Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Circuit holds that disabled student's educational plan violated federal law

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that school districts have to fashion an appropriate educational plan for students with learning disabilities. These are complicated cases because the parents have to litigate their disputes at the administrative level and then appeal any adverse decision to the State Educational Commissioner. The federal courts give these experts much deference in assessing the propriety of the individualized educational plans, known as IEP's. But parents do win these cases.

The case is E.S. v. Katonah-Lewisboro School District, a summary order issued on July 6. I co-counseled the appeal with the Law Offices of Peter D. Hoffman. There were two IEP's in this case. The district court agreed with the State Education Commissioner in holding that the student's 2006-07 IEP satisfied the IDEA. But Judge Preska said the 2007-08 IEP violated federal law because it largely mirrored the 2006-07 IEP without taking into account the student's progress over the course of the previous year while attending a private school, where the parents enrolled him after giving up on the defendant's educational services.

Both sides appealed from the district court's ruling. The Court of Appeals (Hall, Parker and Kearse) affirms in all respects. As for the 2007-08 IEP, the Court states,

we have little difficulty concluding that KLSD’s position that B.S. did not progress while at Maplebrook is contrary to a preponderance of the evidence in the record. Consequently, having been designed without regard for any of the progress B.S. did make at Maplebrook, the 2007-2008 IEP was likely to cause B.S. to regress or make only trivial advancement. KLSD thus failed to provide an individualized FAPE as required by the IDEA for the 2007-2008 school year.
Side issue in this case was the attorneys' fees award. Since the parents were able to strike down one of the IEP's, they were prevailing parties and entitled to attorneys' fees. But since they were unable to strike down the other IEP, the question was whether to reduce the fees entitlement by 50 percent. The district court declined to do so, awarding the parents their full attorneys' fees entitlement. The Second Circuit has not resolved a case like this, where the school district wants to sharply cut down the fees under the circumstances. The Court of Appeals says the district court did not abuse its discretion in holding that the successful and unsuccessful claims had overlapping factual and legal claims. The Court reasons,

Here, the district court provided a “clear explanation of its reasons,” i.e., the overlap of the facts necessary to develop Plaintiffs’ successful claim with the facts related to the claim the district court rejected. For both the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 school years, Plaintiffs’ counsel had to develop facts to show B.S.’s educational background and whether Maplebrook was an appropriate placement. The witnesses for KLSD and the Plaintiffs were nearly the same for both years, and information related to the 2006-2007 IEP was important to determine the sufficiency of what KLSD recommended for the 2007-2008 year. Both claims involved an inter-related, if not single, legal theory—over the course of the two school years, KLSD failed to provide BS with a FAPE as required by the IDEA. We conclude, therefore, that the decision not to reduce the attorney fee award based on the Plaintiffs’ partial success was within the range of permissible decisions for the district court to have made.

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