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Doe v. East Lyme Bd. of Education

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

June 26, 2015

JANE DOE, JOHN DOE, by and through his parent Jane Doe, Plaintiffs-Appellees-Cross-Appellants,
v.
EAST LYME BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant-Appellant-Cross-Appellee, DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, CONNECTICUT STATE, Defendant

Argued: March 13, 2015.

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The East Lyme Board of Education (the " Board" ) appeals from the judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Arterton, J.), holding that the Board violated the stay-put provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (" IDEA" ), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j), and awarding reimbursement to Jane Doe and her son, John Doe. The Does cross-appeal from the amount of reimbursement and from the district court's rejection of their other IDEA claims.

We affirm in most respects, but vacate and remand for entry of judgment in favor of the Does for the full value of services that the Board was required to fund under the stay-put provision, calculated from the date that Jane Doe initiated administrative proceedings, in part as reimbursement and in remaining part as compensatory education.

EILEEN M. HAGERTY, Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP, Boston, Massachusetts, for Plaintiffs-Appellees-Cross-Appellants.

SHELDON D. MYERS, Kainen, Escalera & McHale, P.C., Hartford, Connecticut, for Defendant-Appellant-Cross-Appellee.

Before: JACOBS and LOHIER, Circuit Judges, and SHARPE, District Judge.[*]

OPINION

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DENNIS JACOBS, Circuit Judge:

John Doe (the " Student" ) has autism and requires special education services. He and his mother, Jane Doe (the " Parent" ), reside within the East Lyme Public School District (the " District" ) under the jurisdiction of the East Lyme Board of Education (the " Board" ). Up through the 2008-2009 school year, the Board and the Parent agreed on individualized education plans (" IEPs" ) setting forth special education services, consisting of school placement and additional related services, that the Board would provide or fund.

Following disagreements over the IEP for 2009-2010, the Parent placed the Student in a private school outside the District, and continued to privately obtain some (but not all) of the related services previously funded by the Board. The Board refused to pay for the private school or any related services on the ground that it ceased to be responsible for the Student once he was enrolled outside the District.

The Parent brought suit under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (" IDEA" ), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., alleging that the Board offered an inadequate IEP for 2009-2010 and failed to offer any IEP for 2010-2011 (and subsequent school years), thereby denying the Student a free appropriate public education (" FAPE" ), see 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1).

The district court dismissed these claims. As to 2009-2010, the court ruled that the IEP provided the Student with a FAPE. As to 2010-2011 (and subsequent school years), the court ruled that the Board violated the IDEA by failing to offer any IEPs, but that the Parent was not entitled to relief because the private school in which she enrolled the Student was an inappropriate placement.

The court did award the Parent some relief. Citing the stay-put provision of the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j), which provides for a child's continuance in the " then-current educational placement" during the pendency of proceedings (absent agreement otherwise), the court ruled that the Board was in violation for failing to fund the related services described in the 2008-2009 IEP once the parties reached an impasse. Accordingly, the court ordered the Board to reimburse the Parent for any such services she actually paid for out of pocket.

We affirm the judgment in most respects, but vacate the award of reimbursement and remand the case for further proceedings. We hold that the appropriate equitable relief for a stay-put violation is reimbursement or compensatory education (or both) for the full value of services that the educational agency was required to fund, not the (lesser) value of services the Parent was able to afford. We further hold that an educational agency's obligation to maintain stay-put placement is triggered when an administrative due process proceeding is initiated, not when an impasse is reached.

BACKGROUND

The Student was nine years old at the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year.

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Because of his autism, the Student experiences difficulties with social interaction and communication, particularly, speech and reading. He and the Parent both reside within the District in East Lyme, Connecticut.

The Student attended public school in the District until December 2006, when the Board and the Parent agreed on publicly-funded placement at Hope Academy, a private school. In 2008, dissatisfied with the Student's progress at Hope Academy, the Parent placed him at Solomon Schechter Academy (" Solomon" ) in New London, Connecticut. Solomon is a private religious school that provides no specialized instruction to students with disabilities. The Parent and the Board agreed that the Parent would pay the tuition at Solomon, while the Board would fund additional related services, such as specialized reading instruction and speech therapy, which would be delivered by private providers outside the classroom.

Accordingly, the Board issued an IEP in December 2008 (the " 2008-2009 IEP" ), which provided that the Parent would pay for tuition at Solomon, while the Board would pay for the following related services: Orton-Gillingham reading instruction (5 hours/week), speech therapy (2.5 hours/week), and occupational/physical therapy (1.5 hours/week). In February, the parties amended the IEP to increase speech therapy to 3 hours per week. As discussed in greater detail below, it is this amended 2008-2009 IEP that furnishes the " then-current educational placement" for stay-put purposes.

On June 17, 2009, the Parent met with Board representatives to discuss the 2009-2010 placement. Dr. Corinne Berglund, the Board's Director of Special Education, advised the Parent that the Board would not pay for tuition at Solomon and suggested that the Student be enrolled instead at Niantic Center School (" Niantic" ), a public school in the District. The parties reached an impasse. A month later, the Board issued an IEP (the " 2009-2010 IEP" ) placing the Student at Niantic or his local elementary school and offering a program that included: a case manager, " code emphasis reading that incorporates Orton-Gillingham principles" (50 minutes/day), speech therapy (2.5 hours/week), occupational therapy (1 hour/week), and physical therapy (20 minutes/week). The Parent rejected the IEP, advised the Board that she would keep the Student at Solomon, and conveyed her expectation that the Board would continue paying for related services. The demands for related services were based on recommendations by the Student's treating clinician, Dr. Robert Kemper.

The Student continued to attend Solomon during the 2009-2010 school year, and was regularly pulled out of the classroom to receive special education services (which Solomon did not offer) from private providers. The Parent also arranged for the Student to receive some instruction over the summer. The Parent absorbed all of these educational expenses.

In August 2010, the Parent advised the Board that, unless she received a satisfactory IEP, she would continue the enrollment at Solomon for 2010-2011, and demanded reimbursement of her expenses. The Board refused, on the ground that the Student's enrollment at Solomon terminated the Board's obligations under the IDEA.

On April 27, 2010, the Parent filed an administrative due process complaint, which she temporarily withdrew, but then refiled, in September 2010. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f), (i); Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-76h. The Parent alleged that the Board failed to provide the Student with a FAPE and violated various procedural requirements under the IDEA and Connecticut law.

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The Parent sought reimbursement of the tuition at Solomon and the costs of the related services.[1]

The administrative hearing officer ruled in favor of the Board. The officer found (inter alia) that the Board had offered a FAPE during the relevant school years, and that the lack of special education services at Solomon made it an inappropriate placement. Accordingly, the officer awarded no reimbursement. The Parent then sought judicial review in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut.[2] See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2).

The parties cross-moved for summary judgment on the basis of the administrative record. The district court (Arterton, J.) ruled that as to 2009-2010, the Board offered the Student a FAPE, and that though the Board failed to propose an IEP for 2010-2011 (and the subsequent school years), the Parent was not entitled to relief because Solomon was an inappropriate placement.[3]

However, the court concluded that the Board violated the stay-put provision of the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j), by refusing to continue funding the related services described in the amended 2008-2009 IEP once the parties reached an impasse. The court held that the Board's obligation to fund those services triggered as of June 17, 2009 (when impasse was reached), and ordered the Board to reimburse the Parent for related services she funded since that date. Over the Parent's objection that the Board owed more services than she had been able to afford, the court limited the amount of reimbursement to the Parent's out-of-pocket expenses.

The parties cross-appeal. The Board argues (inter alia) that the Student's enrollment at Solomon terminated its obligations under the IDEA altogether, that it prevailed on the FAPE claim, and that liability for a stay-put violation is conditional on the Parent's prevailing on the FAPE claim. The Parent argues (inter alia) that the Board failed to provide a FAPE, and that Solomon was an appropriate placement. The parties also contest the award of reimbursement on a number of grounds. Most significantly, the Board argues that the court improperly awarded reimbursement for services rendered before the Parent initiated administrative due process proceedings, ...


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