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M.M. ex rel. I.F. v. New York City Department of Education

United States District Court, S.D. New York

June 17, 2014

M.M. and I.F., on behalf of L.F., Plaintiffs,
v.
NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Defendant

Page 250

For M.M., Individually and collectively and on behalf of L.F., I.F., Individually and collectively and on behalf of L.F., Plaintiffs: Jesse Cole Cutler, Skyer, Castro, Foley & Gersten, New York, NY.

For The New York City Department of Education, Defendant: Serena Mabel Longley, LEAD ATTORNEY, NYC Law Department, New York, NY; Lauren Almquist Lively, New York City Law Department, New York, NY.

Page 251

ORDER AND OPINION GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT

ALVIN K. HELLERSTEIN, United States District Judge.

Plaintiffs M.M. and I.F. (" the Parents" ) bring this action against the New York

Page 252

City Department of Education (the " DOE" ) pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the " IDEA" ), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. The Parents seek reimbursement from the DOE for tuition paid to La Europa Academy, a private school in Utah, where their daughter L.F. was educated. The Parents seek review of a January 24, 2011 decision by the New York State Review Officer which denied their request for reimbursement. The parties have cross-moved for summary judgment. For the following reasons, the Parents' motion is granted and the DOE's motion is denied.

STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

" The IDEA requires New York state to provide disabled children with a free and appropriate public education ('FAPE')." M.W. ex rel. S.W. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 725 F.3d 131, 135 (2d Cir. 2013). " To ensure that qualifying children receive a FAPE, a school district must create an individualized education program (" IEP" ) for each [disabled] child." R.E. ex rel. J.E v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 694 F.3d 167, 175 (2d Cir. 2012). An IEP is a written statement that " describes the specially designed instruction and services that will enable the child to meet stated educational objectives and is reasonably calculated to give educational benefits to the child." M.W.., 725 F.3d at 135; see 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d) (2012). In New York, local Committees on Special Education are responsible for determining whether a child is entitled to educational services under the IDEA and, if so, developing an appropriate IEP. See N.Y. Educ. Law § 4402(1)(b)(1).

If a parent believes that the government has breached its obligations under the IDEA " by failing to provide their disabled child a FAPE, the parent may unilaterally place their child in a private school at their own financial risk and seek tuition reimbursement." M.W., 725 F.3d at 135. In New York, the process for seeking tuition reimbursement begins when a parent files a due process complaint with the DOE. The due process complaint initiates administrative proceedings involving an impartial due process hearing before an Impartial Hearing Officer (" IHO" ). See id. at 135 (citing 20 U.S.C. § § 1415(b)(6), (f); N.Y. Educ. Law § 4404(1)).

The hearing before the IHO is governed by the three-pronged Burlington/Carter test, under which: " (1) the DOE must establish that the student's IEP actually provided a FAPE; should the DOE fail to meet that burden, the parents are entitled to reimbursement if (2) they establish that their unilateral placement was appropriate and (3) the equities favor them." Id.[1] " An IHO's decision may, in turn, be appealed to a State Review Officer (" SRO" ), who is an officer of the State's Department of Education." M.H. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 685 F.3d 217, 225 (2d Cir. 2012). Any party aggrieved by the SRO's final administrative decision has the right to seek review of it by bringing a civil action in federal court. See M.W., 725 F.3d at 135-36; 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A).

BACKGROUND

The following is a summary of the administrative record.

Page 253

A. L.F.'s Public Education

In 2008, L.F., the child at the center of this case, was a 17 year old high school student. Her parents contend that she is disabled based on the following facts. In 2000 she began to experience intense depression. Since 2004, she had a history of eating disorders. She was repeatedly hospitalized. In September 2007, she was diagnosed with anorexia. In October 2007, she attempted to commit suicide. She has overdosed on medicine several times and she has self-harmed.

Until November 2007, L.F. attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, a New York City public school. Academically, L.F. did well and she received good grades. However, L.F. missed several weeks of school during the 2007-2008 school year. She reported that she had difficulty going to school because of her anxiety, depression and fear.

In November 2007, the Parents requested that the DOE provide L.F. with home education following her suicide attempt. Between November 2007 and January 2008, the DOE provided L.F. with home education. In January 2008, L.F. traveled with her father to Israel. While in Israel, L.F. tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

B. L.F.'s Private Education

When L.F. returned to the United States in April 2008, she enrolled in La Europa Academy, a private school in Utah. La Europa Academy is a structured boarding school for teenage girls with histories of eating disorders, substance abuse, or behavioral issues. The school follows Utah's educational policies and prepares students for college. It provides structured education for students between 6.45am and 10.30pm. Since attending La Europa, L.F. has continued to receive good grades, and her academic work may even have improved. According to a therapist, L.F.'s emotional problems have improved since she enrolled.

La Europa charged $9,950 monthly tuition. L.F.'s grandmother agreed to pay the tuition and expenses, and she made payments directly to La Europa Academy. The Parents contend that the grandmother made the payment to La Europa pursuant to an agreement between the Parents and the grandmother. They claim that this agreement is reflected by a document, dated April 3, 2008, which states:

This statement will establish and confirm the understanding that [the grandmother] will provide for the funding of the expenses associated with her granddaughter's, [L.F.'s], attendance at La Europa Academy in Murray, Utah. It is further understood that this funding is offered as a loan ...

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