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Z.D. v. Niskayuna Central School Dist.

June 19, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scullin, Senior Judge



Plaintiffs filed this action pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 14151(i)(3), seeking a decision (1) reversing the decision of the State Review Officer Paul F. Kelly ("SRO") and reinstating the decision of the Impartial Hearing Officer Craig Tessler ("IHO"); (2) finding that Defendant did not provide Plaintiff Z.D. with a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"); (3) awarding Plaintiffs reimbursement for private school tuition; and (4) awarding costs, expenses and attorney's fees for the administrative proceedings and this action. See Dkt. No. 1.

Currently before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment upholding the SRO's decision for the following reasons: (1) the SRO properly determined that Defendant offered an appropriate program; (2) alternatively, Plaintiffs' private school placement was not appropriate; (3) equity does not support reimbursement; and (4) Plaintiff Z.D. lacks standing to bring this appeal. Also before the Court is Plaintiffs' cross-motion for summary judgment for the following reasons: (1) the SRO was not impartial and the Court should not give deference to the SRO's decision; (2) Defendant's programs were not appropriate; (3) the private school program was appropriate; and (4) the equities favor reimbursement.


Plaintiff Z.D., a student with average range cognitive ability, attended kindergarten through fifth grade at Defendant's schools in regular education classes with special education support. Plaintiff Z.D. suffers from Reactive Attachment Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and related problems. Pursuant to an individualized education program ("IEP") that Defendant's Committee on Special Education ("CSE") developed, Plaintiff Z.D. attended sixth grade at Defendant's middle school until early January 2005 and earned grades of "Bs" and "Cs" in the first quarter. On January 9, 2005, Plaintiff J.A., Plaintiff Z.D.'s mother, placed Plaintiff Z.D. at Hampshire County School ("HCS"), a residential school that New York State has not approved for the education of students with disabilities. Plaintiff J.A. sought reimbursement for tuition for the portion of the 2004-05 school year Plaintiff Z.D. was enrolled at HCS and for the 2005-06 school year as well as related expenses.

On April 17, 2006, after a six-day hearing, the IHO ordered Defendant to reimburse Plaintiff J.A. for the tuition she paid to HCS. Defendant appealed to the SRO, who reversed the IHO's decision on July 12, 2006. Plaintiffs filed the instant action.


A. Preliminary Matters

1. Standard of Review and Analytical Framework

On a motion for summary judgment in an IDEA case,the court examines the administrative record and additional evidence to determine whether the school complied with the IDEA. See Pinn v. Harrison Cent. Sch. Dist., 473 F. Supp. 2d 477, 481 (S.D.N.Y. 2007) (citation omitted). The party seeking relief*fn1 has the burden of proofand a disputed issue of fact will not defeat a motion for summary judgment in this type of case. See id. (citations omitted). Review, however, is limited; and district courts apply a preponderance of the evidence standard while "giv[ing] 'due weight' to the administrative proceedings, 'mindful that the judiciary generally lacks the specialized knowledge and experience necessary to resolve persistent and difficult questions of educational policy.'" Id. (quotation omitted).Accordingly, courts give "'substantial deference'" to final administrative judgments on educational policies and practices, even where the SRO disagrees with the IHO.*fn2 See id. (citations omitted); see also Gagliardo v. Arlington Cent. Sch. Dist., 489 F.3d 105, 112-13 (2d Cir. 2007).*fn3

Under the IDEA, the state must provide all children with disabilities "'a free appropriate public education.'" See Gagliardo, 489 F.3d at 111 (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A)) (other citation omitted). If parents believe the state has failed to do so, "they may, at their own financial risk, enroll the child in a private school and seek retroactive reimbursement for the cost of the private school from the state." Id. (citing Sch. Comm. of the Town of Burlington v. Dep't of Educ., 471 U.S. 359, 370, 105 S.Ct. 1996, 85 L.Ed. 2d 385 (1985)) (other citation omitted).

To determine whether parents are entitled to reimbursement, courts must consider a two-part test: "(1) was the IEP proposed by the school district inappropriate; [and] (2) was the private placement appropriate to the child's needs." Id. at 111-12 (citations omitted).Under the first part of the test, courts "examine whether the state has complied with the procedures set forth in the IDEA" or "whether the IEP developed through the Act's procedures '[is] "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits."'" Cerra v. Pawling Cent. Sch. Dist., 427 F.3d 186, 192 (2d Cir. 2005) (quotations and citations omitted).If these requirements are met, the State has met its obligations; however, if the State's actions are either procedurally or substantively deficient, courts consider the second part of the ...

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