Application of a STUDENT WITH A DISABILITY, by his parents, for review of a determination of a hearing officer relating to the provision of educational services by the Orchard Park Central School District
Hodgson Russ LLP, attorneys for respondent, Melanie J. Beardsley, 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. The petitioner (the parents) appeals the decision of an impartial hearing officer (IHO) which found the majority of their claims for the 2012-13 school year moot and denied their requested relief of compensatory education services. The appeal must be dismissed.
II. Overview—Administrative Procedures
The decision of the IHO is binding upon both parties unless appealed (Educ. Law § 4404). A party aggrieved by the decision of an IHO may 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]).
III. Facts and Procedural History
The parties' familiarity with the facts and procedural history of the case is presumed and will not be recited here. Briefly, the CSE met three times between March 2012 and August 2012 to develop an IEP for the student for the 2012-13 school year. The student's August 9, 2012 IEP recommended a self-contained program in a 1:12:1 class for academic subjects, occupational therapy (OT) once a week for 42 minutes, counseling services once a week for 42 minutes and speech language therapy individually once a week for 42 minutes and in a group once a week for 42 minutes (Dist. Ex. 11). He was also recommended to receive resource room five days a week for 42 minutes (id. at p. 14). The district’s class periods are 42 minutes long, so each 42 minute recommendation represented a class period. The student was also recommended to have “modified homework not to exceed 30 minutes outside of school” (id. at p. 11).
The student's IEP further recommends assistive technology services, including a laptop computer, with assistive technology software, a scanner/printer to assist him with schoolwork, speech output software, speech recognition software, word predictor software and math tools software (Exhibit 11 at p. 16).
The student was considered to be working toward a Regents Diploma (Exhibit 11 at p. 19). The student's IEP also built in mandates for communication between the district and his parents, including weekly communication, team meetings and consultations with OT consultants, staff disability consultants, speech therapists, and behavioral therapists (id. at p. 17). He also was recommended to receive 12-month services. (id.).
The parents filed a due process complaint notice on November 12, 2012 alleging that the district denied the student a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for the 2012-13 school year and seeking "to correct the deficiencies on the IEP as noted in the hearing request and correspondence to the District's Director of Special Education and implement the recommendations already made by the CSE" (Dist. Ex. 1 at pp. 4-7) The impartial hearing commenced on March 8, 2013 and concluded on May 24, 2013 after five days of hearing. In a decision dated August 28, 2013, the IHO determined that the parents' claims for the 2012-13 school year were moot, with the exception of any compensatory education claims (IHO Decision at pp. 27-30, ). However, the IHO also denied the parents' compensatory education claims on the ground that the district had not committed any "gross violations" of the IDEA (id. at pp. 31-33, 33-34, 40-42).
IV. Appeal for State-Level Review
The parties' familiarity with the particular issues for review on appeal in the parents' petition for review and the district's answer is also presumed and will not be recited here. The gravamen of the parties' dispute on appeal is whether the IHO erred in finding the majority of the parents' claims for the 2012-13 school year moot and denying the parents' compensatory education claims.
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 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., 2010 WL 3242234, at *2 [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, 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, 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, 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. Scope of Impartial Hearing and Review
A review of the hearing record reveals that the parents seek in their petition an award of compensatory education which they did not include in the due process complaint notice, as follows: 7.2 hours of group speech language instruction; 126 hours of specialized reading instruction; 18 hours of resource room instruction; and 126 hours of period nine instruction. Indeed, the aforesaid compensatory education claims were first asserted by the parents in their closing brief (see IHO Ex. 1 at pp. 41-42). Accordingly, the IHO exceeded his authority by considering and ruling on the compensatory education claims asserted by the parents.
The party requesting an impartial hearing has the first opportunity to identify the range of issues to be addressed at the hearing (Application of a Student With a Disability, Appeal No. 13-151; Application of a Student with a Disability, Appeal No. 09-141; Application of the Dep't of Educ., Appeal No. 08- 056). However, a party requesting an impartial hearing may not raise issues at the impartial hearing that were not raised in the due process complaint notice unless the other party agrees (20 U.S.C. § 1415[f][B]; 34 CFR 300.508[d][i], 300.511[d]; 8 NYCRR 200.5[j][ii]), or the original due process complaint is amended prior to the impartial hearing per permission given by the IHO at least five days prior to the impartial hearing (20 U.S.C. § 1415[c][E][i][II]; 34 CFR 300.508[d][ii]; 8 NYCRR 200.5[i][b]; N.K. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 961 F. Supp. 2d 577, 584-86 [S.D.N.Y. 2013]; J.C.S. v Blind Brook-Rye Union Free Sch. Dist., 2013 WL 3975942, at *8-*9 [S.D.N.Y. Aug. 5, 2013]; B.M. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 2013 WL 1972144, at *6 [S.D.N.Y. May 14, 2013]; C.H. v. Goshen Cent. Sch. Dist., 2013 WL 1285387, at *9 [S.D.N.Y. Mar. 28, 2013]; S.M. v. Taconic Hills Cent. Sch. Dist., 2013 WL 773098, at *4 [N.D.N.Y. Feb. 28, 2013]; DiRocco v. Bd. of Educ., 2013 WL 25959, at *23 [S.D.N.Y. Jan. 2, 2013]; B.P. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 841 F. Supp. 2d 605, 611 [E.D.N.Y. 2012]; M.R. v. S. Orangetown Cent. Sch. Dist., 2011 WL 6307563, at *12-*13 [S.D.N.Y. Dec. 16, 2011]; C.F. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 746 F.3d 68, 77-78 [2d Cir. 2014]; C.D. v. Bedford Cent. Sch. Dist., 2011 WL 4914722, at *13 [S.D.N.Y. Sept. 22, 2011]; R.B. v. Dep't of Educ., 2011 WL 4375694, at *6-*7 [S.D.N.Y. Sept. 16, 2011]; see K.L. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 530 Fed. App'x 81, 87, 2013 WL 3814669 [2d Cir. July 24, 2013]). Moreover, it is essential that the IHO disclose his or her intention to reach an issue which a party has not raised in the due process complaint notice as a matter of basic fairness and due process of law (Application of a Child with a Handicapping Condition, Appeal No. 91-40; see John M. v. Bd. of Educ., 502 F.3d 708 [7th Cir. 2007]). Although an IHO has the authority to ask questions of counsel or witnesses for the purposes of clarification or completeness of the hearing record (8 NYCRR 200.5[j][vii]), or even inquire as to whether the parties agree that an issue should be addressed, it is impermissible for the IHO to simply expand the scope of the issues raised without the express consent of the parties and then base his or her determination on those issues (see Dep't of Educ. v. C.B., 2012 WL 220517, at *7-*8 [D. Haw. Jan. 24, 2012] [finding that the administrative hearing officer improperly considered an issue beyond the scope of the parents' due process complaint notice]).
Moreover, where, as here, the parent did not seek the district's agreement to expand the scope of the impartial hearing to include these issues, or seek to include these issues in an amended due process complaint notice, these issues are not properly subject to review. To hold otherwise would inhibit the development of the hearing record for the IHO's consideration, and render the IDEA's statutory and regulatory provisions meaningless (see 20 U.S.C. § 1415[f][B]; 34 CFR 300.511[d], 300.508[d][i]; 8 NYCRR 200.5[j][ii]; see also B.P., 841 F. Supp. 2d at 611 [explaining that "[t]he scope of the inquiry of the IHO, and therefore the SRO . . . , is limited to matters either raised in the . . . impartial hearing request or agreed to by [the opposing party]"); M.R., 2011 WL 6307563, at *13). "By requiring parties to raise all issues at the lowest administrative level, IDEA affords full exploration of technical educational issues, furthers development of a complete factual record and promotes judicial efficiency by giving these agencies the first opportunity to correct shortcomings in their educational programs for disabled children" (R.B., 2011 WL 4375694, at *6 [internal quotations omitted]; see C.D., 2011 WL 4914722, at *13 [holding that a transportation issue was not properly preserved for review by the review officer because it was not raised in the party's due process complaint notice]). Moreover, the district did not open the door to these claims by soliciting testimony from a witness "in support of an affirmative, substantive argument" as to the issue of compensatory education (B.M., 569 Fed. App'x at 59; see M.H., 685 F.3d at 250-51; N.K., 961 F. Supp. 2d at 585; A.M. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 964 F. Supp. 2d 270, 282-84 [S.D.N.Y. 2013]; J.C.S. v. Blind Brook-Rye Union Free Sch. Dist., 2013 WL 3975942, at *9 [S.D.N.Y. Aug. 5, 2013]).
Accordingly, the IHO exceeded his jurisdiction by addressing the parents' compensatory education claims in the decision and his findings related thereto must be annulled. In addition, the parent's allegations identified above were not initially raised in their due process complaint, and therefore, these allegations will not be considered on appeal (see N.K., 961 F. Supp. 2d at 584-86; B.M., 2013 WL 1972144, at *6; C.H., 2013 WL 1285387, at *9; B.P., 841 F. Supp. 2d at 611; M.P.G., 2010 WL 3398256, at *8; Snyder v. Montgomery Co. Pub. Schs., 2009 WL 3246579, at *7 [D. Maryland Sept. 29, 2009]).
In the instant case, the IHO found that to the extent the parent was requesting both modifications to the student's IEP and the implementation of certain aspects of the IEP for the 2012-13 school year, the case was moot. The dispute between the parties in an appeal must at all stages be "real and live," and not "academic," or it risks becoming moot (see Lillbask v. State of Conn. Dep't of Educ., 397 F.3d 77, 84 [2d Cir. 2005]; Patskin v. Bd. of Educ., 583 F. Supp. 2d 422, 428 [W.D.N.Y. 2008]; J.N. v. Depew Union Free Sch. Dist., 2008 WL 4501940, at *3-*4 [W.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2008]; see also Chenier v. Richard W., 82 N.Y.2d 830, 832 ; Hearst Corp. v. Clyne, 50 N.Y.2d 707, 714 ; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 07-139). In general, cases dealing with issues such as desired changes in IEPs, specific placements, and implementation disputes may become moot at the end of the school year because no meaningful relief can be granted (see, e.g., Application of the Bd. of Educ., Appeal No. 06-044; Application of the Bd. of Educ., Appeal No. 05-058; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 04-027; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 00-037; Application of the Bd. of Educ., Appeal No. 00-016; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 96-37). Administrative decisions rendered in cases that concern such issues that arise out of school years since expired may no longer appropriately address the current needs of the student (see Daniel R.R. v. El Paso Indep. Sch. Dist., 874 F.2d 1036, 1040 [5th Cir. 1989]; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 07-139; Application of the Bd. of Educ., Appeal No. 07-028; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 06-070; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 04-007). However, a claim may not be moot despite the end of a school year for which the student's IEP was written, if the conduct complained of is "capable of repetition, yet evading review" (see Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 318-23 ; Lillbask, 397 F.3d at 84-85; Daniel R.R., 874 F.2d at 1040; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 04-038).
The exception applies only in limited situations (City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 109 ), and is severely circumscribed (Knaust v. City of Kingston, 157 F.3d 86, 88 [2d Cir. 1998]). It must be apparent that "the challenged action was in its duration too short to be fully litigated prior to its cessation or expiration" (Murphy v. Hunt, 455 U.S. 478, 482 ; see Knaust, 157 F.3d at 88; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 07-139). Controversies are "capable of repetition" when there is a reasonable expectation that the same complaining party would be subjected to the same action again (Weinstein v. Bradford, 423 U.S. 147, 149 ; see Hearst Corp., 50 N.Y.2d at 714-15; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 07-139). To create a reasonable expectation of recurrence, repetition must be more than theoretically possible (Murphy, 455 U.S. at 482; Russman v. Bd. of Educ., 260 F.3d 114, 120 [2d Cir. 2001]; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 07-139). Mere speculation that the parties will be involved in a dispute over the same issue does not rise to the level of a reasonable expectation or demonstrated probability of recurrence (Russman, 260 F.3d at 120; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 07-139). Mootness may be raised at any stage of litigation (In re Kurtzman, 194 F.3d 54, 58 [2d Cir. 1999]; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 07-139).
In addition, while it is generally accepted that a request for compensatory additional services as relief can survive a mootness challenge, as noted above, the parents did not request compensatory additional services in their due process complaint notice but, instead, raised the issue of compensatory education for the first time in their closing brief (see Lillbask, 397 at 89-90). Raising claims that should reasonably have been known to exist at the time of the due process complaint notice in a post hearing memorandum is not sufficient to put the claim at issue in an impartial hearing (M.R., 2011 WL 6307563, at *12-*13 [rejecting compensatory education claims where the parents failed to include a request for compensatory education in their due process complaint, raised such claims for the first time in their closing brief and failed to amend their due process complaint to include the claims at any time during the seven month time span of the hearing]).
Accordingly, to the extent the parents requested both modifications to the student's IEP in effect for the 2012-13 school year, as well as the implementation of aspects of the IEP during that year, the IHO correctly determined that their claims are moot and their requests to that effect will not be further addressed (V.M. v. North Colonie Cent. Sch. Dist., 954 F. Supp. 2d 102, 119-21 [N.D.N.Y. 2013]; F.O. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 899 F. Supp. 2d 251, 255 [S.D.N.Y. 2012]).
I have considered the parents' remaining contentions and find that it is unnecessary to address them in light of my determinations herein.
THE APPEAL IS DISMISSED.
 The parents submitted additional documentary evidence for consideration on appeal. Generally, documentary evidence not presented at an impartial hearing is considered in an appeal from an IHO's decision only if such additional evidence could not have been offered at the time of the impartial hearing and the evidence is necessary in order to render a decision (see, e.g., Application of a Student with a Disability, Appeal No. 08-030; Application of a Student with a Disability, Appeal No. 08-003; see also 8 NYCRR 279.10[b]; L.K. v. Ne. Sch. Dist., 932 F. Supp. 2d 467, 488-89 [S.D.N.Y. 2013] [holding that additional evidence is necessary only if, without such evidence, the SRO is unable to render a decision]). In this case, while the parents could not offer the additional documentary evidence at the time of the impartial hearing, the evidence in question is not now necessary to render a decision in this matter; as such, the parents' request is denied.
 I note that the parents have included in their petition several general allegations of bias with respect to the IHO. An IHO may not be an employee of the district that is involved in the education or care of the child; may not have any personal or professional interest that conflicts with the IHO's objectivity; must be knowledgeable of the provisions of the IDEA and State and federal regulations, and the legal interpretations of the IDEA and its implementing regulations; and must be possess the knowledge and ability to conduct hearings and render and write decisions in accordance with appropriate, standard legal practice (20 U.S.C. § 1415[f][A]; 34 CFR 300.511[c]; 8 NYCRR 200.1[x]). Here, the hearing record is devoid of evidence that calls into question either the IHO's impartiality or his denial of the parents' recusal application which was made prior to the hearing, and the parents do not cite to any specific evidence in the hearing record. Moreover, as previously noted, to the extent any of the additional evidence submitted by the parents pertains to the issue of IHO bias, I have determined that the evidence in question is not necessary to determine that issue. Accordingly, the parents' conclusory allegations of IHO bias need not be considered on this appeal.