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Department of Education v. Ria L.

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

March 31, 2016

DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, STATE OF HAWAII, Plaintiff,
v.
RIA L., by and through her Parent, RITA L., Defendants.

ORDER (1) REMANDING THE CASE TO THE ADMINISTRATVE HEARINGS OFFICER AND (2) DENYING DEFENDANTS’ MOTION FOR SANCTIONS

DERRICK K. WASTSON JUDGE

In this interlocutory appeal, the Court is asked by the Administrative Hearings Officer (“AHO”) to address whether a decision on the merits of a case or an admission of liability by a party is a condition precedent to dismissal. As set forth below, the Court answers the question in the negative, i.e., an admission of liability is not required before a case may be dismissed as moot. The Court REMANDS the case to the AHO for proceedings consistent with this and its prior orders, and DENIES the Motion for Sanctions filed by Ria L. (“Ria” or “Student”) and Rita. L (“Parent”) (collectively “Defendants”). Dkt. No. 18.

BACKGROUND

The parties are already familiar with the history of this case, which has been laid out in some detail in prior orders. See DOE v. Ria L., et al., CV No. 12-00007 DAE-KSC, Dkt. No. 27 (D. Haw. July 31, 2012); DOE v. Ria L. et al., CV No. 12-00007 HG-KSC, Dkt. No. 39 (D. Haw. Oct. 30, 2012); DOE v. Ria L., et al., CV No. 14-00034 DKW-RLP, Dkt. No. 30 (D. Haw. Dec. 15, 2014); DOE v. Ria L., et al., CV No. 14-00034 DKW-RLP, Dkt. No. 40 (D. Haw. Jan. 27, 2015). Because the question presented by the AHO on interlocutory review is a question of law, only the limited, relevant factual and procedural background is included here.

On March 11, 2011, Defendants filed their Request for Impartial Hearing. See Dkt. No. 13-2, Plf. Exh. 2 at 27. They requested the following relief:

Find the DOE both procedurally and substantively denied Ria FAPE. Order placement of Ria at ABC School for the remainder of the 2010-2011 school year. Order reimbursement to parents for any costs related to placement at ABC School including but not limited to tuition, transportation, and other expenses. Order a comprehensive evaluation of Ria by a provider of Parents’ choice at DOE expense. Order compensatory education for failure to provide a FAPE for the prior two school years in the form of placement at ABC School for the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years. And other remedies the Hearings Officer deems appropriate.

Dkt. No. 13-2, Plf. Exh. 2 at 28.

Following a six-day administrative hearing, AHO Haunani Alm issued a decision, finding that the DOE had denied Student a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) under the provisions of Student’s February 25, 2009 and February 18, 2010, individualized education programs (“IEPs”). The DOE appealed this decision, and on July 31, 2012, Judge Ezra vacated and remanded it to the AHO. DOE v. Ria L., et al., CV No. 12-00007 DAE-KSC, Dkt. No. 27 (D. Haw. July 31, 2012). On remand, AHO Alm held a further evidentiary hearing and again found in favor of Student. The DOE appealed a second time.

On December 15, 2014, this Court issued an Order Affirming in Part and Remanding Decision of the Administrative Hearings Officer. DOE v. Ria L., et al., CV No. 14-00034 DKW-RLP, Dkt. No. 30 (D. Haw. Dec. 15, 2014). In the decision, the Court remanded the matter for further clarification on the issue of the credibility of witnesses. The Court, however, was subsequently notified that AHO Alm had retired and was unavailable to address the matter on remand. Accordingly, on January 27, 2015, the Court issued its Order Vacating in Part the Administrative Hearings Officer’s December 27, 2013 Decision and Remanding for Further Proceedings Before a New Hearings Officer. DOE v. Ria L., et al., CV No. 14-00034 DKW-RLP, Dkt. No. 40 (D. Haw. Jan. 27, 2015).

On remand, the case was assigned to AHO Richard Young, who decided that the merits of the remanded issue would be determined through a third hearing. On March 30, 2015, prior to the scheduled hearing, the DOE filed a Motion for Summary Judgment or in the Alternative, to Dismiss. Dkt No. 13-2, Plf. Exh. 2.

The AHO denied the DOE’s Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 13-1, Plf. Exh. 1.

On April 24, 2015, the DOE simultaneously filed two motions: (1) a Motion for Reconsideration of its Motion for Summary Judgment, and (2) a Motion for Leave to File Interlocutory Appeal. On May 1, 2015, the AHO denied the Motion for Reconsideration [Dkt. No. 1-3], but granted the Motion for Leave to File Interlocutory Appeal. Dkt. No. 1-1. In the Order Denying the DOE’s Motion for Reconsideration, the AHO maintained that the matter was not moot because Student requested relief in the form of a finding that the “DOE procedurally and substantively denied [Student] a FAPE” and that the issue of “whether or not a denial of FAPE occurred due to alleged abuse is a live controversy.” Dkt. No. 1-3 at 2. In the Order Granting the DOE’s Motion for Leave to File Interlocutory Appeal, the AHO stated that:

[T]he standard for allowing leave to file an interlocutory appeal is that an important question of law is in doubt which may substantially affect the final result of the case. As [the DOE] argues, in the interest of judicial economy, the Court is asked to resolve the issue as to whether the DOE, having already paid more than what was sought in the Request for Due Process Hearing, must first admit to liability before the case can be dismissed. This issue appears to ...

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