Application of the NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION for review of a determination of a hearing officer relating to the provision of educational services to a student with a disability
Courtenaye Jackson-Chase, Special Assistant Corporation Counsel, attorneys for petitioner, Francesca J. Perkins, Esq., of counsel
Law Offices of Neal H. Rosenberg, attorneys for respondents, Neal H. Rosenberg, Esq., of counsel
This proceeding arises under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1482) and Article 89 of the New York State Education Law. Petitioner (the district) appeals from the decision of an impartial hearing officer (IHO) which found that it failed to offer an appropriate educational program to respondents' (the parents') son and ordered it to reimburse the parents for the costs of the student's tuition at the Aaron School for the 2012-13 school year. The appeal must be dismissed.
II. Overview—Administrative Procedures
A party aggrieved by the decision of an IHO may subsequently appeal to a State Review Officer (SRO) (Educ. Law § 4404; see 20 U.S.C. § 1415[g]; 34 CFR 300.514[b]; 8 NYCRR 200.5[k]). The appealing party or parties must identify the findings, conclusions, and orders of the IHO with which they disagree and indicate the relief that they would like the SRO to grant (8 NYCRR 279.4). The opposing party is entitled to respond to an appeal or cross-appeal in an answer (8 NYCRR 279.5). The SRO conducts an impartial review of the IHO's findings, conclusions, and decision, and is required to examine the entire hearing record; ensure that the procedures at the hearing were consistent with the requirements of due process; seek additional evidence if necessary; and render an independent decision based upon the hearing record (34 CFR 300.514[b]; 8 NYCRR 279.12[a]). The SRO must ensure that a final decision is reached in the review and that a copy of the decision is mailed to each of the parties not later than 30 days after the receipt of a request for a review, except that a party may seek a specific extension of time of the 30-day timeline, which the SRO may grant in accordance with State and federal regulations (34 CFR 300.515[b], [c]; 8 NYCRR 200.5[k]).
III. Facts and Procedural History
I was appointed to conduct this review on October 29, 2014. The parties' familiarity with the facts and procedural history of the case and the IHO's decision is presumed and will not be recited here. The Committee on Special Education (CSE) convened on May 21, 2012, to develop the student's individualized education plan (IEP) for the 2012-13 school year (see generally Dist. Ex. 10 at pp. 1-12). The parents disagreed with the recommendations contained in the May 2012 IEP, as well as with the particular public school site to which the district assigned the student to attend for the 2012-13 school year and, as a result, notified the district of their intent to unilaterally place the student at the Aaron School (see Parent Exs. A-B). In a due process complaint notice, dated October 25, 2012, the parents alleged that the district failed to offer the student a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for the 2012-13 school year (see Dist. Ex. 1 at pp. 1-2).
On February 6, 2013, the parties proceeded to an impartial hearing, which concluded on April 24, 2013 after three days of proceedings (see Tr. pp. 1-273). In a decision dated June 4, 2013, the IHO determined that the district failed to offer the student a FAPE for the 2012-13 school year, that the Aaron School was an appropriate unilateral placement, and that equitable considerations weighed in favor of the parents' request for an award of tuition reimbursement (see IHO Decision at pp. 18-24). As relief, the IHO ordered the district to reimburse the parents for the costs of the student's tuition at the Aaron School for the 2012-13 school year (id. at p. 24).
IV. Appeal for State-Level Review
The parties' familiarity with the particular issues for review on appeal in the district's petition for review and the parents' answer thereto is also presumed and will not be recited here. The gravamen of the parties' dispute on appeal is whether the 12:1+1 special class placement for the student's instruction in core academic subjects was appropriate to meet the student's needs and whether the assigned public school site could implement the student's May 2012 IEP. Further, the district also asserts that if it failed to offer the student a FAPE for the 2012-13 school year, then the IHO erred in finding that the Aaron School was an appropriate unilateral placement and that equitable considerations weighed in favor of the parents' requested relief.
V. Applicable Standards
Two purposes of the IDEA (20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1482) are (1) to ensure that students with disabilities have available to them a FAPE that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living; and (2) to ensure that the rights of students with disabilities and parents of such students are protected (20 U.S.C. § 1400[d][A]-[B]; see generally Forest Grove Sch. Dist. v. T.A., 557 U.S. 230, 239 ; Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206-07 ).
A FAPE is offered to a student when (a) the board of education complies with the procedural requirements set forth in the IDEA, and (b) the IEP developed by its CSE through the IDEA's procedures is reasonably calculated to enable the student to receive educational benefits (Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206-07; R.E. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 694 F.3d 167, 189-90 [2d Cir. 2012]; M.H. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 685 F.3d 217, 245 [2d Cir. 2012]; Cerra v. Pawling Cent. Sch. Dist., 427 F.3d 186, 192 [2d Cir. 2005]). "'[A]dequate compliance with the procedures prescribed would in most cases assure much if not all of what Congress wished in the way of substantive content in an IEP'" (Walczak v. Florida Union Free Sch. Dist., 142 F.3d 119, 129 [2d Cir. 1998], quoting Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206; see T.P. v. Mamaroneck Union Free Sch. Dist., 554 F.3d 247, 253 [2d Cir. 2009]). While the Second Circuit has emphasized that school districts must comply with the checklist of procedures for developing a student's IEP and indicated that "[m]ultiple procedural violations may cumulatively result in the denial of a FAPE even if the violations considered individually do not" (R.E., 694 F.3d at 190-91), the Court has also explained that not all procedural errors render an IEP legally inadequate under the IDEA (M.H., 685 F.3d at 245; A.C. v. Bd. of Educ., 553 F.3d 165, 172 [2d Cir. 2009]; Grim v. Rhinebeck Cent. Sch. Dist., 346 F.3d 377, 381 [2d Cir. 2003]; Perricelli v. Carmel Cent. Sch. Dist., 2007 WL 465211, at *10 [S.D.N.Y. Feb. 9, 2007]). Under the IDEA, if procedural violations are alleged, an administrative officer may find that a student did not receive a FAPE only if the procedural inadequacies (a) impeded the student's right to a FAPE, (b) significantly impeded the parents' opportunity to participate in the decision-making process regarding the provision of a FAPE to the student, or (c) caused a deprivation of educational benefits (20 U.S.C. § 1415[f][E][ii]; 34 CFR 300.513[a]; 8 NYCRR 200.5[j][ii]; Winkelman v. Parma City Sch. Dist., 550 U.S. 516, 525-26 ; R.E., 694 F.3d at 190; M.H., 685 F.3d at 245; A.H. v. Dep't of Educ., 394 Fed. App'x 718, 720, 2010 WL 3242234 [2d Cir. Aug. 16, 2010]; E.H. v. Bd. of Educ., 2008 WL 3930028, at *7 [N.D.N.Y. Aug. 21, 2008], aff'd, 361 Fed. App'x 156, 2009 WL 3326627 [2d Cir. Oct. 16, 2009]; Matrejek v. Brewster Cent. Sch. Dist., 471 F. Supp. 2d 415, 419 [S.D.N.Y. 2007], aff'd, 293 Fed. App'x 20, 2008 WL 3852180 [2d Cir. Aug. 19, 2008]).
The IDEA directs that, in general, an IHO's decision must be made on substantive grounds based on a determination of whether the student received a FAPE (20 U.S.C. § 1415[f][E][i]). A school district offers a FAPE "by providing personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction" (Rowley, 458 U.S. at 203). However, the "IDEA does not itself articulate any specific level of educational benefits that must be provided through an IEP" (Walczak, 142 F.3d at 130; see Rowley, 458 U.S. at 189). The statute ensures an "appropriate" education, "not one that provides everything that might be thought desirable by loving parents" (Walczak, 142 F.3d at 132, quoting Tucker v. Bay Shore Union Free Sch. Dist., 873 F.2d 563, 567 [2d Cir. 1989] [citations omitted]; see Grim, 346 F.3d at 379). Additionally, school districts are not required to "maximize" the potential of students with disabilities (Rowley, 458 U.S. at 189, 199; Grim, 346 F.3d at 379; Walczak, 142 F.3d at 132). Nonetheless, a school district must provide "an IEP that is 'likely to produce progress, not regression,' and . . . affords the student with an opportunity greater than mere 'trivial advancement'" (Cerra, 427 F.3d at 195, quoting Walczak, 142 F.3d at 130 [citations omitted]; see T.P., 554 F.3d at 254; P. v. Newington Bd. of Educ., 546 F.3d 111, 118-19 [2d Cir. 2008]; Perricelli, 2007 WL 465211, at *15). The IEP must be "reasonably calculated to provide some 'meaningful' benefit" (Mrs. B. v. Milford Bd. of Educ., 103 F.3d 1114, 1120 [2d Cir. 1997]; see Rowley, 458 U.S. at 192). The student's recommended program must also be provided in the least restrictive environment (LRE) (20 U.S.C. § 1412[a][A]; 34 CFR 300.114[a][i], 300.116[a]; 8 NYCRR 200.1[cc], 200.6[a]; see Newington, 546 F.3d at 114; Gagliardo v. Arlington Cent. Sch. Dist., 489 F.3d 105, 108 [2d Cir. 2007]; Walczak, 142 F.3d at 132; G.B. v. Tuxedo Union Free Sch. Dist., 751 F. Supp. 2d 552, 573-80 [S.D.N.Y. 2010], aff'd, 486 Fed. App'x 954, 2012 WL 4946429 [2d Cir. Oct. 18, 2012]; E.G. v. City Sch. Dist. of New Rochelle, 606 F. Supp. 2d 384, 388 [S.D.N.Y. 2009]; Patskin v. Bd. of Educ., 583 F. Supp. 2d 422, 428 [W.D.N.Y. 2008]).
An appropriate educational program begins with an IEP that includes a statement of the student's present levels of academic achievement and functional performance (see 34 CFR 300.320[a]; 8 NYCRR 200.4[d][i]; Tarlowe v. New York City Bd. of Educ., 2008 WL 2736027, at *6 [S.D.N.Y. July 3, 2008] [noting that a CSE must consider, among other things, the "results of the initial evaluation or most recent evaluation" of the student, as well as the "'academic, developmental, and functional needs'" of the student]), establishes annual goals designed to meet the student's needs resulting from the student's disability and enable him or her to make progress in the general education curriculum (see 34 CFR 300.320[a][i], [i][A]; 8 NYCRR 200.4[d][iii]), and provides for the use of appropriate special education services (see 34 CFR 300.320[a]; 8 NYCRR 200.4[d][v]; see also Application of the Dep't of Educ., Appeal No. 07-018; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 06-059; Application of the Dep't of Educ., Appeal No. 06-029; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 04-046; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 02-014; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 01-095; Application of a Child Suspected of Having a Disability, Appeal No. 93-9).
A board of education may be required to reimburse parents for their expenditures for private educational services obtained for a student by his or her parents, if the services offered by the board of education were inadequate or inappropriate, the services selected by the parents were appropriate, and equitable considerations support the parents' claim (Florence County Sch. Dist. Four v. Carter, 510 U.S. 7 ; Sch. Comm. of Burlington v. Dep't of Educ., 471 U.S. 359, 369-70 ; R.E., 694 F.3d at 184-85; T.P., 554 F.3d at 252). In Burlington, the Court found that Congress intended retroactive reimbursement to parents by school officials as an available remedy in a proper case under the IDEA (471 U.S. at 370-71; see Gagliardo, 489 F.3d at 111; Cerra, 427 F.3d at 192). "Reimbursement merely requires [a district] to belatedly pay expenses that it should have paid all along and would have borne in the first instance" had it offered the student a FAPE (Burlington, 471 U.S. at 370-71; see 20 U.S.C. § 1412[a][C][ii]; 34 CFR 300.148).
The final criterion for a reimbursement award is that the parents' claim must be supported by equitable considerations. Equitable considerations are relevant to fashioning relief under the IDEA (Burlington, 471 U.S. at 374; R.E., 694 F.3d at 185, 194; M.C. v. Voluntown Bd. of Educ., 226 F.3d 60, 68 [2d Cir. 2000]; see Carter, 510 U.S. at 16 ["Courts fashioning discretionary equitable relief under IDEA must consider all relevant factors, including the appropriate and reasonable level of reimbursement that should be required. Total reimbursement will not be appropriate if the court determines that the cost of the private education was unreasonable"]). The IDEA also provides that reimbursement may be reduced or denied when parents fail to challenge the appropriateness of an IEP in a timely manner, fail to make their child available for evaluation by the district, or upon a finding of unreasonableness with respect to the actions taken by the parents (20 U.S.C. § 1412[a][C][iii]; 34 CFR 300.148[d]; see S.W. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 646 F. Supp. 2d 346, 362-64 [S.D.N.Y. 2009]; Thies v. New York City Bd. of Educ., 2008 WL 344728 [S.D.N.Y. Feb. 4, 2008]; M.V. v. Shenendehowa Cent. Sch. Dist., 2008 WL 53181, at *5 [N.D.N.Y. Jan. 2, 2008]; Bettinger v. New York City Bd. of Educ., 2007 WL 4208560, at *4 [S.D.N.Y. Nov. 20, 2007]; Carmel Cent. Sch. Dist. v. V.P., 373 F. Supp. 2d 402, 417-18 [S.D.N.Y. 2005], aff'd, 192 Fed. App'x 62, 2006 WL 2335140 [2d Cir. Aug. 9, 2006]; Werner v. Clarkstown Cent. Sch. Dist., 363 F. Supp. 2d 656, 660-61 [S.D.N.Y. 2005]; see also Voluntown, 226 F.3d at 69 n.9; Wolfe v. Taconic Hills Cent. Sch. Dist., 167 F. Supp. 2d 530, 533 [N.D.N.Y. 2001]).
The burden of proof is on the school district during an impartial hearing, except that a parent seeking tuition reimbursement for a unilateral placement has the burden of proof regarding the appropriateness of such placement (Educ. Law § 4404[c]; see R.E., 694 F.3d at 184-85; M.P.G. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 2010 WL 3398256, at *7 [S.D.N.Y. Aug. 27, 2010]).
Upon careful review, the evidence in the hearing record reflects that the IHO, in a well-reasoned and well-supported decision, correctly reached the conclusion that the district failed to offer the student a FAPE for the 2012-13 school year, that the Aaron School was an appropriate unilateral placement for the student, and that equitable considerations weighed in favor of the parents' request for relief (see IHO Decision at pp. 18-24). The IHO accurately recounted the facts of the case, addressed the issues identified in the parents' due process complaint notice, set forth the proper legal standard to determine whether the district offered the student a FAPE for the 2012-13 school year, and applied that standard to the facts at hand (id. at pp. 3-24). The decision shows that the IHO carefully considered the testimonial and documentary evidence presented by both parties, and further, that she weighed the evidence and properly supported her conclusions (id.). Furthermore, an independent review of the entire hearing record reveals that the impartial hearing was conducted in a manner consistent with the requirements of due process and that there is no reason appearing in the hearing record to modify the determinations of the IHO (see 20 U.S.C. § 1415[g]; 34 CFR 300.514[b]). Thus, while my reasoning may have differed from the IHO's in some respects, the conclusions of the IHO are hereby adopted.
In particular, a review of the hearing record shows that the IHO correctly determined that the May 2012 CSE's recommended 12:1+1 special class placement for instruction only in the student's core academic subjects at a community school—given the student's social/emotional needs—was not appropriate (see IHO Decision at pp. 18-21). The evidence in the hearing record indicates that the district's sole witness at the impartial hearing—who was a district school psychologist and who attended the May 2012 CSE meeting as the district representative—admitted in testimony that the May 2012 CSE members agreed that the student "emotionally" could not "handle . . . mainstream academic classes" and that the student's primary areas of concern focused on his social/emotional needs, while cognitively and academically the student was "intact" (Tr. pp. 28-31, 34-35, 47; see Tr. pp. 31-47; Dist. Ex. 10 at p. 12; see also IHO Decision at pp. 19-20). As a result, the district representative testified that the May 2012 CSE recommended a 12:1+1 special class placement only for the student's instruction in his core academic subjects—or for approximately 20 class periods per week—to "address his social and emotional concerns" (Tr. p. 47; see Tr. pp. 64-65; Dist. Ex. 10 at pp. 7-9). However, the district representative also testified that because the student's social/emotional issues were "constant" and "not just in academic subjects," the May 2012 IEP included daily counseling so the student could "deal with his social and emotional concerns" (Tr. pp. 63-65). Nevertheless, for all of the student's nonacademic classes, the May 2012 IEP indicated that the student would attend mainstream or general education settings without the support of a special education teacher or a paraprofessional (see Dist. Ex. 10 at pp. 7-9; see also Tr. pp. 61-65, 75-83).
Based upon the December 2012 neuropsychological evaluation report, the student tended to become "disorganized in his thinking in the face of emotional stress," which also made it difficult for the student to function and could result in the student "becoming lost or un-grounded in his thinking" (Dist. Ex. 5 at pp. 15-16). The December 2012 neuropsychological evaluation further noted that the student's "impulsivity, poor frustration tolerance, and attentional and affect dysregulation" acted as "significant roadblocks to [the student's] academic and social success" (id. at p. 4). Despite some improvement in his ability to "persist in the fact of difficulty, switch gears, and recover following setbacks," the evaluator indicated that the student continued to "face significant challenges in all aspects of his functioning" (id.). Similarly, an April 2012 psychological evaluation report noted while "likeable," the student engaged in a "verbal style that c[ould] be provocative and create negative interactions with others" and that the student exhibited difficulties in "pragmatic speech and social understanding" (Dist. Ex. 13 at p. 3). Therefore, consistent with the IHO's finding, the evidence in the hearing record supports the conclusion that the 12:1+1 special class placement for instruction only in the student's core academic subjects at a community school—particularly in light of the student's social/emotional needs as indicated in the hearing record—was not appropriate (see IHO Decision at pp. 18-21).
With respect to the parents' claims relating to the assigned public school site, which the IHO did not address in any detail and which the parties continue to argue on appeal, in this instance, similar to the reasons set forth in other decisions issued by the Office of State Review (e.g., Application of the Dep't of Educ., Appeal No. 14-025; Application of the Dep't of Educ., Appeal No. 12-090; Application of a Student with a Disability, Appeal No. 13-237), the parents' assertions are without merit. The parents' claims regarding the class size at the assigned public school site and the functional grouping of the students in the proposed classroom (see Dist. Ex. 1 at pp. 1-2), turn on how the May 2012 IEP would or would not have been implemented and, as it is undisputed that the student did not attend the district's assigned public school site (see Parent Exs. A-B; D-K), the parents cannot prevail on such speculative claims (R.E., 694 F.3d at 186-88; see F.L. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 553 Fed. App'x 2, 9, 2014 WL 53264 [2d Cir. Jan. 8, 2014]; K.L. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 530 Fed. App'x 81, 87, 2013 WL 3814669 [2d Cir. July 24, 2013]; P.K. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 526 Fed. App'x 135, 141, 2013 WL 2158587 [2d Cir. May 21, 2013]; see also C.F. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 746 F.3d 68, 79 [2d Cir. Mar. 4, 2014]; C.L.K. v. Arlington Sch. Dist., 2013 WL 6818376, at *13 [S.D.N.Y. Dec. 23, 2013]; R.C. v. Byram Hills Sch. Dist., 906 F. Supp. 2d 256, 273 [S.D.N.Y. 2012]).
The hearing record supports the IHO's determinations that the district failed to offer the student a FAPE for the 2012-13 school year; therefore, the necessary inquiry is at an end and there is no reason to reach the issue of whether the Aaron School was an appropriate unilateral placement for the student or if equitable considerations weighed in favor of the parents' request for relief. I have considered the parties' remaining contentions and find that they are without merit.
THE APPEAL IS DISMISSED.
 The administrative procedures applicable to the review of disputes between parents and school districts regarding any matter relating to the identification, evaluation or educational placement of a student with a disability, or a student suspected of having a disability, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such student are well established and described in broader detail in previous decisions issued by the Office of State Review (e.g., Application of the Dep't of Educ., 12-228; Application of the Dep't of Educ., Appeal No. 12-087; Application of a Student with a Disability, Appeal No. 12-165; Application of the Dep't of Educ., Appeal No. 09-092).
 Any additional facts necessary to the disposition of the parties' arguments will be set forth below as necessary to resolution of the issues presented in this appeal.
 Notwithstanding that the May 2012 CSE recommended that the student attend nonacademic courses in a general education setting, the district representative testified that the May 2012 CSE did not include the attendance of a regular education teacher (see Tr. pp. 53-54).