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C.A. v. Jefferson County Board of Education

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

May 14, 2019

C.A., as guardian and next friend of C.G., a minor, Plaintiff,
v.
JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This case is before the court on Defendant's motion to dismiss (Doc. # 6), which the court construes as a motion for judgment on the administrative record, see Durbrow v. Cobb Cty. Sch. Dist., 887 F.3d 1182, 1189 (11th Cir. 2018). For the reasons explained below, the court concludes the motion is due to be granted.

         I. Background

         This is an action for review of an administrative proceeding conducted pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). See 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400, 1415(i)(2)(A). The IDEA “offers the States federal funds in exchange for a commitment to provide all ‘children with disabilities' individually tailored special education, also known as a ‘free appropriate public education' or ‘FAPE.'” Durbrow, 887 F.3d at 1189 (citing 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400(d)(1)(A), 1412(a)(1)(A)). “The principal vehicle for providing a FAPE is an individualized education program (‘IEP') prepared by the child's parents, teachers, and school officials that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). The IDEA also requires states that accept IDEA funds to identify, locate, and evaluate all “children with disabilities” who reside in the state. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(3)(A). This obligation is known as a state's “child-find duty.” Durbrow, 887 F.3d at 1189.

         The plaintiff in this case, C.A., claims the Jefferson County Board of Education breached its child-find duty with respect to C.G., a child enrolled in a public school operated by the Board. (Doc. # 1). Plaintiff -- who is the guardian and next friend of C.G. -- specifically alleges the Board failed to identify, locate, and evaluate C.G. as a candidate for special education even though C.G.'s educational performance gave the Board adequate notice that C.G. might be a child with a disability in need of special education. (Id. at ¶ 23). Plaintiff therefore filed a due process complaint with the Alabama State Department of Education pursuant to procedures the Department maintains under 20 U.S.C. § 1415. (Id. at 1-2; Docs. # 14-1, 14-2). The hearing officer assigned to the matter ultimately dismissed Plaintiff's complaint at the Board's request, ruling that because C.G. is not a “child with a disability, ” the Board owed no child-find duty to C.G. or Plaintiff. (Doc. # 14-16 at 2-5). Plaintiff now challenges the hearing officer's decision in this lawsuit. She asks the court to reverse the hearing officer's order of dismissal and remand for a due process hearing on her child-find claim. (Doc. # 1 at 7).

         To adequately review the hearing officer's decision, some additional background concerning the administrative proceedings is necessary. Plaintiff filed her due process complaint against the Board on August 27, 2018. (Doc. # 14-1 at 2). The complaint alleged that the Board violated the IDEA both by failing to develop and implement an IEP for C.G. and by breaching its child-find duty. (Id. at 4; Doc. # 14-2 at 1-2).

         After receiving the complaint, the Board arranged for C.G. to be evaluated to determine whether he met IDEA eligibility criteria-that is, whether he was a “child with a disability” for purposes of the IDEA and therefore entitled to an IEP, see Durbrow, 887 F.3d at 1193. (Docs. # 14-3 at 3-4, ¶ 6; 14-7 at 4, ¶ 2; 14-16 at 2). Upon receiving written consent, the Board performed an initial evaluation of C.G. to determine his eligibility for special education services. (Docs. # 14-7 at 4, ¶ 2; 14-16 at 2). After completing the evaluation, the eligibility team determined that C.G. did not meet IDEA eligibility criteria and therefore was not entitled to special education services. (Docs. # 14-7 at 4, ¶ 2; 14-16 at 2). Though Plaintiff and C.G. initially challenged that eligibility determination, they later withdrew any challenge to the Board's determination that C.G. was ineligible to receive special education services. (Docs. # 14-7 at 4; 14-8 at 1-2; 14-16 at 3). Instead, Plaintiff chose to pursue only the child-find claim before the hearing officer. (Docs. # 14-8 at 3; 14-9 at 4-5; 14-16 at 3).

         At the Board's request, the hearing officer dismissed Plaintiff's child-find claim without a hearing. (Doc. # 14-16 at 2-5). Plaintiff now challenges that dismissal in this lawsuit.

         II. Standard of Review

         The IDEA provides that “[a]ny party aggrieved by the findings and decision” of a hearing officer on a due process complaint “shall have the right to bring a civil action with respect to the complaint presented . . . in a district court of the United States, without regard to the amount in controversy.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). The district court must then “receive the records of the administrative proceedings, ” “hear additional evidence at the request of a party, ” and “basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence . . . grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate.” Id. § 1415(i)(2)(C).

         In this case, the parties agree that no discovery is necessary and that the case should be resolved on the basis of the administrative record. (Doc. # 10 at 5-8). They have filed the administrative record with the court. (Doc. # 14). In assessing the administrative record, a district court reviews a hearing officer's factual findings for clear error and reviews questions of law de novo. Draper v. Atlanta Indep. Sch. Sys., 518 F.3d 1275, 1284 (11th Cir. 2008).

         III. Analysis

         The issue presented to the hearing officer in C.G.'s case was “whether [C.G.] is entitled to a due process hearing regarding an alleged child find violation when he has been evaluated, found ineligible to receive special education services, and withdrawn any challenge to the evaluation results.” (Doc. # 14-16 at 3). Relying on the Eleventh Circuit's decision in Durbrow, 887 F.3d at 1196, the hearing officer ruled that C.G. was not entitled to a due process hearing in these circumstances. (Id. at 3-4). The hearing officer first held that, to be entitled to a FAPE and owed a child-find duty under the IDEA, a student must be a “child with a disability” within the meaning of the IDEA. (Id.). Because C.G. had been evaluated and determined not to be a “child with a disability” for IDEA purposes, and because C.G. had withdrawn any challenge to that determination, he had no viable child-find claim. (Id. at 4). The hearing officer therefore dismissed C.G.'s due process complaint without a hearing. (Id.).

         In this lawsuit, Plaintiff does not (and cannot) challenge the hearing officer's determination that C.G. is not a “child with a disability” under the IDEA.[1] Instead, Plaintiff merely challenges the hearing officer's conclusion that Plaintiff cannot succeed on her child-find claim if C.G. is not a “child with a disability.” Plaintiff's position is that the Board owed her a duty to identify, locate, and evaluate C.G. prior to the filing of a due process complaint because C.G.'s educational performance gave the Board adequate notice that C.G. might be a child with a disability in need of special education. (Docs. # 1 at ¶ 23; 8 at 3-7). ...


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