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Scot S., Individually and On Behalf of His Minor Child, Lea S v. State of Hawaii

January 9, 2012

SCOT S., INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF HIS MINOR CHILD, LEA S., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
STATE OF HAWAII, DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION AND KATHRYN MATAYOSHI,
IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS ACTING SUPERINTENDENT OF THE HAWAII PUBLIC SCHOOLS, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David Alan Ezra United States District Judge

ORDER AFFIRMING THE DECISION OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE HEARINGS OFFICER

On January 9, 2011, the Court heard Plaintiffs' Appeal of a decision rendered by an Administrative Hearings Officer concerning Lea S.'s eligibility to receive special education and related services. Keith H.S. Peck, Esq., appeared at the hearing on behalf of Plaintiffs; Deputy Attorneys General Kris S. Murakami and Holly T. Shikada appeared at the hearing on behalf of Defendants. After reviewing the appeal and the supporting and opposing memoranda, the Court AFFIRMS the Decision of the Hearings Officer.

BACKGROUND

Lea S. ("Lea") is an eleven-year-old girl who has been attending Assets Private School since 2009. ("Resp. Ex.," Doc. # 15 at 6; Administrative Hearing Transcript ("Tr."), Doc. # 16 at 6.) Her home school is Lanikai Public Charter School. (Resp. Ex. at 5--6.) Lea was previously found eligible for special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") under the category of Developmental Delay for ages 6-8. (Id. at 5.) Lea turned 9-years-old on December 13, 2009. Pursuant to a settlement agreement, the Defendant State of Hawaii, Department of Education ("DOE") agreed to pay Lea's tuition at Assets for the 2009-2010 school year, which ended on May 27, 2010. (Id. at 166--67.) On August 3, 2010, the DOE rescinded Lea's eligibility for education benefits. (Id. at 59.) At issue in this case is Lea's continued eligibility for special education and related services under the IDEA.

I. The July 2010 Eligibility Meeting

On July 28, 2010, the DOE held an Individualized Education Program ("IEP") meeting to determine eligibility for special education services. (Id. at 22.) At the meeting, the IEP team, consisting of the Principal, a Student Services Coordinator, a School Psychologist, a Special Education Teacher, and a Regular Education teacher, convened in order to review the results of Lea's reevaluation and determine her continued eligibility for IDEA services.*fn1 (Resp. Ex. at 22; "Pet. Ex.," Doc. # 14 at 20.) The eligibility team reviewed Lea's Spring 2010 student profile from Assets School, which included, inter alia, the following: (1) a July 2009 assessment based on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, 4th Edition ("WISC-4"), (2) March and April 2010 assessments based on the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test, 2nd Edition ("WIAT-2"), (3) an April 2010 assessment based on the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement, 3rd Edition ("WJ-3"), (4) an April 2010 assessment based on the Stanford Achievement Test, 9th Edition ("SAT-9"), and (5) a March 2010 assessment based on Diagnostic Achievement Battery - 2 ("DAB-2"). (Resp. Ex. at 26--30.)

The IEP team also reviewed notes from a classroom observation of Lea that was conducted during the language arts and math periods at Assets School on March 9, 2010. (Pet. Ex. at 20.) The observer noted that Lea was "socially engaged and responded well to her peers and teachers." (Id.) The observer also noted that she was "engaged in the lesson and contributed to the classroom discussion" during the language arts period and "worked independently, accurately and efficiently" during the math period. (Id.)

Based on their review of the standardized cognitive and achievement tests summarized in the Spring 2010 Assets School Student Profile and the March 2010 observation, the IEP team determined that Lea was ineligible for special education services under the IDEA. (Resp. Ex. at 59.) On August 3, 2010, the DOE issued a Prior Written Notice ("PWN") addressed to Lea's parents stating that it "proposes that [Lea] be rescinded from special education eligibility" because "[Lea]'s academic performance falls within the average range and is consistent with her cognitive skills which are also in the average range as measured by standardized assessments." (Id.)

II. The Administrative Hearing and Decision

On September 13, 2010, Lea, by and through her parents Scot. S. and Lofisa S. (collectively, "Plaintiffs" or "Petitioners"), filed a Request for Impartial Hearing ("Request") pursuant to the IDEA and Title 8, Chapters 53 and 60 of the Hawai'i Administrative Rules ("HAR"). (Doc. # 13 at 1--5.) In their Request, Plaintiffs alleged that the action to rescind Lea's eligibility was inappropriate because she requires "modifications to the content and/or methodology and/or delivery of instruction to support her academic performance." (Id. at 3.) Plaintiffs asked the Hearings Officer to determine that Lea was eligible for special education services and requested reimbursement for educational and related expenses incurred by Lea's parents during the 2010-2011 school year. (Id. at 5.)

An administrative hearing was held before the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, Office of Administrative Hearings, State of Hawaii ("OAH") on March 29, 2011 before Hearings Officer Richard A. Young. (Tr. at 1.) Plaintiffs offered testimony from Lea's mother. According to her mother, Lea has difficulty concentrating and cannot complete her classroom assignments unless it is modified. (Tr. at 14, 40.) Lea's mother also testified that Lea is more confident and enjoys doing her work more at Assets than at her home school. (Tr. at 29.)

Defendants presented testimony from District School Psychologist Dr. Abby Royston and General Education Teacher Dr. April Taylor from Lanikai Elementary School. (Id. at 11, 55, and 112.) Based on her review of Lea's test scores in the Spring 2010 student profile, Dr. Royston concluded that Lea is performing at an average level and that her performance does not support a finding of a specific learning disability. (Tr. at 82--83.) Meanwhile, Dr. Taylor testified as to the various differentiated instruction methods that general education teachers use in order to meet the individualized needs of each student even if the student does not qualify for special education services. (Tr. at 113--116.)

On May 31, 2011, the Hearings Officer issued his Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Decision ("Decision"). (Doc. # 13 at 60--70.) In his Decision, the Hearings Officer concluded that: (1) Petitioners had not shown that Lea was eligible for special education and related services under the category of Specific Learning Disability ("SLD") or any other category; and (2) Petitioners had not shown that Lea required modifications to the content, methodology, and/or delivery of instruction to support her academic performance. (Id. at 68--69.)

III. The Instant Appeal

On June 13, 2011, Plaintiffs filed a Complaint in this Court appealing the Hearings Officer's Decision pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). (Doc. # 1.) Plaintiffs filed an Opening Brief on October 24, 2011. ("Pls. Brief," Doc. # 19.)

In their brief, Plaintiffs assert that the Hearings Officer erred by finding Lea ineligible for IDEA services under the SLD classification and that they should be reimbursed for Lea's education and related expenses because Assets provided Lea appropriate special education. (Id. at 12.) Defendants filed an Answering Brief on December 2, 2011. ("Dfs. Brief," Doc. # 20.)

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The IDEA states, in part, as follows: Any party aggrieved by the findings and decision made [pursuant to an administrative hearing], shall have the right to bring a civil action with respect to the complaint presented pursuant to this section, which action may be brought in any state court of competent jurisdiction or in a district court of the United States, without regard to the amount in controversy.

20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). When a party files an action challenging an administrative decision under the IDEA, the district court "(i) shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; (ii) shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and (iii) basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C); see also Ojai Unified Sch. Dist. v. Jackson, 4 F.3d 1467, 1471 (9th Cir. 1993). The party challenging the administrative decision bears the burden of proof. See Seattle Sch. Dist., No. 1 v. B.S., 82 F.3d 1493, 1498 (9th Cir. 1996); Hood v. Encinatas Union Sch. Dist., 486 F.3d 1099, 1103 (9th Cir. 2007). The challenging party must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the decision of the hearings officer should be reversed. J.W. ex rel. J.E.W. v. Fresno Unified Sch. Dist., 626 F.3d 431, 438 (9th Cir. 2010).

In reviewing administrative decisions, the district court must give "due weight" to the state's judgments of educational policy. L.M. v. Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist., 556 F.3d 900, 908 (9th Cir. 2009); Michael P. v. Dep't of Educ., 656 F.3d 1057, 1066 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting Seattle Sch. Dist., 82 F.3d at 1499). However, the district court has discretion to determine the amount of deference it will accord the administrative ruling. J.W., 626 F.3d at 438 (citing Gregory K. v. Longview Sch. Dist., 811 F.2d 1307, 1311 (9th Cir. 1987)). In reaching that determination, the court should consider the thoroughness of the hearings officer's findings, increasing the degree of deference where said findings are "'thorough and careful.'" Michael P., 656 F.3d at 1066; L.M., 556 F.3d at 908 (quoting Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. v. Wartenberg, 59 F.3d 884, 892 (9th Cir. 1995)). The district court should give "substantial weight" to the decision of the hearings officer when the decision "evinces his careful, impartial consideration of all the evidence and demonstrates his sensitivity to the complexity of the issues presented." Cnty. of San Diego v. Cal. Special Educ. Hearing Office, 93 F.3d 1458, 1466--67 (9th Cir. 1996) (citation and quotation marks omitted)). Such deference is appropriate because "if the district court tried the case anew, the work of the hearing officer would not receive 'due weight,' and would be largely wasted." Wartenberg, 59 F.3d at 891.

Further, the amount of deference to be given to an administrative hearings officer's decision is, in part, influenced by whether the hearings officer's findings are based on credibility determinations regarding the witnesses that appeared before him or her. See L.E. v. Ramsey Bd. of Educ., 435 F.3d 384, 389 n. 4 (3rd Cir. 2006) (a district court must accept the state agency's credibility determinations "unless the non-testimonial, extrinsic evidence in the record ...


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