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S.G.W., v. Eugene School District

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

March 16, 2017

S.G.W., T.B., and M.B.W., Plaintiffs-Appellants,
EUGENE SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant-Cross-Appellee.


          Ann Aiken United States District Judge

         This is an appeal from an administrative due process hearing that addressed the services provided to plaintiff S.G.W. ("student") under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held that defendant Eugene School District materially failed to implement student's Individual Education Plan ("IEP"), thereby violating her right to a free appropriate public education under the IDEA. The ALJ also identified four procedural violations of the IDEA, and concluded that two of those violations caused educational harm to student. Student, along with her parents, plaintiffs T.B. and M.B.W. ("parents"), appealed the narrow question of whether the ALJ imposed an unreasonable time limitation on the implementation of a portion of the remedy for the IDEA violations. Defendant cross-appealed, contending it complied with the IDEA. For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ's decision is reversed as to the time limitation only.


         The parties are familiar with the factual background. Accordingly, this section contains only a brief overview of the facts underlying student's disability.[1] Student is a high school senior who was the victim of a violent assault at age thirteen. When student was hospitalized after a suicide attempt following the assault, a psychiatrist diagnosed student with autism spectrum disorder.

         Student's family moved to Eugene, Oregon, in 2012. Student enrolled in the neighborhood public high school, but due to attendance and emotional difficulties was transferred to a one-on-one instructional setting. In spring 2014, defendant found student eligible for special education services based on the diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and emotional disturbance. Student's first IEP went into effect May 14, 2014. In September 2014, student filed a Due Process Complaint with the Oregon Department of Education, alleging violations of the IDEA and seeking specially designed instruction ("SDI") to compensate for those violations. In March 2015, the ALJ found defendant had violated the IDEA during the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years and directed defendant to provide student 570 hours of SDI.[2]

         During 2014-2015, the school year relevant to this appeal, student attended an alternative high school ("AHS") with a small overall student population, high teacher-to-student ratios, and a high percentage of students with special education needs. Student's IEP for that year required the following: updates to parents through "regular progress reports" and SDI, provided by a "special ed teacher/provider" in a "self contained/resource room, " for sixty hours in transitions, forty-five hours in study/organizational skills, and ninety hours in behavior/social skills.[3] Districts' Ex. D9 at 7, 9.

         In August 2015, student again filed a due process complaint, asserting defendant had materially failed to implement the 2014-2015 IEP and alleging various procedural violations of the IDEA. In March 2016, the ALJ convened a four-day hearing. After the parties submitted post-hearing briefs, the ALJ issued her final order. In relevant part, she concluded that:

1. The District materially failed to implement Student's August 29, 2014 IEP by not providing: a) SDI in transitional, organizational and study skills, and social and behavioral skills; b) counseling, a related service; and c) progress reports to Parents.
7. The District failed to use appropriate transitional assessments in developing Student's IEPs for the 2015-2016 school year, and failed to provide adequate transitional services for that school year, thereby causing educational harm to Student.
8. The District failed to include in Student's IEP for the 2015-2016 school year goals agreed-upon by the IEP team, thereby causing educational harm to Student.

Tr. 46-47.

         As a remedy, the ALJ ordered defendant to (1) conduct a transitional assessment of Student and formulate an amended IEP with new transition goals, with certain activities to be completed by June 27, 2016; (2) provide counseling services; (3) provide, by the date of student's high school graduation and through a licensed special education teacher, sixty hours of SDI in transitions, thirty-five hours of SDI in study/organizational skills, and eighty hours of SDI in behavior/social skills; (4) update parents through monthly written progress reports during the school year; and (5) address the efficacy of student's Behavior Support Plan and make changes to that plan as necessary. Tr. 64-65.

         The record amply demonstrates that student is academically gifted. The primary barrier to student's success was emotional meltdowns triggered by conflicts with students and teachers. Student's inability to deal with those meltdowns without leaving the classroom caused a high number of absences, which in turn affected student's academic performance. During the 2014-2015 school year, student's ability to handle conflict improved and student's absences decreased. Student earned nearly straight A's, including in Japanese, geology, and math classes at the University of Oregon. Student wants to go to college and has considered becoming a lawyer, immunologist, or anthropologist.

         When student began the 2014-2015 school year, student was on track to graduate in June 2016. That graduation date represented a one-year delay because of credits lost due to excessive absences in previous years. The June 2016 date was pushed back to December 2016, and later to March 2017, to enable student to graduate with the type of diploma necessary to enroll in a four-year university.


         Whether a school district violated the IDEA is a mixed question of law and fact, Anchorage Sch. Dist. v. M.P., 689 F.3d 1047, 1053 (9th Cir. 2012), to which this Court applies "modified de novo review, " Ashland Sch. Dist. v. Parents of Student R.J., 585 F.Supp.2d 1208, 1211 (D. Or. 2008). That standard is an "unusual mixture of discretion and deference" that "differs substantially from judicial review of other agency actions." Ojai United Sch. Dist. v. Jackson, 4 F.3d 1467, 1471-72 (9th Cir. 1993). The standard arises from the statute, which directs that the reviewing district court "shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and, 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)(i)-(iii) (internal numbering omitted).

         Although this standard of review gives district courts broader discretion than they usually possess in administrative appeals, review is not de novo. Amanda J. ex rel. Annette J. v. Clark Cray. Sch. Dist., 267 F.3d 877, 887 (9th Cir. 2001). Because Congress gave states the "primary responsibility of formulating each individual child's education, " in IDEA appeals federal courts must give the final decision in the state administrative process "due weight." Id. at 888 (quoting Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Centr. Sch. Dist., Westchester Cnty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982)). The "due weight" requirement acknowledges the "specialized knowledge and experience" state educational agencies possess, and prevents courts from "substitut[ing] their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review." Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206. The appropriate amount of deference varies depending on the thoroughness of the findings supporting the administrative decision. Parents of Student W. v. Puyallup Sch. Dist., 31 F.3d 1489, 1494 (9th Cir. 1994).

         Fashioning a remedy, unlike determining whether a legal violation occurred, is an exercise of discretion. Accordingly, an ALJ's remedy in an IDEA case is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Park ex rel. Park v. ...

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