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North Kingstown School Committee v. Justine R.

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

March 12, 2015

NORTH KINGSTOWN SCHOOL COMMITTEE, Plaintiff and Counterclaim Defendant,
v.
JUSTINE R., as Parent of M.R., Defendant and Counterclaim Plaintiff.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

WILLIAM E. SMITH, Chief District Judge.

This is an administrative appeal from the decision of a hearing officer under the framework established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, in which the parties, the North Kingstown School Committee ("School") and Justine R. ("J.R."), have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 11, 15.)[1] Magistrate Judge Patricia A. Sullivan issued a Report & Recommendation ("R&R") (ECF No. 22), recommending that the hearing officer's decision be modified in part and otherwise affirmed and that each party's motion for summary judgment be granted in part and denied in part.

The School has not filed an objection to the R&R, and the time for doing so has passed. J.R. timely objected to three aspects of the R&R. (Def.'s Obj., ECF No. 23.) This Court hereby ADOPTS all aspects of the R&R to which no objection has been lodged.[2] See LR Cv 72(d)(1). Furthermore, for the reasons discussed below, this Court OVERRULES J.R.'s objection to the portion of the R&R that recommends that her attorneys' fees for the proceedings that culminated in the Interim Order be reduced to account for her unreasonable protraction of the final resolution of the controversy; that aspect of the R&R is also ADOPTED. Finally, this Court reserves decision on J.R.'s remaining objections until the parties present additional evidence on the monitor issue or the time for doing so expires.

I. Unreasonable Protraction

J.R. objects to Judge Sullivan's recommendation that her award of attorney fees in the Interim-Order proceedings should be reduced because she unreasonably protracted the final resolution of the controversy. (Def.'s Obj. 20-25, ECF No. 23.) A brief background discussion is necessary to put this aspect of the R&R and J.R.'s objection thereto in proper context.[3]

J.R.'s son, M.R., is not completely independent in toileting. (Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Facts ("SUF") ¶¶ 1, 16-17, ECF No. 16.) In early 2013, the School and J.R. were at loggerheads over whether M.R.'s individualized education plan ("IEP") required school personnel to wipe M.R. after a bowel movement. (Id. at ¶¶ 36, 40-42, 44-45, 54, 57-59, 62-64, 66, 68.) When discussions between the School and J.R. proved fruitless, J.R. petitioned the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education ("Commissioner") for an interim order and also filed a request for a due-process hearing before a hearing officer of the Rhode Island Department of Education. (See Decision of Hr'g Officer 6, ECF No. 1-1; Interim Order 1, Record ("R."), J.R.'s Ex. 20.) On April 2, 2013, the Commissioner issued an Interim Order requiring the School to wipe M.R. if wiping was necessary to adequately clean M.R. (Interim Order 3, 4, R., J.R.'s Ex. 20.)

That evening, the parties' counsel exchanged multiple emails. (Def.'s SUF ¶ 70, ECF No. 16; R., J.R.'s Ex. 21.) J.R.'s counsel informed the School's counsel that M.R. would be returning to school that Thursday, April 4, 2013. (R., J.R.'s Ex. 21.) Counsel for the School replied that she needed to confer with her client before she informed J.R. of the School's plan for compliance. (Id.) The following morning, J.R.'s counsel informed opposing counsel that, if she did not receive confirmation from the School by 1:00 p.m. that afternoon that the School was ready to comply with the Interim Order, J.R. would file an action in Rhode Island Superior Court to enforce the Interim Order. (R., J.R.'s Ex. 22.) The School sent J.R.'s counsel a letter via email later that day, explaining that it had not yet had time to review the Interim Order and would not be ready to comply the next day; the School requested that M.R. not be returned to school until Friday, April 5, 2013. (R., J.R.'s Ex. 23.) On April 4, 2013, J.R. filed a petition in state court seeking enforcement of the Interim Order. (R., J.R.'s Ex. 25.) The School informed J.R. later that day that it was going to comply with the Interim Order. (R., J.R.'s Ex. 26.)

The School removed J.R.'s enforcement action to this Court. (C.A. No. 13-222 S, ECF No. 1.) J.R. filed an emergency motion for remand in which she offered a meritless challenge to this Court's jurisdiction over the enforcement action and requested, in the alternative, an expedited order enforcing the Interim Order. (C.A. No. 13-222 S, ECF No. 2.) By separate R&Rs, Judge Sullivan rejected the jurisdictional challenge and determined that J.R. presented no evidence that the School failed to comply with the Interim Order. (C.A. No. 13-222 S, R&R 1-2, ECF No. 6; C.A. No. 13-222 S, R&R 5, ECF No. 8.) On May 22, 2013, J.R. filed another motion to enforce the Interim Order. (C.A. No. 13-222 S, ECF No. 9.) After conducting an evidentiary hearing, Judge Sullivan recommended denial of this motion on June 13, 2013. (C.A. No. 13-222 S, R&R 5-6, ECF No. 12.)

On July 1, 2013, J.R. filed an objection to the third R&R in C.A. No. 13-222 S. (C.A. No. 13-222 S, ECF No. 14.) She raised three objections, all of which this Court found to be meritless in its order adopting the R&Rs, which was issued on August 9, 2013. (C.A. No. 13-222 S, ECF No. 17.) J.R. appealed the dismissal of her enforcement action on September 4, 2013. (C.A. No. 13-222 S, ECF No. 18.) This appeal was voluntarily dismissed by joint motion of the parties on December 16, 2013. (C.A. No. 13-222 S, ECF No. 23.) The due-process proceedings remained pending for much of the time during which J.R. litigated her enforcement action in this Court; the hearing officer issued her decision on July 26, 2013. (Decision of Hr'g Officer 1, ECF No. 1-1.)

In considering this history, Judge Sullivan determined that J.R.'s "decision to rush into court on April 4, 2013" unreasonably protracted the final resolution of the controversy and that, pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(F)(i), [4] her attorneys' fees for the Interim-Order proceedings should be reduced to reflect this protraction. (R&R 23, ECF No. 22.) J.R. insists that, given the School's prior unjustified refusals to wipe M.R. and its initial responses to her request for immediate compliance with the Interim Order, she was fully justified in bringing her enforcement suit. (Def.'s Obj. 21, ECF No. 23.) Upon de novo review, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3), this Court agrees with Judge Sullivan that J.R.'s rush to the courthouse and dogged pursuit of her meritless enforcement action for over eight months "unreasonably protracted the final resolution of the controversy." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(F)(i).

In reaching this conclusion, the Court does not question the sincerity of J.R.'s desire to see her son returned to school or her concern over the School's responses in the immediate wake of the Interim Order. However, the timeframe between issuance of the Interim Order and the commencement of the enforcement suit - less than forty-eight hours - was short.[5] Additionally, J.R. continued full-throttle litigation of her enforcement action even after the School stated its unqualified intention to comply with the Interim Order on the day the enforcement action was commenced. Several aspects of that litigation effort support Judge Sullivan's determination that J.R.'s eight-month-long pursuit of the enforcement action constituted unreasonable protraction.

First, upon removal of the case from state court, J.R. injected a clearly meritless jurisdictional issue into the case. Although she attempts to justify that challenge in her objection to the R&R currently under review (see Def.'s Obj. 22-23, ECF No. 23), that justification is unpersuasive. By forcing the School and this Court to respond to her baseless jurisdictional argument, J.R. needlessly drew attention away from the merits of her enforcement action and delayed the final resolution of this matter. Second, she filed two separate unsuccessful motions for enforcement of the Interim Order, one of which necessitated an evidentiary hearing. Each time, Judge Sullivan determined that there was no evidence that the School was not complying with the Interim Order. Third, J.R. lodged meritless objections to one of Judge Sullivan's R&Rs.

Most critically, all of the above-referenced litigation effort in this Court took place while J.R.'s due-process proceedings remained pending. A main focus of these proceedings was whether the School's protocol for implementing the mandate of the Interim Order denied M.R. a fair and adequate public education. Therefore, through her enforcement action, J.R. waged a two-front battle against the School with respect to its compliance with the Interim Order. To cinch matters, J.R. appealed from this Court's order dismissing her complaint, only to voluntarily dismiss her appeal on December 16, 2013.

This eight-month effort unreasonably protracted the final resolution of the controversy.[6] Therefore, pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(F)(i), J.R.'s award of attorneys' fees for the Interim-Order proceedings must ...


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