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Joanna S. v. South Kingstown Public School District

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

March 17, 2017

JOANNA S., individually, and as Parent and Guardian of P.J. S., a Minor Child, Plaintiff,
v.
SOUTH KINGSTOWN PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT, and/or, SOUTH KINGSTOWN SCHOOL COMMITTEE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          WILLIAM E. SMITH, Chief Judge.

         On January 11, 2017, Magistrate Judge Patricia A. Sullivan issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) (ECF No. 20) recommending that the Court DENY Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 10) and GRANT IN PART Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13), affirming the administrative hearing officer's decision and denying Defendant's request for attorney's fees. After careful consideration of the R&R and Plaintiff's Objection thereto (ECF No. 23), the Court hereby ACCEPTS the R&R for the reasons that follow.

         I. Background

         Magistrate Judge Sullivan provided a comprehensive exposition of the facts and procedural history of this matter in the R&R. The Court therefore presents only those facts pertinent to frame Plaintiff's Objection to the R&R.

         Pursuant to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f), and R.I. Gen. Laws § 16-39-1, Plaintiff Joanna S. (“Parent”) initiated a due process proceeding with the Rhode Island Department of Education (“RIDE”) in August 2014. (Compl. ¶ 25, ECF No. 1.) The Parent's Complaint alleged that Defendant deprived her minor son, P.J., of his right to a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) under the IDEA and that she placed him in a private school in New York as a result. (Id. ¶ 9.) After a hearing, RIDE issued an administrative decision in Defendant's favor, and the Parent filed a timely appeal with the Court. (Administrative Decision, ECF No. 1-2; Compl.)

         II. Standard of Review

         The First Circuit has “characterized the appropriate level of review by District Courts as ‘involved oversight, ' a standard which ‘falls somewhere between the highly deferential clear-error standard and the non-deferential de novo standard.” S. Kingstown Sch. Comm. v. Joanna S., 773 F.3d 344, 349 (1st Cir. 2014) (quoting Sebastian M. v. King Philip Reg'l Sch. Dist., 685 F.3d 79, 84 (1st Cir. 2012)). Cross-motions for summary judgment are “‘simply a vehicle' for providing review of the underlying administrative ruling.” Id. (quoting Sebastian M., 685 F.3d at 85). Thus, the typical summary judgment standard requiring the Court to “consider the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party” is disregarded, and “‘[t]he party challenging the outcome of the . . . administrative decision bears the burden of proof.'” Bristol Warren Reg'l Sch. Comm. v. R.I. Dep't of Educ., 253 F.Supp.2d 236, 240 (D.R.I. 2003) (quoting Heather S. v. State of Wis., 125 F.3d 1045, 1052 (7th Cir. 1997) (brackets in original)). Applying this standard of review, Magistrate Judge Sullivan undertook a thorough, well-reasoned analysis of each claim.

         III. Discussion

         The R&R found that the administrative hearing officer properly concluded that P.J. received an IDEA-compliant FAPE during the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years. (R&R 90.) In addition, the R&R found that P.J.'s 2014-2015 private-school placement was not an IDEA-appropriate placement (id.) and, accordingly, that the Parent was not entitled to tuition reimbursement (see id. at 79). The R&R also concluded that the Parent's unexhausted claim for payment of P.J.'s special-education services at the private-school placement pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 16-24-1(c) should be dismissed without prejudice. (Id. at 83-86, 91.) Finally, the R&R determined that neither party was entitled to an award of attorney's fees at this time. (Id. at 90-91.)

         The Parent objects to the R&R on three bases. First, she contends that the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that P.J. received an IDEA-compliant FAPE during the 2014-2015 school year because of substantive and procedural deficiencies in his individualized education plan (“IEP”). (Pls.' Obj. 2-10, ECF No. 23-1.) Second, the Parent argues that the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that she was not entitled to tuition reimbursement because P.J.'s private-school placement was, according to the Parent, IDEA appropriate. (Id. at 10-11.) Finally, the Parent argues that the Magistrate Judge erred in recommending that her claim under R.I. Gen. Laws § 16-24-1(c) be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. (Id. at 11-13.) This Court reviews the R&R de novo, addressing each of these arguments in turn. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

         A. 2014-2015 IEP

         For a multitude of reasons, the Parent argues that P.J.'s IEP for the 2014-2015 school year, which found that the Academic Success Academy (“ASA”) would be an appropriate placement, failed to provide him an IDEA-compliant FAPE. Specifically, (1) the IEP misclassified P.J.'s eligibility for special-education services based on his anxiety, an emotional disorder, rather than his autism (Pls.' Obj. 2-5); (2) the IEP's proposed public high school placement for P.J. at the ASA was not appropriate (id. at 8-10); and (3) Defendant failed to meet certain procedural requirements in developing P.J.'s IEP (id. at 6-7).

         Magistrate Judge Sullivan provided a comprehensive discussion of the IDEA statutory scheme in the R&R (R&R 48-53), and this Court agrees with her conclusion that P.J.'s 2014-2015 IEP afforded him an IDEA-compliant FAPE. (See R&R 70-75, 90.) To comply with the IDEA's FAPE requirement, an IEP must be “‘reasonably calculated' to deliver ‘educational benefits.'” C.G. ex rel. A.S. v. Five Town Cmty. Sch. Dist., 513 F.3d 279, 284 (1st Cir. 2008) (quoting Hendrick Hudson Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 207 (1982)). The Parent failed to meet her burden of showing that P.J.'s IEP for the 2014-2015 school year was not “reasonably calculated” to deliver “educational benefits.” See Id. (quoting Rowley, 458 U.S. at 207).

         Addressing the Parent's claim that Defendant misclassified P.J.'s “primary diagnosis” in determining his eligibility for special-education services (Pls.' Obj. 2-5), the R&R notes that “[n]o qualified expert or educator testified that the District's eligibility determination was wrong . . . .” (R&R 71.) Nonetheless, even if the Parent's assertion was true that “the weight of the expert testimony and credible evidence of [P.J.'s] performance” supported a classification for services based on P.J.'s autism (Pls.' Obj. 5), the Parent failed to show how this alleged error impacted her son's ...


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