United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
cross appeal of an administrative due process hearing is
before the court on two motions: J.N.'s motion for
summary judgment, doc. 14, and the Jefferson County Board of
Education's motion for summary judgment and judgment on
the administrative record, doc. 13. J.N., as mother and next
friend of M.N., a minor, filed an administrative due process
complaint against the Board pursuant to 20 U.S.C.
§§ 1415(b)(6)(A) and 1415(f)(1)(A), alleging that
the Board violated the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (“IDEA”) by failing to provide M.N.
a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”).
Doc. 12-6 at 3-9. After a hearing officer dismissed the
complaint as premature, doc. 12-1 at 3-7, J.N. appealed, and
Chief Magistrate Judge John E. Ott vacated the hearing
officer's decision and remanded with instructions for the
officer to conduct an impartial due process hearing “to
determine whether the Board violated its ‘child
find' obligations, and if so, the appropriate amount and
type of compensatory education or other relief necessary, if
any, ” doc. 22 at 13-14 in No. 2:17-cv-00448-JEO.
remand, the hearing officer found that the Board violated its
child-find obligations by “overlook[ing] clear signs of
disability, ” but did not award any compensatory
education or other relief because she found that J.N. did not
meet her burden of showing what relief is necessary to make
M.N. whole for the violation. Doc. 12-41 at 32-34. J.N.
appeals the portion of the hearing officer's decision not
to award relief, and she asks the court to affirm the finding
that the Board violated its child-find obligation, and to
award M.N. appropriate relief, including compensatory
education, or, alternatively, to remand the case with
instruction for the hearing officer to provide M.N. with
appropriate compensatory education and other relief. Docs. 1;
14. For its part, the Board appeals the portion of the
decision finding that it violated its child-find obligations,
and it asks the court to affirm the hearing officer's
decision denying relief. Docs. 4; 13. After careful review of
the parties' briefs and the administrative record, the
court finds that the hearing officer's decision is due to
be affirmed, and judgment is due in the Board's favor.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
party aggrieved by the findings and decision made” by a
hearing officer on a due process complaint under the IDEA
“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). In such
cases, “the usual [Rule] 56 summary judgment principles
do not apply . . . because no IDEA jury trial right
exists.” Loren F. ex rel. Fisher v. Atlanta Indep.
Sch. Sys., 349 F.3d 1309, 1313-14 (11th Cir. 2003).
Thus, a district court may “base its decision on the
preponderance of the evidence even when facts are in
dispute.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii). And, the
district court has broad discretion “to grant such
relief as the court determines is appropriate.”
courts are permitted to make findings of fact in IDEA cases,
and “judgment on the record” is appropriate
“even when facts are in dispute, ” as long as
judges “accord due weight to administrative
findings” and base their own findings on a
preponderance of the evidence. Loren F., 249 F.3d at
1313-14. Although courts “must be careful not
to substitute [their] judgment for that of the state
educational authorities, . . . the extent of the deference to
be given to the administrative decision is left to the sound
discretion of the district court, which must consider the
administrative findings but is free to accept or reject
them.” Walker Cty. Sch. Dist. v. Bennett ex rel.
Bennett, 203 F.3d 1293, 1297-98 (11th Cir. 2000). But,
if the court rejects the administrative findings, “it
is ‘obliged to explain why.'” R.L. v.
Miami-Dade Cty. Sch. Bd., 757 F.3d 1173, 1178 (11th Cir.
2014) (quoting Walker Cty., 203 F.3d at 1314, n.5).
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
M.N.'s relevant academic history
time J.N. filed her due process complaint on behalf of M.N.
in December 2016, M.N. was a fourteen-year-old student in
eighth grade at Hueytown Middle School, a public school
operated by the Board. Doc. 12-6 at 3. When M.N. enrolled in
the school at the beginning of sixth grade, J.N. completed
medical records indicating that M.N. and her twin sister
suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
(“ADHD”). See doc. 14-14 at 4-5. In March
of M.N.'s sixth-grade year, J.N. informed the school
again that M.N. and her sister had ADHD because she wanted to
be sure the school knew of their condition. Doc. 14-13 at 6.
result of a behavioral infraction in sixth grade, the school
suspended M.N. for three days and sent her to an alternative
school for fifteen days. Docs. 12-14 at 17; 14-11 at 6; 14-13
at 8; 14-14 at 6. During discussions regarding M.N.'s
infraction, J.N. informed the assistant principal that M.N.
had ADHD, which purportedly caused her behavioral challenges.
Docs. 14-13 at 8; 14-15 at 1-2. Although M.N. had behavioral
issues, she generally did well academically that school year
and earned A's and B's in most of her classes, though
she earned C's in her reading and math classes, and her
results from the ACT Aspire test in sixth grade indicated
that she needed support in reading. Docs. 12-10 at 7-28;
14-14 at 2. Accordingly, J.N. testified that sixth grade
“wasn't so bad” for M.N., but that M.N.
experienced a clear decline in the seventh and eighth grades.
Docs. 14-13 at 8.
the record reflects that M.N. continued to have behavioral
issues in the seventh grade, and she received detentions and
suspensions on several occasions. Docs. 12-14 at 18-23; 14-14
at 1; 14-15 at 1-2. In a meeting with Christopher Anders, the
school's principal, to address one of M.N.'s
behavioral incidents, J.N. informed Anders that M.N.'s
ADHD may be causing her behavioral issues. Doc. 14-15 at 1.
In addition, at the beginning of the school year, M.N. had
severe behavioral issues in her English enrichment class, but
J.N. and Christine Horton, M.N.'s English teacher,
attributed these issues to M.N. being in the same class as
her twin sister. Docs. 14-13 at 11-12; 14-15 at 1. And,
M.N.'s behavior improved when her counselor moved her to
a different class. Docs. 14-13 at 11-12; 14-15 at 1. M.N.
also had academic problems in seventh grade, including in her
math and English classes, and an elective music class. Doc.
14-13 at 12. In particular, M.N. earned a D for each grading
period in math, and D's for one grading period in her
English, geography, and citizenship classes. Docs. 12-9 at
24-40; 12-10 at 1-6. Moreover, M.N.'s scores from the ACT
Aspire test indicate that she needed support in reading,
science, and math. Doc. 14-14 at 2. Despite M.N.'s poor
grades and test results, Anders testified that her seventh
grade math teacher, Sarah Ellis, informed him that she had
provided one-on-one help for M.N. and that M.N. demonstrated
that “she knew the concepts that they were
covering” during those help sessions. Doc. 12-7 at 58.
behavioral and academic issues continued into eighth grade,
and she especially struggled and acted out in her math class.
Docs. 14-15 at 2, 6. According to Kimberly LaFoy, her math
teacher, M.N. scored poorly on tests, did not appear to
comprehend the subject, and lagged behind her peers. Docs.
14-13 at 8; 14-15 at 6. Thus, in late September, LaFoy
recommended M.N. for a “pre-referral, ” or
problem solving team (“PST”) intervention,
whereby LaFoy and M.N.'s other teachers would provide
M.N. additional help and support, and monitor M.N.'s
progress before deciding whether to refer her for a formal
special education evaluation. Doc. 12-7 at 33-34, 60. The
school officially placed M.N. in the PST program at the end
of the first quarter of her eighth grade year. See
doc. 14-15 at 14; doc. 12-7 at 33-34, 60. In addition, LaFoy
called J.N. to discuss M.N's performance and behavior
issues, and J.N. told LaFoy that M.N.'s ADHD likely
caused her behavior issues and lack of focus. Docs. 14-13 at
8; 14-15 at 2-3, 8. When J.N. inquired if M.N. had an
individualized education plan, or IEP, LaFoy informed her
that M.N. did not, but that LaFoy had begun the PST process
in order for M.N. to receive extra help. Docs. 14-13 at 8;
14-15 at 3, 8-9. After M.N.'s academic performance failed
to improve with the PST intervention, LaFoy referred M.N. for
a special education evaluation in early December 2016. Docs.
12-33 at 23; 14-11 at 8; 14-15 at 4, 9; 14-16 at 2.
the Board evaluated M.N. and determined that she was eligible
for special education services based on a “Specific
Learning Disability-Math and Other Health
Impairment-Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.”
Docs. 12-16 at 16; 14-11 at 9. Based on the evaluation, M.N.
“scored in the very low range in her overall
intellectual ability, ” and also scored in the very low
range on the visual spatial and fluid reasoning indices,
which measure M.N.'s ability “to evaluate visual
details and understand whole-part relationships” and
M.N.'s “logical thinking skills and  ability to
use reasoning to apply rules.” Docs. 12-16 at 20-21;
14-14 at 2. In addition, the teachers who completed the
behavior evaluations indicated that M.N. had significant
behavioral issues consistent with a diagnosis of ADHD. Doc.
14-14 at 3. Thus, the Board implemented an IEP for M.N. in
March 2017, and M.N. continues to receive special education
services pursuant to her IEP. See docs. 12-22 at
22-23; 14-15 at 3; .
The underlying due process complaint and ...