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G.B. v. Bridgewater-Raritan Regional Board of Education

February 27, 2009

G.B. AND D.B. O/B/O J.B., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
BRIDGEWATER-RARITAN REGIONAL BOARD OF EDUCATION, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hughes, U.S.M.J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Presently before the Court are Defendant Bridgewater-Raritan Regional Board of Education, et al., ("Defendant" or " the District") Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law on the Record Below [dkt. entry no. 18], returnable January 20, 2009, and Plaintiffs G.B. and D.B. o/b/o J.B. ("Plaintiffs") Cross Motion for a New Hearing Before the Office of Administrative Law or Supplementation of the Record before the District Court [dkt. entry no. 20], returnable January 20, 2009. Defendant and Plaintiffs both filed reply briefs on February 10, 2009. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 on December 30, 2008 [dkt. entry no. 21]. The Court considered the Motions without oral argument pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 78. For the reasons stated below, after fully considering all papers submitted by the parties, and for good cause shown, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law on the Record Below [dkt. entry no. 18] and DENIES Plaintiffs' Cross Motion for a New Hearing Before the Office of Administrative Law or Supplementation of the Record before the District Court [dkt. entry no. 20].

I. BACKGROUND

This Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") case was brought on J.B.'s behalf by Plaintiffs, J.B.'s parents. It concerns Bridgewater's proposed individualized education program ("IEP") for J.B. for the 2005-06 academic year in which J.B. would attend his first year of preschool. The proposed IEP at issue recommended that J.B. begin his preschool education in public school at the Applied Behavioral Analysis ("A.B.A.") Autism Program at the Adamsville School for the 2005-06 school year. It called for a four-and-a-half-day per week in-district preschool disabled program with individual speech therapy two times a week for twenty minutes and consultation speech therapy once per week. The proposed program utilizes approximately 29 hours of A.B.A. intervention per week. On Fridays, J.B. would attend school for a half-day to allow in-service staff training and parent training sessions to be held in the afternoon. Additionally, in-home parent training would be provided by the District on an as-needed basis.

The proposed IEP, called for J.B. to be placed in a preschool class in a District where there were three preschool A.B.A. classes during the 2005-06 school year that all had five paraprofessionals who worked with the special education teacher and had no more than six students. The District's practice regarding student-teacher ratio and teaching materials was to examine the needs of each individual student to determine the appropriate staffing ratio and learning materials that each child would require.

The proposed IEP, which was developed as a result of an initial classification meeting on November 15, 2005 during which all parties agreed that J.B. was eligible for special education and related services, was presented to Plaintiffs following the IEP meeting held on the same date. On January 17, 2006, Plaintiffs claimed they notified the District that they were rejecting J.B's proposed IEP for the 2005-06 school year and requested the District to fund the private school placement of J.B. at Somerset Hills from his third birthday forward. On February 21, 2006, Plaintiffs repeated their January 17, 2006 request to the District and again notified the Board that they were rejecting J.B.'s proposed IEP. On April 24, 2006, Plaintiffs filed a petition with the State Department of Education requesting a due process hearing. Shortly after April 24, 2006, the State Department of Education transmitted the matter to an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). The ALJ heard the matter over eight days and the record was closed on May 25, 2007. In the interim, Plaintiffs chose to continue J.B's placement at the private Somerset Hills. On June 13, 2007, the ALJ rendered his opinion finding that Plaintiffs had failed to satisfy their burden of proof that the District's proposed IEP was inappropriate and not reasonably calculated to provide J.B. with a meaningful educational benefit in the least restrictive environment, and denied the Plaintiffs' reimbursement claims for the costs of tuition and transportation to Somerset Hills from November 20, 2005 forward.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A. IDEA

The IDEA "establishes minimum requirements for the education of children with disabilities." Holmes v. Millcreek Twp. School Dist., 205 F.3d 583, 589 (3d Cir. 2000). It mandates that all states that receive federal funding under the statute guarantee to provide "a free and appropriate education" ("FAPE") to all disabled children. 20 U.S.C. § 1412. A FAPE exists where a child is provided with "such services as are necessary to permit the child 'to benefit' from the instruction." Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 189 (1982). Pursuant to the IDEA, for every disabled child identified as eligible for special education, a written statement called an IEP is created. 20 U.S.C. §1412(a)(4). The IEP, which is specially designed for each child and which addresses several elements as outlined in 20 U.S.C. 1414(d)(1)(A), is designed to effectuate a FAPE for the child. S.H. v. State-Operated Sch. Dist. of the City of Newark, 336 F.3d 260, 264 (3d Cir. 2003). The IDEA does not require that a school district maximize a student's potential or provide the best education possible. Instead, the IDEA requires the school district to provide a "'basic floor of opportunity' but not necessarily 'the optimal level of services. . . .'" Holmes, 205 F.3d at 589-90 (quoting Carlisle Area Sch. v. Scott P., 62 F.3d 520, 533-34 (3d Cir. 1995)). The school district's statutory obligation is satisfied "by providing personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction." Rowley, 458 U.S. at 203. Thus, the IEP must provide "meaningful" access to education and confer "some educational benefit" upon the child. Id. at 192, 200. Further, while the IEP need not provide for the optimal level of services, in order to be appropriate, the educational benefit conferred must be more than trivial. Ridgewood Bd. of Educ. v. N.E., 172 F.3d 238, 247 (3d Cir. 1999). A satisfactory IEP must provide significant learning and provide meaningful education benefit upon the child. Id.

The IDEA also requires that children falling under its provisions be educated in the "least restrictive environment." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5)(A). Indeed, the IDEA expresses a strong preference for "mainstreaming" students: educating disabled students side-by-side non-disabled students. The Third Circuit has interpreted this requirement to mean "mandating education 'in the least restrictive environment that will provide [the student] with a meaningful educational benefit.'" S.H., 336 F.3d at 265 (quoting T.R. v. Kingwood Twp. Bd. of Educ., 205 F.3d 572, 578 (3d Cir. 2000)). In other words, "[t]he least restrictive environment is one that, to the greatest extent possible, satisfactorily educates disabled children together with children who are not disabled, in the same school the disabled child would attend if the child were not disabled." Carlisle Area Sch., 62 F.3d at 535.

Where parents believes that a school district's IEP does not provide their child with a FAPE as required by the IDEA, they may object to the IEP by requesting either a due process hearing or a mediation session. See Lascari v. Bd. of Educ., 116 N.J. 30, 37 (1989). The burden of establishing the inadequacy of the proposed IEP rests on the challenging party. Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 62 (2005); L.E. v. Ramsey Bd. Of Educ., 435 F.3d 384, 391 (3d Cir. 2006). The Court's inquiry, however, remains focused on evaluating "the IEP actually offered and not one that the school board could have provided if it had been so inclined." Lascari, 116 N.J. at 46.

Once an Administrative Law Judge has issued a final order following a due process hearing, the aggrieved party may appeal that decision to a state court of competent jurisdiction or to the federal district court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(c)(2).

B. Review of an Administrative Law Judge's Decision

Defendant's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law on the Record Below seeks to affirm the ALJ's decision, while, Plaintiffs' Motion, which is characterized as a Motion for Reversal of the Decision of the ALJ, is essentially an appeal of the ALJ's decision that and seeking of a reversal of said decision. In reviewing an administrative determination in an IDEA case, the Court applies a modified version of de novo review. S.H., 336 F.3d at 270. Under this standard of review, while the Court must make its own findings based on a preponderance of the evidence, the Court must also afford "'due weight'" to the administrative law judge's determination. Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206. The purpose of the "due weight" standard is to "prevent the court from imposing its own view of preferable educational methods on the states." Oberti v. Bd. of Educ., 995 F.2d 1204, 1219 (3d Cir. 1993) (citing Rowley, 458 U.S. at 207). Under this standard, "[f]actual findings from the administrative proceedings are to be considered prima facie correct," and, where made, the administrative law judge's credibility determinations are "due special weight." Shore Reg'l High School Bd. of Educ. v. P.S., 381 F.3d 194, 199 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting S.H., 336 F.3d at 271). The deference afforded the administrative decision is, however, qualified, and while the Court must ...


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