United States District Court, N.D. New York
February 4, 2004.
NEW PALTZ CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, Plaintiff
LINDA ST. PIERRE, on behalf of M.S., Defendant
The opinion of the court was delivered by: FREDERICK SCULLIN, Chief Judge, District
MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER
Plaintiff New Paltz Central School District commenced the instant
litigation pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education
Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et. seq. ("IDEA"), seeking a declaration from the
Court that the impartial hearing officer's ("IHO") and state review
officer's ("SRO") findings were erroneous. Both the IHO and SRO
determined that Plaintiff failed to offer Defendant Linda St. Pierre's
child, M.S., a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") for
the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 school years. As a result, Plaintiff
was ordered to reimburse Defendant for the expenses of M.S.'s placement
at a private residential school during those years.*fn1
Defendant's child, M.S., began attending Plaintiff's schools in the
fourth grade. He was often on the honor roll and scored in the 99th
percentile on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills ("CTBS"). He was
recommended for accelerated math in the seventh grade and received
glowing comments from his eighth grade teachers.
In the summer of 1997, prior to his 9th grade year, M.S's parents began
divorce proceedings. Defendant sought assistance from Plaintiff for her
son because he was exhibiting uncontrollable behavior at home, he was
often angry and upset, and his academic performance was substantially
declining. The school psychologist, Joan Vreeland, observed that M.S. was
either sad or angry and that he rarely smiled or made eye contact with
adults. Although M.S. saw several psychologists, he showed no signs of
During the summer of 1998, Defendant suspected that M.S. was using
drugs and contacted Plaintiff. As a result, M.S. was placed in an
out-patient substance abuse program,
which was ultimately unsuccessful. According to Ms. Vreeland, M.S.'s
academic performance was substandard, his school attendance record was
poor and his behavior at home worsened.*fn3 Ms. Vreeland referred
Defendant to the Family Foundation School and ultimately recommended
On September 7, 1999, Dan Seyler-Wetzel, Plaintiff's Coordinator of
Special Education, advised Defendant that she should write a referral to
the Special Education Office. Defendant prepared a letter on September 8,
1999, requesting that Plaintiff's Committee on Special Education ("CSE")
evaluate her son for a suspected emotional disability. Defendant never
sent the letter, however, because Ms. Vreeland advised her that such a
referral was unnecessary.
In a September 9, 1999 memorandum to the interim superintendent,
Barbara Clinton, the school's principal, stated that both she and Ms.
Vreeland believed that M.S. needed a placement at the Family Foundation
School and requested that Plaintiff pay the tuition. Plaintiff denied
their request for payment of tuition.*fn5 On September 16, 1999, M.S.
began attending the Family Foundation School at Defendant's expense.
On March 30, 2000, the superintendent asked Defendant whether she
wished to make a referral to the CSE. By letter dated April 25, 2000,
Defendant formally requested that the CSE evaluate her son.
On July 13, 2000, the CSE classified M.S. as emotionally disturbed. In
reaching this determination, the CSE performed and considered the
following evaluations: (1) health record; (2) psychological evaluation; (3)
educational evaluation; (4) teacher report; and (5) a social history. The
CSE did not arrange for or consider a student observation at the Family
Foundation School, a student psychiatric evaluation or a functional
On July 28, 2000, the CSE recommended a residential school placement
and established an individualized education plan ("IEP"). On January 16,
2001, the CSE chairperson determined that Kids Peace would meet M.S.'s
M.S. markedly improved while at the Family Foundation School,
thereafter graduating from the school in June 2001. The Family Foundation
School principal reported that M.S. had maintained an average of 88 and
passed five New York State Regents exams with an average of 89. He was
later accepted by several colleges.
Defendant requested an impartial hearing on October 26, 2000,
challenging whether Plaintiff provided M.S. with an FAPE in September
1999 and requesting reimbursement for all costs associated with M.S.'s
attendance at the Family Foundation School for the 1999-2000 and
2000-2001 academic years. The hearing commenced on February 27, 2001,
before an IHO.*fn7
On June 7, 2001, the IHO rendered his decision, determining that
Plaintiff should have referred Defendant's son to its CSE in September
1999, since both the school's principal and psychologist stated that M.S.
belonged in a residential school at that time. He also found that the CSE
appropriately classified M.S. as having an emotional disturbance and,
therefore, disabled under the IDEA, despite the fact that not all
necessary evaluations were performed. Finally, the IHO determined that
Plaintiff failed to provide M.S. with an FAPE and ordered Plaintiff to
reimburse Defendant for tuition, room and board and laptop computer
expenses. Thereafter, Plaintiff appealed the IHO's decision to the SRO.
On March 27, 2002, the SRO affirmed the IHO's findings. Plaintiff then
commenced the instant action.
Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment
pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure seeking a
declaration that the findings of the IHO and the SRO were erroneous.
Giving due deference to these factual findings, which are amply supported
by the administrative record, the Court will address each of Plaintiff's
arguments. See Muller, 145 F.3d at 102.
A. Standard of Review
Summary judgment is appropriate "if . . . there is no genuine issue as
to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to judgment
as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). This standard applies even in
the context of a declaratory judgment action. See Roe v. City of N.Y.,
232 F. Supp.2d 240, 252 (citing U.S. v. State of New York,
3 F. Supp.2d 298, 307
(E.D.N.Y. 1998)). In an IDEA action, however, "`[t]he inquiry . . . is
not directed to discerning whether there are disputed issues of fact, but
rather, whether the administrative record, together with any additional
evidence, establishes that there has been compliance with IDEA's
processes. . . .'" A.S. ex rel S. v. Norwalk Bd. of Educ.,
183 F. Supp.2d 534, 539 (D. Conn. 2002) (quotation omitted).
The district court must use "a `modified de novo' standard of review in
evaluating state administrative determinations." Mr. & Mrs. D. v.
Southington Bd. of Educ., 119 F. Supp.2d 105, 110 (D. Conn. 2000)
(citation omitted). On one hand, the court "must `give "due weight" to
[the administrative] proceedings, mindful that the judiciary generally
"lack[s] the specialized knowledge and experience necessary to resolve
. . . questions of educational policy.'"" A.S., 183 F. Supp.2d at 539
(quotation and other citation omitted). On the other hand, the court must
review conclusions of law based upon the interpretation of federal
statutes de novo. See Muller, 145 F.3d at 102; Mr. & Mrs. D, 119 F.
Supp.2d at 110.
B. The CSE's classification of M.S. as an emotionally-disturbed student
The CSE classified M.S. as "emotionally disturbed" on July 13, 2000.
See Contents of Administrative Record, Impartial Hearing Officer's
Decision, with Attachments A-D ("IHO Report"), at 11. Plaintiff argues
that, because the CSE failed to conduct a complete evaluation of M.S. and
to perform all of the necessary tests, e.g. functional behavioral
assessment, psychological evaluation and an observational evaluation, as
required by law, its classification is unsupported and improper. See
Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law at 15.
At the hearing, Plaintiff requested that the CSE perform the additional
Plaintiff's Verified Complaint, Exhibit "A" ("SRO Report"), at 3. The IHO
denied the request, however, holding that such evaluations were moot
since M. S. was nearing graduation from high school and had improved both
academically and socially since he had entered the Family Foundation
School. See id. Ultimately, both officers held that Plaintiff could not
disavow the CSE's determination that M.S. suffered from an emotional
disturbance. See SRO Report at 4.
The Court agrees with the IHO and SRO that Plaintiff cannot now disavow
its own CSE's determination. Moreover, requiring the CSE to conduct the
additional evaluations would have served no purpose since M.S. was about
to exit the educational system.
Accordingly, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment
to the extent that it challenges this aspect of the administrative
C. M.S. was disabled under the IDEA
Plaintiff alleges that M.S. was not disabled under the IDEA since he
did not manifest any of the characteristics of an emotional disturbance
when not using drugs. In essence, Plaintiff argues that M.S. was a
socially-maladjusted child and, therefore, not covered under the
Resolution of this issue requires the Court to review the underlying
facts upon which the IHO and SRO relied in determining that M.S. was
disabled under the IDEA; that is, the Court must look at M.S.'s behavior
and academic performance during the years in question, giving due
deference to the administrative findings, and then determine whether the
IDEA applies. See Muller, 145 F.3d at 102.
The IDEA and the New York State Education Department Regulations
together set forth the criteria for identification of a child with a
disability.*fn9 See Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act,
20 U.S.C. § 1400-1491 (2000); N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 8 (2003).
A child with a "serious emotional disturbance" is a child with a
disability.*fn10 See 20 U.S.C.
§ 1401(a)(1)(A)(i); N.Y. Comp. Codes R & Regs. tit. 8, § 200.1 (zz)
(2003). An emotionally-disturbed student exhibits
one or more of the following characteristics over a
long period of time and to a marked degree that
adversely affects a child's educational performance:
(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained
by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory
interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings
under normal circumstances.
(D) A generally pervasive mood of unhappiness or
(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or
fears associated with personal or school problems.
See 34 C.F.R. § 300.7 (c)(4); N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 8 §
Both officers concluded that M.S. was an emotionally-disturbed student
under the regulations and, therefore, was a child with a disability under
the IDEA. See IHO Report at 13; SRO Report at 4. The IHO found that, based
upon the testimony of the CSE chairperson, the former school
psychologist, and the Wappingers Falls school district psychologist, M.S.
manifested symptoms of four out of the five regulatory characteristics
under the IDEA. See IHO Report at 13-14.
In particular, the IHO and the SRO made the following findings. M.S.'s
downward decline in academic performance without any intellectual,
sensory or health factor present was due to an emotional disturbance.
M.S. began a steady decline in academic performance after his parents'
divorce in 1997. See SRO Report at 2. M.S. received three failing grades
in the 9th grade and his overall GPA substantially declined.*fn11
Testing did not reveal a learning disability or other sensory or health
defect. M.S. demonstrated inappropriate, defiant and disobedient behavior
at home and in school that interfered substantially with his ability to
build or maintain personal relationships with peers or teachers and
showed signs of inappropriate behavior and feelings under normal
circumstances. Additionally, both officers found that M.S. exhibited
signs of a pervasive mood of unhappiness and depression. Joan Vreeland,
the school psychologist, testified that M.S. was "extremely angry in
school" and that he "suffered emotionally after his
parents' divorce." See IHO Report at 8. M.S. was described as out of
control and would not respond to parental direction. See id. M.S. did not
respect curfew times and would, at times, stay out all night. See
Plaintiff's Exhibit "19." He rarely smiled and seldom made eye contact
with adults. See id. At home, he became verbally and physically abusive
towards his brothers. See Deposition of Linda St. Pierre, dated March
13, 2001 ("L.S. Deposition"), at 295. Defendant had difficulty getting
her son out of bed for school. See id. at 298. M.S. also began to
socialize with a new group of friends who were involved with illegal
drugs. See Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts at ¶ 19. Overall,
M.S. appeared angry and unhappy. He told Defendant that she could never
make him happy. See L.S. Deposition at 294. Finally, he cut his wrists
with a broken light bulb only a few weeks after arriving at the Family
Foundation School. See id. at 316-17.
The administrative record supports the officers' findings and
sufficiently shows that M.S. exhibited several of the characteristics of
an emotionally-disturbed child as defined by the regulations. The Court,
therefore, concludes that the officers appropriately determined that
M.S. was a child with a disability under the IDEA. Accordingly, the Court
denies Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment with respect to this
D. Reimbursement is proper under the IDEA
Having determined that M.S. was disabled within the meaning of the
IDEA, the Court must next determine whether Plaintiff should reimburse
Defendant for her expenditures relative to M.S.'s placement at the Family
Foundation School for the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 school years.
The IDEA permits a district court to "grant such relief as the court
determines is appropriate." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(e)(iii). Such
relief includes the power to order reimbursement to parents for their
expenditures on private education for their child if (1) the school
district failed to provide an FAPE and (2) the private education services
obtained by the parents were appropriate for the child's needs. See
Sch. Comm. of Town of Burlington v. Dep't of Educ., 471 U.S. 359,
1. Plaintiff failed to provide M.S. with an FAPE*fn12
Under the IDEA, a disabled child is entitled to an FAPE. See
20 U.S.C. § 1400(d) (2000). "A free appropriate public education is one
`specially designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child,
supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child "to
benefit" from the instruction.'" Bd. of Educ. of Murphysboro Cmty. Unit
Sch. Dist. No. 186 v. Illinois State Bd. of Educ., 41 F.3d 1162, 1166
(7th Cir. 1994) (citation omitted). To meet this standard, a district
must (1) follow the procedures set forth in the IDEA and (2) develop an
IEP which enables the child to receive a valuable education. See id.
(citation omitted). Defendant alleges that Plaintiff failed to provide
M.S. with an FAPE when it failed to refer him immediately to the CSE for
classification after becoming aware of his problems. Furthermore,
Defendant claims that Plaintiff's failure to adhere to its own procedures
also contributed to Plaintiff's failure to provide an FAPE to M.S.
Plaintiff argues, at the very least, that it was under no obligation to
provide M.S. with an FAPE during the 1999-2000 school year since he had
not yet been classified as disabled under the IDEA. See Plaintiff's
Memorandum of Law at 21. Moreover, Plaintiff contends that liability for
the 1999-2000 school year cannot be imposed without a finding that it had
violated the child-find provisions of the IDEA.*fn13
The IHO and SRO found that Plaintiff failed to provide M.S. with an
FAPE in a timely manner for both the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 school
years. Specifically, they concluded that Plaintiff should have referred
M.S. to the CSE for evaluation in September 1999, after Defendant
informed Plaintiff's superintendent of schools that M.S. was experiencing
emotional difficulties and the school psychologist recommended the Family
Foundation School for placement. See SRO Report at 4-5. In addition, by
failing to conduct all necessary tests, the CSE did not conform to the
state education regulations. See N.Y. Code R. & Regs. tit. 8, §
Giving due deference to the factual findings of the hearing officers,
the Court finds that
the administrative record amply supports their conclusion that Plaintiff
failed to provide M.S. with an FAPE in a timely manner. Furthermore, it
is clear from the record that Plaintiff did not comply with IDEA
procedures. M.S. should have been referred to the CSE for evaluation in
September 1999, after Defendant informed Plaintiff that M.S. was
experiencing difficulties. Plaintiff's CSE did not perform the
evaluation, however, until July 2000, approximately ten months later.*fn14
2. The Family Foundation School was an appropriate placement for
Once the Court determines that a district failed to provide a disabled
child with an FAPE, the next inquiry is whether the private education
services that the parent obtained were appropriate in addressing the
Plaintiff argues that the Family Foundation School was simply a
boarding school for students with substance abuse problems and was not an
appropriate school to address emotional disturbances. See Plaintiff's
Memorandum of Law at 18. In support of this proposition, Plaintiff
asserts that the Family Foundation School offered only a closely
supervised and confined
environment to keep its students away from illegal substances. See id.
Moreover, Plaintiff claims that the school did not offer any
psychological or psychiatric treatment. See id.
In determining whether Defendant is entitled to tuition reimbursement,
the Court must ensure that the parental placement was proper under the
IDEA. See Florence County Sch. Dist. Four v. Carter by and through
Carter, 510 U.S. 7, 14 (1993). If the private school education meets
the educational needs of the student, then the placement was proper under
the Act. See Burlington, 471 U.S. at 370.*fn17
The administrative officers held that the Family Foundation School was
an appropriate placement under the Act. They found that the Family
Foundation School's program, which offered both individualized and group
therapy, a rigorous academic Regents curriculum, and peer interaction,
appropriately addressed M.S.'s needs. Once again, the Court finds ample
support in the administrative record for this conclusion.
In addition to providing a drug-free environment, the school offered
group and individual psychological counseling and cognitive-behavioral
and confrontational therapies necessary to attain social and emotional
stability. See IHO Report at 21; SRO Report at 6. Moreover, M.S.
dramatically improved in his academics, successfully passed several New
York State Regents exams, and was thereafter accepted for enrollment in
several colleges. See SRO Report at 6. M.S.'s college application essay
testifies to the significant progress he made while at the Family
Foundation School and is consistent with the social and emotional goals
set forth in the CSE's IEP. See id. Additionally, the school psychologist
and high school principal, well aware of
M.S.'s emotional, social and academic difficulties, specifically
recommended placement at the Family Foundation School.
Giving proper deference to the findings of fact regarding the
appropriateness of the placement under the Act and reviewing the
administrative record before it, the Court finds that the Family
Foundation School was an appropriate placement under the IDEA.
Accordingly, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment
with respect to this issue and finds that Plaintiff must reimburse
Defendant for tuition, room and board and laptop computer expenses
incurred as a result of M.S.'s placement at the Family Foundation School
for the academic years of 1999-2000 and 2000-2001.
E. Attorneys' fees and costs
Defendant requests an award of attorneys' fees pursuant to
20 U.S.C. § 1415 (2000). Since Plaintiff has not had the opportunity to
respond to this request, the Court will provide the parties with an
opportunity to fully brief this issue according to the schedule set forth
After carefully considering the file in this matter, the parties'
submissions, and the applicable law, and for the reasons stated herein,
the Court hereby
ORDERS that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is DENIED in its
entirety and the conclusions of the IHO and SRO are upheld; and the Court
ORDERS that summary judgment is GRANTED SUA SPONTE with respect to
Defendant's counterclaim that Plaintiff reimburse Defendant for tuition,
room and board and
laptop computer expenses incurred as a result of M.S.'s placement
at the Family Foundation School for the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 academic
years; and the Court further
ORDERS that Defendant shall file and serve her motion for an award of
attorneys' fees, including contemporaneous time records, on or before
February 20, 2004; and the Court further
ORDERS that Plaintiff shall file and serve its opposition to
Defendant's motion on or before March 9, 2004; and the Court further
ORDERS that Defendant shall file and serve her reply papers, if any, on
or before March 15, 2004; and the Court further
ORDERS that Defendant's motion is returnable on March 26, 2004, and
will be taken on submit; and the Court further
ORDERS that the Clerk of the Court enter judgment in favor of Defendant
and close this case.
IT IS SO ORDERED.