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The Jefferson County Board of Education v. Amanda S.

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

October 3, 2019

THE JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, an agency of the State of Alabama, Appellant,
AMANDA S. and CECIL S., individually and as parents, guardians, next friends and legal representatives of T.S., a minor., Appellees.



         The matter before the court is on Plaintiff's Motion to Stay Enforcement. (Doc. # 16). The matter has been briefed (see Docs. # 16, 21, 22) and is ripe for decision. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's Motion (Doc. # 16) is due to be granted.

         I. Background [1]

         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 v. Cobb Cty. Sch. Dist., 887 F.3d 1182, 1189 (11th Cir. 2018) (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.” Durbrow, 887 F.3d at 1189 (internal quotation marks omitted); CP v. Leon Cty. Sch. Bd. of Fla., 483 F.3d 1151, 1153 (11th Cir. 2007) (“[T]he IEP is more than a mere exercise in public relations. It forms the basis for the [disabled] child's entitlement to an individualized and appropriate education.” (quoting Doe v. Ala. State Dep't of Educ., 915 F.2d 651, 654 (11tth Cir. 1990))). An IEP serves to “set out a plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement.” Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist. R.E-1, 137 S.Ct. 988, 999 (2017). “Any review of an IEP must appreciate that the question is whether the IEP is reasonable, not whether the court regards it as ideal.” Endrew, 137 S.Ct. at 999.

         The FAPE requirements relate to special education and related services that:

(1) have been provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge, (2) meet the standards of the State educational agency; (3) include an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school education in the State involved; and (4) are provided in conformity with the individualized education . . . program required under section 1414(d) . . . .

Jefferson Cty. Bd. of Educ. v. S.B., 788 F.Supp.2d 1347, 1350 (N.D. Ala. 2011) (citing 20 U.S.C.A. § 1401(9)). The test for determining whether a school board has provided a FAPE as called for under the IDEA includes asking “(1) whether the state actor has complied with the procedures set forth in the IDEA, and (2) whether the [individualized educational program] developed pursuant to the IDEA is reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefit.” Leon Cty. Sch. Bd. of Fla., 483 F.2d at 1152-53. “[A] student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis' progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. . . . The IDEA demands more. It requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances.” Endrew, 137 S.Ct. at 1001.

         The IDEA also provides parents and children the right “to present complaints regarding placement of the child or the provision of FAPE and to initiate an impartial due process hearing.” Leon Cty. Sch. Bd. of Fla., 483 F.2d at 1153; 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1). After the conclusion of an administrative proceeding, “[a] party aggrieved by a hearing officer's findings and decision on a due process complaint shall have the right to bring a civil action concerning the matter in a district court of the United States.” Hoover City Bd. of Educ. v. Leventry, 2019 WL 4415565, at *9 (N.D. Ala. Sept. 16, 2019); 20 U.S.C, 1415(i)(2)(A).

         Here, the aggrieved party is the Jefferson County School Board (“the Board”). The Board filed its appeal in this court seeking relief from the hearing officer's legal and factual determinations arising out of an administrative ruling.[2] (Doc. # 1 at 1, ¶ 1). The relevant facts are discussed below.

         On December 4, 2018, the student in this case, T.S. (“Student”), by and through her parents, initiated an administrative due process hearing against the Jefferson County School Board. (Doc. # 1 at 1, ¶ 7). Student alleged that the Board “failed to comply with the IDEA's substantive requirements, and, consequently, that the Board denied . . . Student a ‘free appropriate public education'” for two years. (Id. ¶ 7). The due process hearing took place on February 21-22, 2019. (Id. ¶ 8). On March 22, 2019, the hearing officer entered a written decision, framing the issues for determination as: (1) “[i]s the Petitioner's Complaint for Due Process moot due to what the District [suggested] was a lack of opportunity to address the Petitioner's concerns before the complaint was filed?”; and (2) “[w]as the Petitioner denied a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) due to the failure of the Petitioner to make more than minimal progress in reading pursuant to services provided under the [IEP] in place by the School for [Student] during the 24 months prior to the filing of the Due Process Complaint?” (Id. ¶ 9; Doc. # 20-1 (SEALED) at 11).

         The hearing officer found that “the lack of progress of [Student] with reading and decoding, at least during the 24 months prior to the due process filing date, . . . is evidence of a denial of [a] FAPE by the District.” (Doc. # 1 at 1, ¶ 10). Consequently, the hearing officer ordered:

(1) [w]ithin 30 days of [the hearing officer's] Order, the IEP team is due to re-convene in further efforts to determine what programs would be appropriate for the child in light of her reading deficits; (2) [w]ithin 30 days of [the hearing officer's] Order, the IEP [t]eam, including pertinent District personnel, should thoroughly review all the test results and determine if there is adequate information to address why [the Student] is not making progress in reading and if not, what information is needed to address this; (3) [a]s compensatory benefits for the time lost while the [Student] was denied a FAPE, the District is due to find, fund and provide [the Student] with a one-on-one summer reading program that is intensive along the lines suggested by the Petitioner such as Lindamood [sic] Bell. This is due to be provided during the summer of 2019; and (4) Petitioner is due compensatory services for 90 minutes per school week . . . for the remainder of the 2018-19 school year and the 2019-20 school year in a one-on-one direct reading instruction scenario to address her weakness in decoding and sight words with a program that meets her unique needs.

(Id. ¶ 11(a)-(d)). After publication of the hearing officer's findings and orders, the Board filed this lawsuit under the IDEA. The Board argues that because the hearing officer “did not identify or find that the Board committed an actionable procedural violation of the IDEA, ” but rather only found a “lack of progress” as “evidence of a denial of FAPE by the District, ” the hearing officer acted improperly, and the decisions and findings should not be enforceable. (Id. ¶ 16). Specifically, the Board contends that the hearing officer: (1) misapplied the law by incorrectly applying the appropriate legal standard for determining substantive compliance; (2) ordered relief that is “unworkable, inappropriate, not required, and/or supported by record evidence;” (3) “erred in concluding that lack of significant progress in one area of Student's academic program constituted a denial of FAPE;” and (4) incorrectly found that Student met her burden of proof. (Id. ¶ 10).

         On July 22, 2019, the Board filed its Motion to Stay, requesting the court to stay enforcement of the hearing officer's administrative decision pending the outcome of their appeal. (Doc. # 16). On August 16, 2019, Student filed her response to the Board's Motion. (Doc. # 21). On August 23, 2019, the Board filed its reply. (Docs. # 22).

         II. Standard of Review

         “A stay is an ‘intrusion into the ordinary processes of administration and judicial review,' and accordingly ‘is not a matter of right, even if irreparable injury might otherwise result to the [moving party].'” Nken v. Holder, 556 U.S. 418, 427 (2009). “It is an exercise of judicial discretion. The propriety of its issue is dependent upon the circumstances of the particular case.” Scripps-Howard Radio v. F.C.C., 316 U.S. 4, 10-11 (1942). “The party requesting a stay bears the burden of showing that the ...

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