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Q.W. v. Board of Education of Fayette County

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

January 14, 2015

Q.W., by his Next Friends and Parents, M.W. and K.T.W., Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF FAYETTE COUNTY, KENTUCKY, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

DANNY C. REEVES, District Judge.

This matter is pending for consideration of Defendant Board of Education of Fayette County, Kentucky's ("Board") motion for judgment. [Record No. 17] Plaintiffs M.W. and K.T.W. bring this action on behalf of their minor child, Q.W., pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. They seek reversal of the Exceptional Children Appeals Board's ("ECAB") decision that Q.W. is no longer eligible for specialized educational programming. [Record No. 1] The Board contends that the ECAB's Decision and Order should be upheld. For the reasons discussed below, the Board's motion for judgment will be granted.

I.

Q.W. has been diagnosed with autism. He was enrolled as a student in the Burbank United School District in California until 2009. [Record No. 20-2, p. 1] Because Q.W. was identified as having a disability under the IDEA, he qualified to receive special education services from the public school district. An individualized education program team, [1] made up of the child's teachers and parents, met periodically to draft an individualized education plan ("IEP") with Q.W. in mind. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A) and (B). In California, Q.W.'s 2009 IEP included speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, adaptive physical education, and behavioral therapy. [Record No. 20-2, p. 1]

In August, 2009, Q.W.'s family relocated to Lexington, Kentucky. [Record No. 20-2, p. 2] Q.W.'s California IEP was adopted by the Kentucky ARC during the child's first semester in the Fayette County School District. Under the plan, Q.W. received the following services weekly: two hours of speech therapy, one and a half hours of occupational therapy, and five hours of behavioral therapy. In addition, Q.W.'s parents supplemented the IEP with four hours of various private therapies per week. [ECAB Decision and Order at 1-2] However, due to reports of steady progress and academic achievement, by November 2011, the ARC determined that Q.W. was no longer eligible to receive special education services under the IDEA.[2] [Record No. 17-1, p. 4] The child's parents raised their objections with an administrative Hearing Officer. [Record No. 20-2, p. 4] A hearing on Q.W.'s eligibility was convened over a series of six dates during the spring of 2013 before Hearing Officer Mike Wilson. [ Id. ] During the hearings, Hearing Officer Wilson assessed the credibility of numerous witnesses who were cross-examined by counsel for both parties. On August 12, 2013, Hearing Officer Wilson issued an Opinion affirming the Board's determination of ineligibility. [Hr'g Officer's Decision and Order] Although it is undisputed that Q.W. has been diagnosed with autism, the Hearing Officer nonetheless found that the child was not eligible for special education services, explaining that the condition did not appear to adversely affect Q.W.'s educational performance. [ Id. at p. 52]

The plaintiffs appealed the Hearing Officer's decision to the Kentucky Department of Education's ECAB. On February 28, 2014, the ECAB affirmed, finding that, under the IDEA, "educational performance" does not include the student's performance outside the school setting. [ECAB Decision and Order at 17] Notwithstanding the plaintiffs' concerns about their son's socialization skills, the ECAB found Q.W. ineligible because of his successful academic performance. The parents now bring the administrative decision for review before this Court. See 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(b)(2), 1415(c).

II.

The IDEA requires local school districts receiving federal funding to assure "all children with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a). Further, the IDEA requires that each child be educated in the "least restrictive environment" possible. § 1412(a)(5)(A). A school board must "conduct a full and individual initial evaluation" before providing special education services to a child. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(a)(1)(A). The evaluation should be designed to determine whether the child has a "disability" as defined by the IDEA and the child's educational needs, 20 U.S.C. § 1414(a)(1)(C)(i), and a re-evaluation must be conducted "if the local educational agency determines that the educational or related services needs, including improved academic achievement and functional performance, of the child warrant a reevaluation." 20 U.S.C. § 1414(a)(2)(A).

Each evaluation and reevaluation must use "a variety of assessment tools and strategies" in gathering relevant "functional, developmental, and academic information, including information provided by the parent, " that may assist in determining whether the child has a disability. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(b)(2)(A). The IDEA emphasizes the importance of reviewing "evaluations and information provided by the parents of the child, " "current classroom-based, local, or State assessments, " "classroom-based observations, " and "observations by teachers and related services providers." 20 U.S.C. § 1414(c)(1).

In an action 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)(B). See Deal v. Hamilton County Bd. Of Educ., 392 F.3d 840, 849 (6th Cir. 2004). In reaching its decision, the Court must give due weight to state administrative proceedings, depending on whether the finding is based on educational expertise. Doe v. Bd. Of Education of Tullahoma City Schools, 9 F.3d 455, 458 (6th Cir. 1993). This process amounts to a "modified de novo review." N.L. v. Knox County Sch., 315 F.3d 688, 692 (6th Cir. 2003).

District courts afford less weight "to an agency's determinations on matters for which educational expertise is not relevant because a federal court is just as well suited to evaluate the situation." McLaughlin v. Holt Pub. Schs. Bd., 320 F.3d 663, 669 (6th Cir. 2003). However, "more weight [...] is due to an agency's determinations on matters for which educational expertise is relevant." Id. Under this standard, "a district court is required to make findings of fact based on a preponderance of the evidence contained in the complete record." Knable ex rel. Knable v. Bexley City Sch. Dist., 238 F.3d 755, 764 (6th Cir. 2001).

The party seeking relief has the burden of proof when challenging an administrative decision. Schaffer ex rel. Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 51 (2005). As the Supreme Court has cautioned,

[i]n assuring that the requirements of the [IDEA] have been met, courts must be careful to avoid imposing their view of preferable educational methods upon the States. The primary responsibility for formulating the education to be accorded a handicapped child, and for choosing the educational method most suitable to the child's needs, was left by the Act to ...

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