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J.H. v. Lake Central School Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

September 30, 2014

J.H. and his parents and next of friends, L.H. and J.H., Plaintiffs,
v.
LAKE CENTRAL SCHOOL CORPORATION, LAWRENCE VERACCO (in his personal capacity), and JOAN MACHUCA (in her personal capacity), Defendants. LAKE CENTRAL SCHOOL CORPORATION and WEST LAKE SPECIAL EDUCATION COOPERATIVE, Plaintiffs,
v.
J.H., by his parents and next friends, L.H. and J.H., Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

JOSEPH S. VAN BOKKELEN, District Judge.

J.H. is a ten-year-old boy with learning disabilities who, at the times relevant here, resided within the territory served by the Lake Central School Corporation in Indiana.[1] Autism, speech apraxia, and chronically poor health interfered severely with his ability to learn. J.H. was prone to violent outbursts against adults when they would attempt to change his behavior. The School deemed him eligible for special education before he turned three.

Through his counsel and parents, however, he contends that it had become clear by 2008 that the School's programs were not working for him. When the School did not take the responsive actions his parents thought necessary, the parents requested an administrative hearing to challenge the School. The independent hearing officer ("IHO") assigned to the case ultimately decided that the School had violated statutory procedural requirements and thus deprived J.H. of the free appropriate public education ("FAPE") to which the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") entitles him. See 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A) (requiring FAPE generally); Winkelman ex rel. Winkelman v. Parma City Sch. Dist., 550 U.S. 516, 524 (2007) (interpreting the IDEA's definition of FAPE); M.B. ex rel. Berns v. Hamilton Se. Schs., 668 F.3d 851, 853-54 (7th Cir. 2011) (demonstrating that Indiana is a state that must provide FAPE); IHO Decision, Administrative Record ("AR") 619. As "compensatory education, " the IHO ordered the School to pay J.H.'s tuition for two years, up to $50, 000 per year, at a "therapeutic day school" of his parents' choice. The parents chose Elim Christian School in Illinois.

The School petitioned this Court, in case number 2:11-CV-242, to overturn the IHO's decision as unsupported by the law and facts of the case. J.H. sued as well, in case number 2:11-CV-228, to be declared a prevailing party and enforce the IHO's order by means of a preliminary injunction that would establish Elim Christian School as his "stay-put placement" under the IDEA. J.H. obtained that preliminary injunction and the separate actions were consolidated. He and his parents ("the Family") now proceed on a third amended complaint, in which they invoke the IDEA and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to recover attorney's fees and costs from the administrative hearing; educational costs that they allege haven't been reimbursed; and money damages, apparently for their "emotional and financial stress" or "distress." (Third Am. Compl., DE 103, paras. 26, 31.) According to the third amended complaint, Veracco and Machuca are liable under § 1983 because they:

(1) failed to ensure that School Defendant provided J.H. with a free appropriate public education; (2) took specific actions to prevent the School Defendant from providing J.H. with a free appropriate public education; (3) took specific actions to prevent the School Defendant from following the hearing officer's orders; (4) took specific actions to prevent the School Defendant from following this Court's orders; (5) took specific actions to harass Plaintiffs and to protract the litigation of the due process hearing and this litigation for the purposes of preventing Plaintiffs from exercising their rights under the IDEA, including negotiating with Plaintiffs in bad faith.

( Id. para. 29.) The Family claims Lake Central is liable under § 1983 for:

(1) violating the IDEA by failing to provide J.H. with a free appropriate public education; (2) failing to implement the hearing officer's orders; (3) failing to implement th[e] Court's orders; (3) failing to timely reimburse Plaintiffs for placement at Elim during the Summer of 2011; (4) failing to timely reimburse Plaintiffs for transportation costs to Elim; (5)... failing to reimburse Plaintiffs' attorney's fees and costs; and (6)... unreasonably protracting the due process hearing and the litigation of this case.

( Id. para. 28.)

Lake Central, Veracco, and Machuca have moved to dismiss the third amended complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The School and Family have also each moved for summary judgment as to the IDEA case, and the Family further seeks summary judgment on its § 1983 claims. This Order rules on all three motions, each of which is granted in part and denied in part, as explained below.

A. Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment

In the context of an IDEA appeal to a district court from an administrative decision, a "motion for summary judgment" takes on a somewhat different meaning from the one implied by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Instead, "where (as here) the district court reviews only that evidence that was before the administrative tribunal, the motion for summary judgment is simply the procedural vehicle for asking the judge to decide the case on the basis of the administrative record." M.B., 668 F.3d at 860 (quotation marks, alteration, and citations omitted).[2] The court gives "due weight" to the IHO's findings of fact and reviews legal issues de novo. See id. (citing Todd v. Duneland Sch. Corp., 299 F.3d 899, 904 (7th Cir. 2002)). "Due weight" means "considerable deference to the hearing officer"; the court "may set aside the administrative order only if... strongly convinced that the order is erroneous.'" Alex R., ex rel. Beth R. v. Forrestville Valley Cmty. Unit Sch. Dist. No. 221, 375 F.3d 603, 612 (7th Cir. 2004) (quoting Sch. Dist. of Wis. Dells v. Z.S. ex rel. Littlegeorge, 295 F.3d 671, 675 (7th Cir. 2002)). This is "akin to the standards of clear error or substantial evidence."[3] Id. (citing Z.S., 295 F.3d at 675). The court may not "substitute [its] own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities." Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982). Because the Family prevailed in the administrative proceedings, the School bears the burden of strongly convincing the Court that the IHO's decision was erroneous. See Alex R., 375 F.3d at 611 ("[T]he party challenging the outcome of the administrative proceedings... bears the burden of proof."), 612 ("strongly convinced" standard).

The foregoing framework differs from the one that applies to the Family's motion for summary judgment as it relates to their claims under § 1983. Here, Rule 56 plays its ordinary role. The Family's one-paragraph argument that it is entitled to summary judgment on its § 1983 claims fails, because it identifies no particular evidence and does not show "that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact." See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Though the School argues for summary judgment in its favor on the § 1983 claims in replying to J.H.'s response to its motion for summary judgment ( see Resp. to Family's Mot. Summ. J. & Reply to Family's Resp. to School's Mot. Summ. J. 47-58, DE 127 at 44-55), no such argument was mentioned in its opening brief or the motion itself. The Court therefore declines at this time to grant summary judgment on the § 1983 claims in favor of any party.

Returning to the School's administrative appeal, the Court identifies challenges to three aspects of the IHO's decision. ( See Mem. in Support of Mot. Summ. J. 3, DE 115 at 9 (stating four issues, which relate to three features of the decision).) According to the School, the IHO erred by finding that it deviated from the procedures required by the IDEA and so deprived J.H. of a FAPE. The School also claims error in the IHO's admission and exclusion of particular evidence, as well as his decision to award J.H. compensatory education at a private school for two years. ( Id. ) J.H. counters all of this, urging the Court to uphold the IHO's decision.

IDEA analysis depends on whether the possible violation at issue was procedural or substantive. The administrative order under review here rested on procedural grounds. ( See AR 617-18 ("All of these procedural violations (see also [Finding of Fact] 42) certainly resulted in the loss of education opportunity. Thus, the Student has been denied a FAPE.").)

By statute:

In matters alleging a procedural violation, a hearing officer may find that a child did not receive a free appropriate public education only if the procedural inadequacies-
(I) impeded the child's right to a free appropriate public education;
(II) significantly impeded the parents' opportunity to participate in the decisionmaking process regarding the provision of a free appropriate ...

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