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Oskowis v. Sedona Oak-Creek Unified School District #9

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 25, 2019

Matthew Oskowis, Plaintiff,
Sedona Oak-Creek Unified School District #9, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Matthew Oskowis (“Plaintiff”) appeals the denial of a due process complaint he brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA” or “the Act”). Plaintiff argues that Administrative Law Judge Tammy L. Eigenheer (“ALJ”) erred when she concluded that Plaintiff had failed to establish that his son E.O. was denied a free, appropriate, and public education (“FAPE”) as a result of procedural violations in the creation of E.O.'s 2014-15 individualized education program. Plaintiff filed an opening brief on January 25, 2016 (Doc. 22), in which he asserts that “the ALJ's Decision is erroneous, unsupported by the facts, and unsupported by the applicable federal statutes, Code of Federal Regulations, and applicable case law.”[1] Defendant Sedona Oak-Creek Unified School District #9 (“Defendant” or “District”) filed a response (Doc. 24) and Plaintiff filed a reply (Doc. 26). Plaintiff subsequently sought to amend his reply brief (Doc. 27). The Court granted that motion (Doc. 28) and has considered Plaintiff's amended reply brief (Doc. 29) in rendering this ruling. The Court now affirms the ALJ's decision and dismisses Plaintiff's appeal.

         I. Statutory Framework

         IDEA provides federal funds to help state and local agencies educate children with disabilities; the Act in turn conditions this funding on compliance with specific goals and procedures-primarily the agencies' obligation to provide each disabled child with a FAPE. 20 U.S.C. § 1412; Board of Educ. of Hendrik Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 179-80 (1982) (describing the purpose and primary provisions of IDEA). Among the procedures mandated by IDEA is the development of a written individualized education program (“IEP”) for each child with a disability. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d). A student's IEP is to be “developed, reviewed, and revised” by an “IEP Team” that includes the child's teachers and parents, a representative of the local educational agency, and, “whenever appropriate, ” the child. 20 U.S.C § 1414(d)(1).

         Violations of IDEA may arise in two types of situations. First, a school district can run afoul of the Act's procedural requirements in the creation and implementation of the IEP. Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206-07. Second, a school district can be liable for a substantive violation by drafting an IEP that is not reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits. Id.

         The Act provides parents with the opportunity to make complaints when they believe a violation of the Act has occurred. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6)-(8). After making a complaint, a parent is entitled to “an impartial due process hearing, which shall be conducted by the State educational agency or by the local educational agency, as determined by State law or by the State educational agency.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(A). If either party is dissatisfied with the state educational agency's review, they may bring a civil action in state or federal court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A).

         II. Procedural Background

         Under the provisions of the Act, on October 30, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Due Process Complaint against the District that alleged (1) the District denied E.O.'s parents an opportunity to meaningfully participate in the creation of E.O.'s 2014-15 IEP; and (2) that E.O.'s parents were denied their ability to exercise certain “procedural safeguards” because the District failed to include a copy of the IEP with the issuance of its August 15, 2014 Prior Written Notice (“PWN”). By way of relief, Plaintiff demanded “another annual IEP created that would be an actual ‘new' creation that is worked out in its entirety and not in piecemeal fashion, ” and specifically to have “an independent third-party trained facilitator” assist with the process, which he wanted to occur over “at least three two-hour meetings.”

         On January 30, 2015, a hearing on Plaintiff's Complaint was held before the ALJ. Plaintiff appeared on his own behalf and was accompanied by Parent T.M. (collectively, “Parents”). The ALJ heard and considered the testimony of Scott Keller, Special Education Director (“Director”), Joe Donaldson, Special Education Consultant (“Consultant”), and Rebecca Belanger, E.O.'s Special Education Teacher (“SET”). Parents did not testify. The ALJ also considered the parties' closing arguments and respective supplemental briefings in rendering her decision.

         On March 27, 2015, in a 12-page Order, the ALJ denied the relief requested in Plaintiff's Complaint, finding that Parents had ample opportunity to meaningfully participate during the meetings regarding E.O.'s 2014-15 IEP (hereafter “ALJ Decision”). The ALJ found that Parents were physically present at these meetings and participated through discussion and questions raised. (Id.) She also found that the District's failure to include a copy of the August 14, 2014 IEP with its August 15, 2014 PWN did not render the final 2014-15 IEP invalid or incomprehensible. (Id.) She further found that Plaintiff's proposed relief-“that a new annual IEP be created under the direction of an independent third-party trained facilitator during at least three two-hour meetings”-had “no relation to the alleged violation in that Petitioners have not raised any substantive issues with the final 2014 - 2015 IEP.” (Id.) The ALJ accordingly denied the requested relief. (Id.)

         Plaintiff filed this appeal on April 27, 2015. (Doc. 1). Therein, Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in finding that Parents meaningfully participated in the creation of the 2014-15 IEP; and the implementation of E.O.'s 2014-15 IEP in piecemeal fashion was reasonable under the circumstances. For relief, Plaintiff requests the same “relief requested in the aforementioned Due Process Complaint, ” costs, expenses and attorneys' fees, and other relief as this Court deems just and proper. (Doc. 1 at 12).

         For the following reasons, the Court finds that Plaintiff's appeal is without merit and affirms the decision of the ALJ.

         III. Standard of Review

         Once in federal court, the moving party bears the burden of proving that the ALJ's decision was not met by a preponderance of the evidence. L.M. v. Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist., 556 F.3d 900, 908-10 (9th Cir. 2008). In assessing an appeal, the Act mandates that a court “(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); see also R.B. v. Napa Valley Unif. Sch. Dist., 496 F.3d 932, 937 (9th Cir. 2007) (same). So that courts do not “substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review, ” Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206, the administrative proceeding below is to be afforded “due weight.” Van Duyn v. Baker Sch. Dist. 5J, 502 F.3d 811, 817 (9th Cir. 2007) (noting “complete de novo review of the administrative proceeding is inappropriate”). Nonetheless, courts assessing IDEA appeals are to give “less deference than is conventional” in review of other agency actions. Ojai Unified Sch. Dist. v. Jackson, 4 F.3d 1467, 1472 (9th Cir. 1993) (stating that “judicial review in IDEA cases [are to] differ[ ] 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”). “How much deference to give state educational agencies, however, is a matter for the discretion of the courts.” Gregory K. v. Longview Sch. Dist., 811 F.2d 1307, 1311 (9th Cir. 1987). Where the ALJ's findings are “thorough and careful, ” the amount of deference to the ALJ increases. Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. v. Wartenberg, 59 F.3d 884, 891 (9th Cir. 1995); see also Cty. of San Diego v. California Special Educ. Hrg. Off., 93 F.3d 1458, 1466 (9th Cir. 1996) (noting that an ALJ decision should be given “substantial weight” when “when it evinces [] careful, impartial consideration of all the evidence and demonstrates [] sensitivity to the complexity of the issues presented”) (internal citation and quotations omitted)).

         Here, the ALJ issued her decision in a 12-page, detailed opinion that reflects that careful thought was given to the issues raised by Plaintiff. To the extent there were alleged discrepancies in testimony and evidence, the ALJ addressed them in her Decision. (See e.g., Decision at 7 ¶ 21). The ALJ states that she considered all of the exhibits that were offered by the parties and admitted into evidence, as well as the testimony given by the three witnesses that appeared. (Id. at 3, n. 5). Her Decision supports this statement. At times, the ALJ asked her own questions of the testifying witnesses to clarify the record and facts. (See e.g., Reporter's Transcript of Proceedings, dated Jan. 30, 2015 (“Tran.”) at 49:16-18; 49:22-25; 50:2-4; 57:11-12). As discussed infra, the ALJ also applied the correct legal standards in determining whether the District's implementation of E.O.'s IEP amounted to a deprivation of E.O.'s right to a FAPE. Finally, after this Court's review of the administrative record, it appears that the ALJ accurately and impartially described the background of events and facts related to the creation of the 2014-15 IEP in a manner that is supported by a preponderance of the evidence.

         In light of this careful decision making, this Court will afford the ALJ's decision substantial weight.

         IV. ...

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