United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
L.S. AND JULIA V. Individually and as Parent of L.S., Plaintiffs,
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF LANSING SCHOOL DISTRICT 158; CECILIA HEIBERGER, in her Official Capacity as Superintendent; ILLINOIS STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
AMY J. ST. EVE, District Judge.
This action is an appeal from an administrative ruling rendered by an Impartial Hearing Officer ("IHO") on August 18, 2014, following a special education due process hearing pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1401 et seq. The IHO conducted the due process hearing in order to determine whether Plaintiff L.S. should be allowed to remain a student at Memorial Junior High School ("Memorial") in Lansing School District #158 ("District"). Plaintiffs seek to supplement the administrative record with additional evidence, including: (1) evidence allegedly improperly excluded by the IHO; (2) evidence allegedly unavailable at the time of the due process hearing; and (3) evidence pertaining to L.S.'s academic, medical and social-emotional development since the due process hearing.
The Underlying Dispute
Plaintiff L.S. is a twelve-year-old diagnosed with type-1-diabetes, a mood disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, and learning disabilities, qualifying him as a "child with a disability" pursuant to the IDEA. ( See R.47, Pltfs' Motion to Suppl. the Admin. Rec., ¶ 3; AR1474-78; R.1, Complt., ¶¶ 2, 8.) L.S. has attended various District schools since preschool and has received specialized instruction and related services through an Individualized Education Program ("IEP") at each school. (R.1, ¶ 13.) Over time, Plaintiffs allege that the District has increasingly segregated L.S. into separate classroom settings without providing needed behavioral and academic supports and services. ( See R.1, ¶¶ 3, 14-32.) Pertinent to the matter before the Court, in October of 2013, the District sought to move L.S. from Memorial, his neighborhood school, into a segregated school for students with behavioral disabilities named Providing Alternatives for Continuing Education ("PACE"). ( See R.47, ¶ 5; AR1272-74.) Plaintiffs contend that the District's actions violate the IDEA's mandate to educate students in their least restrictive environment ("LRE"), which requires the starting point for educational placement to be the neighborhood school with appropriate supports and services. (R.1, ¶ 3.) Plaintiffs further contend that the District has violated the IDEA and failed to provide L.S. with an appropriate education to meet his unique needs by not conducting appropriate evaluations, not developing appropriate IEPs, and not implementing the IEPs once created. (Id. ) L.S.'s mother, pro se, requested a due process hearing which invoked the "stay put" provision of the IDEA for L.S. to remain at Memorial. (Id., ¶ 44.)
The Hearing, Appeal & Preliminary Injunction
On October 16, 2013, L.S.'s mother requested an administrative hearing. (AR7.) The IHO convened a due process hearing on June 9, 10, 11, and July 14, 2014. (R.47, ¶ 9; AR794.) On August 18, 2014, the IHO issued a decision in favor of the District-finding PACE to be L.S.'s least restrictive environment and appropriate placement. (AR794-823.) The following day, a District administrator contacted L.S.'s mother regarding L.S.'s attendance at PACE and was notified that L.S.'s mother was seeking review of the IHO's decision and that L.S. would not be attending PACE the following day. L.S.'s mother then made attempts to enroll L.S. at Memorial under the stay-put provision of the IDEA which guarantees that students and their parents "be able to rely on an uninterrupted education during a contest between the school board and the parents." Bd. of Educ. of Community High School Dist. No. 218 v. Ill. State Bd. of Educ., 130 F.3d 545, 548 (7th Cir. 1996); see also 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j). On December 15, 2014, Plaintiffs filed their appeal in this District. ( See R.1.) On January 23, 2015, Plaintiffs were granted a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against implementation of the IHO's decision and Defendants were "ordered to allow L.S. to return to Memorial, where he was a sixth-grade student during the 2013-14 school year, and to receive educational services in accordance with the stay-put' instructional placement agreed upon during that school year." (R.21.)
Plaintiffs move to supplement the administrative record with evidence they allege was either improperly excluded at the hearing or unavailable at the time of the hearing, and with evidence of L.S.'s academic, medical, and social-emotional development since the time of the hearing. Specifically, Plaintiffs seek to supplement the administrative record with the following evidence:
1) Testimony from Spencer White, L.S.'s primary special education teacher during the 2013-14 school year limited to the issues of the District's failure to provide instruction using peer reviewed instructional methods, failure to appropriately assess L.S.'s academic and behavioral deficits, and failure to implement L.S.'s IEP by measuring his progress on his goals and providing the agreed-upon behavior interventions;
2) Documentation and expert testimony from Dr. Karin Madsen regarding L.S.'s appropriate educational placement, necessary behavior interventions and his behavior, including any testimony necessary to lay the foundation for her expert opinions;
3) Expert testimony documentation from an independent expert, such as Dr. Michael McCanna, limited to PACE's ability to provide L.S. with a free and appropriate public education and implement his IEP;
4) L.S.'s current IEP completed on March 17, 2015, including Plaintiffs' Letter of Dissent, which details his current level of functioning and the District's proposal to provide L.S. with a free appropriate public education;
5) L.S.'s current grades, IEP progress reports, behavior reports, Check-in, Check-Out logs, Behavior Intervention Plan data, and other school student records which detail L.S.'s current level of academic and behavioral functioning, goals, and progress;
6) Testimony from Megan Mirich, L.S.'s current primary special education teacher who participated in developing L.S.'s current IEP, Lisa Newton, L.S.'s current and former general education teacher who participated in developing L.S.'s current IEP, and L.S.'s current one-on-one aide; and
7) Documentation, including a summary report, and expert testimony from Dr. Madsen limited to L.S.'s social-emotional development since the due process hearing.
(R.47, ¶ 46.) Plaintiffs request the Court order the parties to submit initial disclosures and conduct discovery-limited to the areas identified above-in accordance with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26(a)-(b), and permit an evidentiary hearing, similarly limited. (R.47.)
Under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2), any party aggrieved by the findings and decision made pursuant to an IDEA due process hearing may bring a federal action challenging the decision. In adjudicating such a claim, a district court "(i) shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; (ii) shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and (iii) basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C); see also Bd. of Educ. of Tp. High Sch. Dist. No. 211 v. Ross, 486 F.3d 267, 270 (7th Cir. 2007); Monticello Sch. Dist. No. 25 v. George L., 102 F.3d 895, 901 (7th Cir. 1996). "Once the record is complete, the court is to base its decision on the preponderance of the evidence' and to grant such relief as [it] determines is appropriate.'" Ross, 486 F.3d at 270. The district court is "to make an independent decision based on the preponderance of the evidence, " while at the same time, giving "due weight' to the determinations made during the state administrative process." Ross, 486 F.2d at 270 (citing Bd. of Educ. of the Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206, 102 S.Ct. 3034, 73 L.Ed.2d 690 (1982)). A district court's review based on the preponderance of the evidence "is by no means an invitation to the courts to substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review." Ross, 486 F.3d at 270 ( citing Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206); see also Patricia P. v. Bd. of Educ. of Oak Park, 203 F.3d 462, 466 (7th Cir. 2000) (explaining the district court's independent determination as to whether the requirements of the IDEA are satisfied does not mean that state administrative findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence, but "because courts do not have special expertise in the area of educational policy, they must give due weight' to the results of the administrative decisions").
While the district court "must take as the basis of its decision the administrative record that the independent hearing officer compiled; it then has the discretion to admit additional evidence to supplement the record." Ross, 486 F.3d at 270 (7th Cir. 2007) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C)); see also Monticello, 102 F.3d at 901 (explaining that the "district court is not required to allow all evidence proffered by a plaintiff in an IDEA proceeding"). Indeed, district courts are advised not to receive additional evidence beyond the administrative record absent a strong justification for the failure to present such evidence at the administrative level. Monticello, 102 F.3d at 901-902. The First Circuit's decision in Burlington, cited approvingly by the Seventh Circuit in Monticello, recognized that "the source of the evidence" before the trial court ...