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John M. v. Board of Education of Evanston Township High School District 202

March 16, 2009

JOHN M., BY HIS PARENTS AND NEXT FRIENDS, CHRISTINE M. AND MICHAEL M., AND CHRISTINE M. AND MICHAEL M., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF EVANSTON TOWNSHIP HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT 202, EVANSTON TOWNSHIP HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT 202, DR. ALLAN ALSON, ITS SUPERINTENDENT, SUED IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, AND ILLINOIS STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: James F. Holderman, Chief Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This action is an appeal of an administrative ruling rendered by an impartial hearing officer on the question of whether Evanston School District*fn1 violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") as amended by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 ("IDEIA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. in developing an Individual Education Program ("IEP") for plaintiff John M.'s freshman year at Evanston Township High School, 2005-2006.

Because John is now finishing the final semester of his senior year in a course of studies agreed upon by Evanston School District and John's parents, Evanston School District argues that the claims asserted in the First Amended Complaint are moot and must be dismissed.

For the reasons set forth below, Evanston School District's "Motion to Dismiss Due to Mootness," (Dkt. No. 89), is granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

When this lawsuit was first filed in November 2005, plaintiff John M. was fourteen years old and had just begun his freshman year at Evanston Township High School.*fn2 Prior to the beginning of John's freshman year, during the spring of 2005, representatives of Evanston School District met with John's parents on numerous occasions for the purpose of drafting a suitable IEP for John's freshman year. After the final IEP meeting on May 19, 2005, John's parents were dissatisfied with the manner in which the meetings were conducted and with the resultant IEP for John's freshman year. Accordingly, they requested a due process hearing before an impartial hearing officer pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f). This hearing took place over five days in the fall of 2005 (September 12, 14, and 16 and October 19 and 20). On October 28, 2005, the hearing officer issued a 31-page decision, concluding that John's freshman year IEP "provided him with a substantive opportunity to obtain a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment" in accordance with the IDEIA [also called the "IDEA 2004"]. (Dkt. No. 13-3 at 30.) Plaintiffs appealed the hearing officer's decision to this court on November 28, 2005.

Beginning in March 2006, this litigation proceeded on two fronts. In this court and before the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Plaintiffs sought implementation of an appropriate "stay-put order" under which John would "remain in [his] then-current educational placement" during the pendency of this litigation. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j).*fn3 In other words, Plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction ordering Evanston School District to implement John's eighth grade IEP (developed in May 2004) until the lawfulness of John's freshman year IEP had been resolved.

At the same time the stay-put issue was being litigated, John's education was naturally progressing and Plaintiffs continued to negotiate with Evanston School District regarding each semester's placement and services in light of existing court orders, the parents' wishes, and the requirements of the IDEIA. When the stay-put issue was remanded from the Seventh Circuit,*fn4 the parties remained focused on settling their differences and implementing an appropriate educational program for John. Section § 1415(j) of the IDEIA permits the parties to agree to a stay-put placement that differs from the student's "then-current educational placement" and, in this case, the parties do not dispute that they have been able to work together to resolve John's stay-put placement "for much of the past four years." (Pls.' Resp. at 5.)

As a result of these efforts, more than three years after the start of this litigation, the parties have now agreed to an educational program that will remain in place for the remainder of John's senior year at Evanston Township High School. John is expected to complete all of his academic requirements for graduation this spring, and to participate in graduation activities with the rest of his class. John will not actually graduate from Evanston Township High School, however, until he completes his transition program at Evanston Township High School or he reaches age 22, whichever occurs first.

LEGAL STANDARD

"Article III of the United States Constitution limits this court's jurisdiction to actual, ongoing cases or controversies." Bd. of Educ. of Downers Grove Grade Sch. Dist. No. 58 v. Steven L., 89 F.3d 464, 467 (7th Cir. 1996) (citing U.S. Const. art. III, § 2 and Lewis v. Cont'l Bank Corp., 494 U.S. 472, 477-78 (1990)). This requirement "subsists through all stages of federal judicial proceedings," and not just when the complaint is filed. Lewis, 494 U.S. at 477. "A case becomes moot when a court's decision can no longer affect the rights of litigants in the case before them and simply would be 'an opinion advising what the law would be upon a hypothetical state of facts.'" Brown v. Bartholomew Consol. Sch. Corp., 442 F.3d 588, 597, 596 (7th Cir. 2006) (quoting North Carolina v. Rice, 404 U.S. 244, 246 (1971)). "Absent an actual live controversy, a case is moot and must be dismissed as non-justiciable." Steve L., 89 F.3d at 467.

ANALYSIS

1. Declaratory and Injunctive Relief

The heart of this case involves Plaintiffs' appeal from the October 28, 2005 decision of the impartial hearing officer regarding John's special education. (1st Am. Compl. ¶ 1 (Dkt. No. 17).) Plaintiffs argue that the hearing officer committed reversible error by "ignor[ing], distort[ing], or fail[ing] to give due weight to substantial credible evidence from the elementary school staff and the Plaintiffs' other witnesses, who were knowledgeable about John's needs, while accepting evidence that is not credible or admissible on behalf of Defendants." (Id. ¶¶ 26, 28-29.) Their underlying claim before the hearing officer and before ...


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