts with Pointe to perform evaluations for its students" and who was added to A.T.'s IEP team just before Pointe selected ACES, Doc. 42 at 3, 6, Pointe argues that ACES is appropriate because it confronts and works on transition issues rather than minimize them. Indeed, Sprouls testified that "for all skill development in the schools, especially students with special education needs, that you want to make sure you have your end all goal but have your small objectives of how you're going to build ...