This was a decision after partial remand from the United States District Court, in Case No. 2:20-cv-00765-RGK-JPR. (Read the full decision here).
Student filed a due process complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) in Case No. 2019060655 on June 13, 2019, naming Lompoc Unified.
In October 2019, OAH held a due process hearing before the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the two issues raised in Student's complaint.
OAH issued a Decision on November 19, 2019. On Issue 1, OAH determined that Student did not prove Lompoc Unified denied Student a free appropriate public education by failing to find Student eligible for special education from June 13, 2017, until the date the complaint was filed. A free appropriate public education will be referred to as a FAPE. On Issue 2, the ALJ concluded Student did not prove Student required an educational placement in a residential treatment center, at Lompoc Unified's expense, to access her education.
Student filed an action in United States District Court in Case No. 2:20-cv--00765-RGK-JPR, appealing the OAH Decision. In the District Court action, Lompoc Unified filed a motion for summary judgment, or in the alternative, for summary adjudication of claims. By its motion, Lompoc Unified argued that it was entitled to summary judgment with respect to Issues 1 and 2 of the November 19, 2019 OAH Decision.
On February 19, 2021, the District Court issued an Order granting, in part, the Lompoc Unified motion. The Court upheld the ALJ's conclusion in Issue 1. Student did not prove Lompoc Unified denied Student a FAPE during the two-year period preceding June 13, 2019, by failing to find Student eligible for special education. The Court pointed out that Student did not dispute the ALJ's finding that no assessments were ready for review by June 13, 2019, the day the complaint was filed, and that "a school district cannot find that a child has a disability until ‘completion of the administration of assessments and other evaluation measures.'"
On Issue 2, the District Court denied Lompoc Unified's motion for summary judgment and remanded the case back to OAH for clarification. The Court did not reverse the ALJ's finding that Student did not prove she required an educational placement in a residential treatment center at any time before the complaint was filed on June 13, 2019. Instead, the Court stated: "Had the ALJ determined whether [Student] presently [emphasis in original] had a disability, the ALJ may have found that [Student] was entitled to special education. Had the ALJ found [Student] eligible for special education, the ALJ may have found [Student] requires placement in an RTC to access her education."
The District Court held that Issue 2 required the ALJ to determine two issues on remand: whether Student established she had an IDEA-qualifying disability as of November 19, 2019, and, if so, whether Student requires placement in a residential treatment center to meet her educational needs. The issues will be referred to as Remand Issue 1 and Remand Issue 2.
Remand Issue 1: Did Student establish that she had an IDEA-qualifying disability as of November 19, 2019?
Remand Issue 2: If Student had an IDEA-qualifying disability, does Student require residential placement to meet her educational needs?
Summary of the Case:
On remand, the ALJ concluded that the student did not meet her burden of proving that she was eligible for special education and related services during the time period in question (Remand Issue 1). Because Student did not prove that Student had an IDEA-qualifying disability in Remand Issue 1, the ALJ concluded student did not require a residential placement under the IDEA to meet her educational needs.
This case largely turned on the educational relevance of the independent educational evaluation (IEE) that parent had obtained prior to the original due process hearing.
At the due process hearing, and again during the remand hearing, student attempted to establish eligibility for special education and related services based largely on the IEE report. However, the ALJ found the IEE report insufficient for several reasons. First, the IEE assessor did not consult with, or obtain information from, student's teachers. As such, the ALJ concluded the IEE report lacked meaningful information regarding student's educational needs. Second, the IEE assessor did not observe student in her educational setting. Again, the ALJ concluded that this too limited the educational relevance of the IEE report. Finally, the IEE assessor made his eligibility determination based on the DSM-5 rather than the California Education Code § 56320. The ALJ concluded that DSM-5 is not the standard used to determine special education eligibility in California. Moreover, the IEE report, the assessor's testimony, and all other evidence presented by student at hearing failed to establish eligibility for special education under the IDEA for emotional disturbance.
Under California law, emotional disturbance means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child's educational performance:
- An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health
- An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and
- Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal
- A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or
- A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school
- Emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance under subdivision (b)(4) of this
(Cal. Code Regs. tit. 5, § 3030 subd. (b)(4) (2014).)
Here, the ALJ concluded that student's evidence failed to prove that she exhibited, at any time before November 19, 2019, one or more of the foundational characteristics of emotional disturbance, over a long period of time and to a marked degree, that adversely affected her educational performance.
What's the takeaway from this case?
There are a few important takeaways from this case. First, IEE assessors should focus on a student's educational needs, meaning they should always conduct classroom observations and obtain input from the student's teachers. While, according to the facts, this student had significant psychological symptoms and behavioral issues, the IEE report seems to have been more medically focused than educationally focused. And for that reason, the IEE report did not provide sufficient information regarding the student's educational needs including whether she required special education.
Second, IEE assessors should use the criteria in the Cal. Ed. Code rather than the DSM-5, or some other criteria, if they make an eligibility determination regarding the student's need for special education.
Finally, IEE assessors, and parents alike, should understand that a diagnosed disability alone is not enough to establish eligibility for special education. In addition to having one or more of the 13 separate categories of eligibility for special education identified in the California Code of Regulations, title 5, section 3030 subdivision (b), the student's disability must also adversely affect her educational performance.