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J.N. v. Jefferson County Board of Education

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

November 6, 2019

J.N., as motion and next friend of M.N., a minor, Plaintiff,
v.
JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This 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.

         On 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.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “[A]ny 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.” Id.

         District 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).

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         A. M.N.'s relevant academic history

         At the 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”).[1] 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.

         As a 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.

         Indeed, 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.

         M.N.'s 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.

         Subsequently, 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; .[2]

         B. The underlying due process complaint and ...


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