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S. Kingstown Sch. Comm. v. Joanna S.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

December 9, 2014

SOUTH KINGSTOWN SCHOOL COMMITTEE, Plaintiff, Appellee,
v.
JOANNA S., as parent of P.J.S., Defendant, Appellant

Page 345

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF RHODE ISLAND. Hon. Mary M. Lisi, U.S. District Judge.

Christine H. Barrington, with whom ACCESS! Education Consulting was on brief, for appellant.

Mary Ann Carroll, with whom Brennan, Recupero, Cascione, Scungio & McAllister, LLP was on brief, for appellee.

Before Thompson, Kayatta and Barron, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 346

BARRON, Circuit Judge.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., is a landmark federal statute now twenty-five years old. It offers federal funds to states that agree to provide protections to make sure disabled children receive a " free appropriate public education." Id. § 1412(1). Rhode Island, where this case arose, accepted IDEA funding and thus agreed to provide those protections. See 21-2-54 R.I. Code R. § 300.2(a). And that sets the stage for this appeal.

The appellee, South Kingstown School Committee, runs one of Rhode Island's public school districts. The appellant is the mother of a disabled child the School Committee is responsible for educating. The mother contends the School Committee failed to meet its IDEA obligations. She focuses in particular on the School Committee's failure to protect her right to an evaluation to determine her child's educational needs. See id. § § 300.304, 300.502.

The outcome of this appeal turns in part on what the record shows about how well the School Committee performed an evaluation of the mother's child. But the outcome also turns on the meaning of a Settlement Agreement between the mother and the School Committee over which evaluations the School Committee would perform.

We hold the District Court rightly concluded the Settlement Agreement relieves the School Committee of any obligation to perform or fund one of the evaluations the mother seeks. We also hold the District Court did not err in concluding there was insufficient factual support for her other evaluation request. Still, we remand for the District Court to consider whether the mother deserves attorneys' fees for her success in securing yet a third evaluation, which the School Committee did not challenge in District Court and thus does not contest here.

I.

Joanna S. brings this appeal on behalf of her son, P.J. -- we use only initials out of respect for their privacy. P.J. is a disabled student. He used to attend a public school in the South Kingstown public school district, which the South Kingstown School Committee runs. P.J. now attends, with funding from the School Committee, a private school in East Providence, Rhode Island.

Joanna S. contends the Rhode Island statute and regulations that implement IDEA require the School Committee to pay for two independent evaluations of P.J. The first is an " occupational therapy" evaluation, which would evaluate P.J.'s motor skills and sensory processing abilities. The second is a " psychoeducational" evaluation, which would evaluate P.J.'s educational progress and needs.

Evaluations are integral to the way IDEA works. They determine whether a child " qualifies as a child with a disability" and thus for IDEA protection. 21-2-54 R.I. Code R. § 300.300(a). For children who do qualify, like P.J., evaluations also perform another important function. They " assist in determining . . . [t]he content of

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the child's" Individualized Education Program, or IEP. Id. § 300.304(b)(1)(ii).

The IEP sets forth the services a disabled child will receive and the educational goals for that child. Id. § 300.320(a). The IEP thus gives practical substance to IDEA's right to a free appropriate public education. And for that reason, evaluations are a key means -- perhaps the key means -- for deciding the content of the protections IDEA offers.

In the first instance, the school district must perform IDEA evaluations. Id. § § 300.301, 300.303, 300.304. But IDEA also provides for " independent" evaluations. For that type of evaluation, the parent selects the evaluator, id. § 300.502, and a school district must pay for that evaluation. But that obligation to pay kicks in only if a school district has first failed to perform its own evaluation well enough for it to be deemed " appropriate." Id. § 300.502(b)(2), (5). The right to have a school district pay for an independent evaluation, therefore, is a backstop. It offers a parent a remedy when a school district fails to carry out its evaluative responsibilities properly.

The dispute between Joanna S. and the School Committee that is at issue in this appeal does not directly concern an evaluation the School Committee must perform. Or, at least, Joanna S. says it does not. Instead, Joanna S. wants us to give effect to a favorable administrative ruling she characterizes as having required the School Committee to fund two independent evaluations.

The administrative ruling is not entirely clear, however, on that point. The part of the administrative ruling that concerns the occupational therapy evaluation clearly does require an independent evaluation. But the part that addresses the psychoeducational evaluation is more ambiguous. It could be read to require the School Committee to pay for an independent psychoeducational evaluation or to require the School Committee to perform the psychoeducational evaluation itself. As we will explain, we need not resolve the ambiguity.

To see why, though, we need to provide some further details about the history that underlies the dispute between Joanna S. and the School Committee over these evaluations. Joanna S. first made the evaluation request that gave rise to this appeal in February of 2012. That was when she brought what is known as a " due process complaint." IDEA and the Rhode Island laws implementing IDEA allow both school districts and parents to file a " due process complaint." Id. § 300.507(a)(1). Such a complaint sets in motion a state administrative process for adjudicating a dispute over the " identification, evaluation, or educational placement of [a disabled] child or the provision of [free appropriate public education] to the child." Id. § 300.503(a); see also id. § 300.507(a).

In her due process complaint, Joanna S. sought additional educational services for P.J. from the School Committee. These included a private school placement. She also sought eight new evaluations of P.J.

Before any administrative proceeding began, however, the School Committee agreed to a settlement with Joanna S. That settlement resolved Joanna S.'s due process complaint. In the Settlement Agreement, the School Committee promised to pay for P.J. to attend the Wolf School, a private school. The School Committee also agreed to perform four evaluations of P.J. before he began at the Wolf School. The four evaluations are listed in the Settlement Agreement as: " educational, cognitive, speech and language[,] and occupational therapy." In return, Joanna S. relinquished her request for the other evaluations she had demanded in her complaint.

Page 348

As we will see, however, there is a dispute about just how much she actually gave up.

Following the settlement, in late April of 2012, the School Committee performed the four evaluations of P.J. the School Committee had agreed to undertake. P.J. then enrolled in the Wolf School in September of 2012. On October 9, 2012, however, at a meeting with P.J.'s teachers and representatives of the School Committee, Joanna S. demanded ten additional evaluations of P.J. These newly requested evaluations included independent versions of each of the four evaluations the School Committee had performed in April of 2012. Joanna S. reiterated this demand for ten additional evaluations in a letter to the School Committee dated October 22, 2012.

The School Committee decided not to comply with Joanna S.'s demands for more evaluations. The School Committee instead chose to file a " due process complaint" of its own. See id. § 300.502(b)(2)(i). The School Committee filed that due process complaint on October 30, 2012.[1] In the complaint, the School Committee argued the evaluations it had performed were " ...


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