Sixth Circuit affirmed IDEA violations but determined that student re-enrollment in a public school is not required to obtain an amended IEP
Woods v. Northport Pub. Sch., Nos. 11–1493, 11–1567 (6th Cir. July 5, 2012)
Abstract: A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (KY, MI, OH, TN) has ruled that a student was denied a free appropriate public education (FAPE), and his parents were denied meaningful participation in the development of the student’s individualized education plan (IEP), as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, the panel determined that the district court erred when it upheld the portion of the hearing officer’s decision that the student had to re-enroll in his public school to obtain an amended IEP, and the panel vacated that portion of the order. Lastly, the panel also found no abuse of discretion in the district court’s decision to limit the parents’ monetary relief to only pre-settlement offer attorneys’ fees and costs.
Facts/Issues: T.W., a student with autism and cerebral palsy, received special education and related services while attending elementary school in the Northport Public School system. After T.W. entered third grade, his parents initiated an administrative proceeding against the district challenging whether T.W. had been afforded FAPE during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 school years, and whether the IEP proposed for the 2007-08 school year was also deficient. [In its analysis, the panel does not discuss the parents claims related to the 2005-2006 school year raised in this appeal, but does mention in its recitation of the facts that the parents and Northport had previously reached a settlement in October 2005.] While these current proceedings were under way, a fourth IEP was developed on June 9, 2008, but was never implemented. The parents then removed T.W. from the school and began to privately educate him.
In early February 2009, the independent hearing officer (IHO) determined, in relevant part, that Northport’s “performance on the IEP terms for the 2006-2007 school year was seriously deficient” because, among other things, “[a]greed upon services were not implemented.” Because of these deficiencies, the IHO found that T.W. made “[n]egligible progress in the general curriculum.”
Regarding T.W.’s 2007-2008 school year, the IHO found that “less instructional assistance was offered overall in that neither resource program consultative services nor autism intervention specialist services were offered” and “overall academic growth was also lacking.” Finally, the IHO determined that Northport had committed procedural IDEA violations by failing to provide plaintiffs with certain testing protocols, and by failing to allow T.W.’s parents to fully participate in the development of goals and objectives for the 2007-2008 IEP.
The IHO ordered several forms of relief, including evaluations of T.W.’s present abilities, an updated IEP, 768 hours of 1:1 compensatory education and a prospective placement at Northport providing T.W. with “one-to-one direct instruction by a special education certified teacher with an endorsement to teach students with autism.”
The parents then sought attorneys’ fees and costs in federal district court, and challenged several portions of the IHO’s decision. Northport counterclaimed, also challenging portions of the IHO’s decision. The district court denied Northport’s motion entirely, and granted the parents’ request for attorneys’ fees and costs, but limited the award to only those fees and costs incurred prior to Northport’s November 16, 2007 settlement offer. The district court denied plaintiffs’ motion with respect to all other claims. Both parties appealed.
Rationale/Ruling: The Sixth Circuit panel affirmed the district court’s decision, but vacated the portion of the district court’s order upholding the requirement that T.W. must re-enroll at Northport to obtain an amended IEP.
The panel determined that “the district court did not clearly err in finding that T.W. did not obtain meaningful academic benefits during his second-grade year in relation to his potential and, thus, was denied a FAPE” when Northport did not implement certain important aspects of the 2006-2007 IEP. The panel stated that T.W. only received “trivial benefits,” rather than meaningful education benefits as required by the IDEA. The panel agreed that Northport’s failure to provide certain promised services contributed to the fact that T.W. made little academic progress. The panel also stated that it is “undisputed that T.W. was significantly behind in reading, writing, and mathematics[, ... ]and, in fact, regressed in some areas.”
With respect to T.W.’s 2007-2008 IEP, the panel rejected Northport’s challenges to the findings of two procedural IDEA violations. First, the panel agreed with the district court that the parents were denied meaningful parental participation in the IEP process when they were not given access to certain testing protocols, so that they could be reviewed by their expert in preparation for the third-grade IEP meeting. The panel stated that this violation “lessen[ed] the parents’ ability to advocate for their son during the IEP process.”
Second, the panel agreed with the district court that Northport denied the parents meaningful participation in the development of academic goals and objectives for T.W.’s third grade IEP, when they were developed after the conclusion of the IEP meeting outside of the parents’ presence.
As a substantive IDEA violation, the panel agreed with the district court that T.W.’s third grade IEP was insufficient to provide T.W. with FAPE when the IEP provided for less individualized services than the previous year, i.e., fewer autism teacher consultations and no resource room services.
In addressing the issue of appropriate relief, the panel found the 768-hour compensatory-education award to be reasonable, given that T.W. was denied FAPE for two academic school years. The panel also found reasonable the requirement that the compensatory education hours be provided by a professional certified to teach children with autism, as that expertise would be helpful in addressing T.W.’s special educational needs.
The panel also found the IHO’s order for prospective placement at Northport with 1:1 instruction for half the day, and in the general education setting for half the day to be reasonable, appropriate, and meeting the IDEA’s “least restrictive environment.” However, the panel agreed with the parents that the IHO erred in conditioning a portion of the ordered relief on T.W.’s re-enrollment at Northport. The panel stated that the IDEA requires state-educational agencies to make FAPE “available to all children with disabilities residing in the State between the ages of 3 and 21, and … [r]efusing to do an IEP pre-enrollment constitutes … a violation [of the IDEA].”
The panel did find, though, that it was appropriate for the IHO to condition T.W.’s prospective receipt of FAPE on re-enrollment because requiring Northport “to fund T.W.’s continuing private education would create a substantial, unnecessary burden … in light of the fact that there is no evidence … indicating that Northport is unable to provide T.W. with a FAPE going forward.”
Finally, the panel affirmed the district court’s award of $25,313.81 in attorneys’ fees and $1,857.82 in costs to the parents, denying their appeal that the district court should have also awarded them fees and costs incurred after Northport’s November 2007 settlement offer since they were the prevailing party. The panel explained that district court’s analysis was clear that the plaintiffs achieved only limited success in pursuing their due process complaint beyond the November 2007 settlement offer, which it felt was the cutoff for when “a reasonable attorneys’ fee award” should be determined. The Sixth Circuit found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in making its determination to limit the award.
Woods v. Northport Pub. Sch., Nos. 11–1493, 11–1567 (6th Cir. July 5, 2012)