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, Brian J. Reimels, 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 ordered the district, in part, to issue a "Nickerson letter" to the parents. The appeal must be sustained.
II. Overview—Administrative Procedures
When a student in New York is eligible for special education services, the IDEA calls for the creation of an individualized education program (IEP), which is delegated to a local Committee on Special Education (CSE) that includes, but is not limited to, parents, teachers, a school psychologist, and a district representative (Educ. Law § 4402; see 20 U.S.C. § 1414[d][A]-[B]; 34 CFR 300.320, 300.321; 8 NYCRR 200.3, 200.4[d]). If disputes occur between parents and school districts, incorporated among the procedural protections is the opportunity to engage in mediation, present State complaints, and initiate an impartial due process hearing (20 U.S.C. §§ 1221e-3, 1415[e]-[f]; Educ. Law § 4404; 34 CFR 300.151-300.152, 300.506, 300.511; 8 NYCRR 200.5[h]-[l]).
New York State has implemented a two-tiered system of administrative review to address disputed matters 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" (8 NYCRR 200.5[i]; see 20 U.S.C. § 1415[b]-; 34 CFR 300.503[a]-, 300.507[a]). First, after an opportunity to engage in a resolution process, the parties appear at an impartial hearing conducted at the local level before an IHO (Educ. Law § 4404[a]; 8 NYCRR 200.5[j]). An IHO typically conducts a trial-type hearing regarding the matters in dispute in which the parties have the right to be accompanied and advised by counsel and certain other individuals with special knowledge or training; present evidence and confront, cross-examine, and compel the attendance of witnesses; prohibit the introduction of any evidence at the hearing that has not been disclosed five business days before the hearing; and obtain a verbatim record of the proceeding (20 U.S.C. § 1415[f][A], [h]-; 34 CFR 300.512[a]-; 8 NYCRR 200.5[j][v], [vii], [xii]). The IHO must render and transmit a final written decision in the matter to the parties not later than 45 days after the expiration period or adjusted period for the resolution process (34 CFR 300.510[b], [c], 300.515[a]; 8 NYCRR 200.5[j]). A party may seek a specific extension of time of the 45-day timeline, which the IHO may grant in accordance with State and federal regulations (34 CFR 300.515[c]; 8 NYCRR 200.5[j]). 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 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
On February 12, 2013, the CSE convened to develop the student's IEP for kindergarten during the 2013-14 school year (see Dist. Exs. 4 at pp. 1, 11; 6 at pp. 1-7, 14-17). Finding the student eligible for special education and related services as a student with autism, the February 2013 CSE recommended a 12-month school year program in an 8:1+1 special class placement in a specialized school, special transportation, and the following related services: one 30-minute session per week of counseling in a small group, two 30-minute sessions per week of individual occupational therapy (OT), and two 30-minute session per week of individual speech-language therapy (Dist. Ex. 4 at pp. 7-8, 10-12).
By final notice of recommendation (FNR) dated June 14, 2013, the district summarized the special education programs and related services recommended by the February 2013 CSE, and identified the particular public school site to which the district assigned the student to attend for the 2013-14 school year (see Dist. Ex. 3).
A. Due Process Complaint Notice
By due process complaint notice dated July 23, 2013, the parent indicated that the "kindergarten offered" was "too far" from the student's home (Dist. Ex. 9 at p. 1). The parent explained that due to the student's medical, behavioral, and physical issues, she needed, at times, to pick the student up from school, and therefore, the parent requested that the student be placed in a school in the "neighborhood" (id. at pp. 2-3).
B. Impartial Hearing Officer Decision
On August 19, 2013, the parties proceeded to an impartial hearing, which concluded on August 29, 2013 after two days of proceedings (see Tr. pp. 1-27). In a decision dated October 4, 2013, the IHO concluded that based upon the parent's stated concerns for the "health and safety" of the student, a "lengthy bus ride [was] inadvisable" (IHO Decision at pp. 2-3). Consequently, the IHO ordered the CSE to reconvene within 14 days to "reconsider medical documentation submitted by the parent" regarding the student's transportation needs in order to determine an "appropriate placement" for the student (id. at pp. 3-4). The IHO further ordered the district to issue a "Nickerson letter" to the parent.
IV. Appeal for State-Level Review
The district appeals, and asserts that the IHO erred in ordering the district to issue a Nickerson letter to the parent. The district argues that the IHO erred, as a matter of law, because the parent did not request a Nickerson letter as relief in the due process complaint notice. The district also argues that the IHO exceeded her jurisdiction by ordering the district to issue a Nickerson letter, and alternatively, a Nickerson letter would not be warranted under the circumstances of this case. Finally, the district asserts that the IHO erred in ordering the district to issue a Nickerson letter to the parent because it was contradictory and unnecessary. As relief, the district seeks to annul that portion of the IHO's decision directing the district to issue a Nickerson letter to the parent.
The parent did not respond to the district's petition.
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 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 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]).
A. Nickerson Letter
In this case, the district correctly argues that the IHO exceeded her jurisdiction in directing the district to issue a Nickerson letter to the parent because neither an IHO, nor an SRO, have jurisdiction over matters related to the stipulation reached in the Jose P. class action suit. The remedy provided by the Jose P. decision was intended to address those situations in which a student had not been evaluated within 30 days or placed within 60 days of referral to the CSE (Jose P., 553 IDELR 298; see R.E., 694 F.3d at 192, n.5; M.S., 734 F. Supp. 2d at 279; see also Application of the Bd. of Educ., Appeal No. 03-110; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 02-075; Application of a Child with a Disability, Appeal No. 00-092). Jurisdiction over class action suits and consent orders (and by extension, stipulations containing injunctive relief) issued by the lower federal courts rests with the district courts and circuit courts of appeals (see 28 U.S.C. § 1292[a]; Fed. R. Civ. P. 65; see, e.g., Luigino's, Inc., 423 F.3d at 141-42; Wilder v. Bernstein, 49 F.3d 69, 75 [2d Cir. 1995]; Pediatric Specialty Care, Inc. v. Arkansas Dep't of Human Serv., 364 F.3d 925, 933 [8th Cir. 2004]; M.S., 734 F. Supp. 2d at 279; E.Z.-L., 763 F. Supp. 2d at 594; Application of a Student with a Disability, Appeal No. 12-039 [indicating that "[n]o provision of the IDEA or the Education Law confers jurisdiction upon a state educational agency or a local educational agency to sit in review of or resolve disputes over injunctions or consent orders issued by a judicial tribunal"]), and "it has been held that violations of the Jose P. consent decree must be raised in the court that entered the order" (see P.K. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 819 F. Supp. 2d 90, 101 n.3 [E.D.N.Y. 2011]).
Consequently, neither the IHO nor SRO have the jurisdiction to resolve a dispute regarding whether the student is a member of the class in Jose P., the extent to which the district may be bound or may have violated the consent order issued by a district court, or the appropriate remedy for the alleged violation of the order (R.K. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 2011 WL 1131492, *17 n.29 [E.D.N.Y. Jan. 21, 2011], adopted at 2011 WL 1131522, at *4 [Mar. 28, 2011], aff'd sub nom. R.E., 694 F.3d at 167; W.T. v. Bd. of Educ., 716 F. Supp. 2d 270, 289-90 n.15 [S.D.N.Y. 2010]; see F.L. v. New York City Dep't of Educ., 2012 WL 4891748, at *11-*12 [S.D.N.Y. Oct. 16, 2012]; M.S., 734 F. Supp. 2d at 279 [addressing the applicability and parents' rights to enforce the Jose P. consent order]).
B. Reconvene of CSE
On a final note, it appears that a CSE reconvened on October 17, 2013—in partial compliance with the unappealed portion of the IHO's decision—at which time the district provided the parent with a "medical documentation form" to be completed by a physician in order to process the parent's "request for limited travel time" (see Pet. at p. 2 n.2). After reconvening the CSE to consider the parent's completed medical documentation form, as well as additional concerns, if any, expressed by the parent at that time, the district is reminded of its obligation to provide prior written notice—in the parent's native language--consistent with State and federal regulations of determinations made, the reasons for the determinations, and the parent's right to request additional assessments (8 NYCRR 200.5[a], [a]; see 34 CFR 300.305[c], [d]; see also 34 CFR 300.503; http://www.p12.nysed.gov/specialed/formsnotices/PWN/home.html). More specifically, the district must provide the parent with a description of the actions proposed or refused by the district, an explanation of why the district proposed or refused to take the actions, a description of other options that the CSE considered and the reasons why those options were rejected, a description of other factors that were relevant to the CSE's proposal or refusal, a statement that the parent has protection under the procedural safeguards and the means by which the parent can obtain a copy of the procedural safeguards, and sources for the parent to contact to obtain assistance in understanding these (8 NYCRR 200.5[a]; see 34 CFR 300.503[b]; 8 NYCRR 200.1[oo]).
Based on the foregoing, the IHO exceeded her jurisdiction in directing the district to issue a Nickerson letter to the parent, and the district's appeal must be sustained.
THE APPEAL IS SUSTAINED.
IT IS ORDERED that the IHO's decision dated October 4, 2013 is modified by reversing that portion which ordered the district to issue a Nickerson letter to the parent; and,
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that upon receipt of the parent's completed medical documentation form, the district shall reconvene a CSE to consider the medical documentation form, as well as additional concerns, if any, expressed by the parent; and,
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that after reconvening a CSE consistent with this decision, the district shall provide the parent with prior written notice in the parent's native language as described in the body of this decision.
 At the time of the February 2013 CSE meeting, the student was eligible for special education programs and related services as a preschool student with a disability, and he was attending a 12:1+1 special class with the services of a full-time, 1:1 behavior management paraprofessional in a preschool setting at the Shield Institute pursuant to a December 2012 IEP (see Tr. pp. 7-8, 21-25; Dist. Exs. 2; 6 at pp. 1-17).
 The student's eligibility for special education programs and related services as a student with autism is not in dispute (see 34 CFR § 300.8[c]; 8 NYCRR 200.1[zz]).
 In an interim decision dated September 4, 2013, the IHO determined that the student's pendency (stay-put) placement was based upon the last agreed upon IEP, dated December 4, 2012, and ordered the student to remain at the Shield Institute and receive related services pursuant to the December 2012 IEP during these proceedings (see Amended Interim IHO Decision at p. 2).
 Although not described in the hearing record or in the IHO's decision, a "Nickerson letter" is a remedy for a systemic denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) that was imposed by the U.S. District Court based upon a class action lawsuit, and this remedy is available to parents and students who are class members in accordance with the terms of a consent order (see R.E. v. New York City Dep't. of Educ., 694 F.3d 167, 192, n.5 [2d Cir. 2012]). The Nickerson letter remedy authorizes a parent to immediately place the student in an appropriate special education program in a State-approved nonpublic school at no cost to the parent (see Jose P. v. Ambach, 553 IDELR 298, No. 79 Civ. 270 [E.D.N.Y. Jan. 5, 1982]).
 The district affirmatively asserts that it does not appeal the IHO's order directing the CSE to reconvene to consider additional medical documentation in determining an appropriate placement for the student. Accordingly, this determination has become final and binding on the parties, and will not be addressed (34 CFR 300.514[b]; 8 NYCRR 200.5[j][v]).