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C.G. et al v. Ithaca City School District

September 24, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe Chief Judge


I. Introduction

Plaintiff C.G. commenced this action, individually and as parent and next friend of plaintiff J.M.G., a child with a disability, against defendant Ithaca City School District ("the District"), seeking attorneys' fees and costs under the fee-shifting provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).*fn1 (See Compl., Dkt. No. 1.) C.G. moved,*fn2 and the District cross-moved, for summary judgment. (See Dkt. Nos. 7-8.) For the reasons that follow, both motions are granted in part and denied in part, and C.G. is awarded $17,211.16 in attorneys' fees and related costs.

II. Background*fn3

On May 6, 2011, near the end of J.M.G.'s fifth-grade academic year, the District's Committee on Special Education (CSE) convened to discuss his transition from elementary school to middle school. (See Def.'s Statement of Material Facts (SMF) ¶ 3, Dkt. No. 8, Attach. 8.) At that meeting, the CSE developed an updated Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which was effective until September 14, 2011 (See Dkt. No. 8, Attach. 7 at 10-15.) Seven weeks later, on June 23, counsel for C.G. filed with the District a request for an impartial due process hearing pursuant to N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 8, § 200.5(j), alleging that the District denied J.M.G. a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) and requesting, inter alia, annulment of the May 6 IEP. (See Dkt. No. 8, Attach. 1 at 9-12.) Pursuant to N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 8, § 200.5, C.G. and the District's Director of Special Education, Sheila McEnery, held a resolution meeting on July 7. (See Def.'s SMF ¶ 9.) Contending that C.G.'s concerns had not been resolved and an agreement had not been reached at that meeting, however, C.G.'s counsel requested the following day that the Impartial Hearing Officer (IHO) schedule a due process hearing. (See Dkt. No. 8, Attach. 1 at 14.) On July 12, the District provided C.G.'s counsel with a "Memorandum of Agreement," purporting to "resolve[] the issues raised in the request for an impartial hearing." (Dkt. No. 8, Attach. 7 at 22; Def.'s SMF ¶ 14.) C.G. rejected the District's memorandum of agreement the following day. (See Dkt. No. 8, Attach. 1 at 18.)

Following a hearing held on August 18 and 19, the IHO issued a decision on September 12, finding, inter alia, that: the District failed to timely evaluate J.M.G.; the May 6 CSE was improperly comprised in light of the absence of C.G.'s general education teacher; and C.G. was "denied meaningful participation in the CSE." (Id. at 74.) The IHO found further that these three shortcomings, cumulatively, and the District's failure to timely evaluate, singularly, resulted in J.M.G. being denied a FAPE, and ordered the District to take a number of remedial measures. (See id. at 74-76.) The District appealed the IHO's determination, and, on November 14, 2011, a State Review Officer (SRO) affirmed the majority of the IHO's decision, but annulled those portions of the directive which required the District to "conduct a private evaluation at a specific center within 30 days" and provide J.M.G. with compensatory music classes. (Dkt. No. 8, Attach. 6 at 11-14.)

III. Standard of Review

The standard of review under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 is well established and will not be repeated here. For a full discussion of the standard, the court refers the parties to its decision in Wagner v. Swarts, 827 F. Supp. 2d 85, 92 (N.D.N.Y. 2011).

IV. Discussion

A. Prevailing Party

The first issue about which the parties seek judgment is whether C.G. is a "prevailing party" as that term is defined by the IDEA. (See Dkt. No. 7, Attach. 13 at 7-8; Dkt. No. 8, Attach. 9 at 6-10.) The court agrees with C.G. that her success before the IHO and SRO renders her a "prevailing party."

Under the IDEA, a district court may, in its discretion, "award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs . . . to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). Because an IHO decision on the merits constitutes "administrative imprimatur," changes the legal relationship of the parties involved, and is judicially enforceable, "a plaintiff who receives IHO-ordered relief on the merits in an IDEA administrative proceeding is a 'prevailing party.'" A.R. ex rel. R.V. v. N.Y.C. Dep't of Educ., 407 F.3d 65, 75-76 (2d Cir. 2005).

The District contends that, in light of its pre-hearing offer to undertake voluntary remedial measures, the decisions of the IHO and SRO did not alter the "legal relationship" between the parties. (See Dkt. No. 8, Attach. 9 at 9.) This argument fails for two reasons. First, the fact that an IHO-sanctioned consent decree is sufficient to bestow upon a parent the title of "prevailing party," see V.G. ex rel. J.G. v. Auburn Enlarged Cent. Sch. Dist., 5:06-CV-531, 2008 WL 5191703, at *4-6 (N.D.N.Y. Dec. 9, 2008), indicates that a high correlation between administratively-ordered relief and the measures originally offered by the District does not foreclose a finding that the parent prevailed. Second, as discussed more fully below, the relief ordered by the IHO and upheld by the SRO here is not identical to that offered voluntarily by the District. Accordingly, the IHO decision that the District deprived J.M.G. of a FAPE, (see Dkt. No. 8, Attach. 1 at 74-76), and the SRO's affirmation of that ...

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