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H. v. Regional School Unit 21

United States District Court, D. Maine

February 26, 2015

MR. H., et al., Plaintiffs,


JOHN H. RICH, III, Magistrate Judge.

The parties to this case arising under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., cross-move to supplement the record with evidence bearing on their efforts to create and implement a plan to transition plaintiff E.H. from a private program in Massachusetts to a day-treatment educational program in Maine. See Plaintiffs' Motion To Permit Presentation of Additional Evidence ("Plaintiffs' Motion") (ECF No. 16); Motion to Supplement the Record ("Defendant's Motion") (ECF No. 18). For the reasons that follow, I grant the cross-motions in part, to the extent that the proffered evidence bears on the timing of the addition of the transition plan to an October 16, 2013, individualized education plan ("IEP") offered to the family and the costs for which Mr. H. seeks reimbursement through that date, and otherwise deny them, agreeing with the defendant that the plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that the balance of the proffered evidence is relevant.

I. Procedural Background

In opposing the Plaintiffs' Motion, the defendant, Regional School Unit 21 ("District" or "RSU 21"), stated that it had filed its cross-motion in an abundance of caution and that it argued, as a threshold matter, that neither side's evidence should be admitted. See Defendant Regional School Unit No. 21's Response to Plaintiff[s'] Motion to Permit Presentation of Additional Evidence ("Defendant's Opposition") (ECF No. 24) at 1-2 & n.3, 5-8. It contended that this was so because the proffered evidence pertained to matters with respect to which the plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies, depriving the court of subject matter jurisdiction to consider it and rendering it irrelevant. See id. In the alternative, the District objected in part to the admission of the plaintiffs' proposed evidence and pressed its bid for admission of its evidence. See id. at 8-11.

The plaintiffs protested that the District had raised the threshold issue for the first time in response to their cross-motion and, in any event, it lacked merit. See Plaintiffs' Reply Memorandum in Support of Their Motion To Permit Presentation of Additional Evidence ("Plaintiffs' Reply") (ECF No. 30) at 1-4. They also objected in part to the admission of the District's proposed evidence. See generally Plaintiffs' Partial Objection to Defendant's Motion To Supplement the Record ("Plaintiffs' Opposition") (ECF No. 26).

Given the importance of the threshold issue raised by the District, I granted its request for oral argument, see Defendant's Opposition at 6-7, which was held before me on November 21, 2014, see ECF No. 34. At the conclusion of that argument, I granted the District's request for supplemental briefing, which was completed on February 2, 2015. See Defendant Regional School Unit No. 21's Supplemental Brief on Parties' Motions to Supplement Record ("Defendant's Suppl. Brief") (ECF No. 35); Plaintiffs' Supplemental Memorandum of Law in Support of Their Motion To Permit Presentation of Additional Evidence ("Plaintiffs' Suppl. Opposition") (ECF No. 36); Defendant Regional School Unit No. 21's Reply to Plaintiffs' Supplemental Brief on Parties' Motion to Supplement Record ("Defendant's Suppl. Reply") (ECF No. 39). The District requests further oral argument, see Defendant's Suppl. Brief at 1; Defendant's Suppl. Reply at 1; however, I deny that request on the basis that the oral argument that I have already heard and the supplemental briefs filed by the parties provide an adequate basis on which to rule.

II. Applicable Legal Standards

The action is brought pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415, which provides, in relevant part, that a party aggrieved by the decision of a hearing officer with respect to the free public education provided to a disabled child may bring an action in federal court in which the court "shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party[.]" 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C). The First Circuit has interpreted this statutory language to require a reviewing court to grant a party leave to present additional evidence only when that party presents "solid justification" for such supplementation of the record. Roland M. v. Concord Sch. Comm., 910 F.2d 983, 996 (1st Cir. 1990). It has elaborated:

As a means of assuring that the administrative process is accorded its due weight and that judicial review does not become a trial de novo, thereby rendering the administrative hearing nugatory, a party seeking to introduce additional evidence at the district court level must provide some solid justification for doing so. To determine whether this burden has been satisfied, judicial inquiry begins with the administrative record. A district court should weigh heavily the important concerns of not allowing a party to undercut the statutory role of administrative expertise, the unfairness involved in one party's reserving its best evidence for trial, the reason the witness did not testify at the administrative hearing, and the conservation of judicial resources.

Id. (citation and internal punctuation omitted).

The First Circuit has observed:

The reasons for supplementation will vary; they might include gaps in the administrative transcript owing to mechanical failure, unavailability of a witness, an improper exclusion of evidence by the administrative agency, and evidence concerning relevant events occurring subsequent to the administrative hearing. The starting point for determining what additional evidence should be received, however, is the record of the administrative proceeding.

Town of Burlington v. Department of Educ., 736 F.2d 773, 790 (1st Cir. 1984), aff'd, 471 U.S. 359 (1985). The plaintiffs invoke the need to submit evidence concerning relevant post-hearing events, asserting: "Although the hearing officer's January 2014 order required RSU 21 to create and implement a transition plan that should have been offered months earlier, the additional evidence makes clear that E.H. was required to finish the 2013-2014 school year at the Arlington School/Mill Street Lodge [the private program in Massachusetts] due to the pace at which the transition moved forward." Plaintiffs' Motion at 2-3. They argue that this evidence is relevant to their challenge to the hearing officer's decision to terminate their entitlement to reimbursement for the Arlington School and Mill Street Lodge "far in advance of there actually being a viable Maine educational placement into which she could appropriately transition." Id. at 6.

III. Factual Background

E.H.'s parents ("Parents") filed a request for a due process hearing on June 11, 2013. Administrative Record ("Record") at 1. At a July 22, 2013, prehearing conference, the hearing officer framed the issues as (i) whether "the School's proposed IEP and placement offered to the Student between March and July 2013 fail[ed] to offer her a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"), " and, (ii) if so, whether the Parents were "entitled to reimbursement of the costs they have incurred in connection with the Student's ongoing unilateral placement at the Arlington School/Mill Street Lodge in Massachusetts since May 2013" or another appropriate remedy, and whether E.H. was "entitled to a continuation of her current unilateral placement at public expense until the IEP team determines that she is ready to transition to an appropriate educational program in a less restrictive setting" or if another placement was appropriate. Id. at 89.

During an October 16, 2013, IEP team meeting, the District offered an amended IEP that included placement at the Sebago Educational Alliance ("SEA"), a day-treatment educational program in Maine with an intensive mental health component. See State of Maine Special Education Due Process Hearing [Decision] ("Hearing Decision"), Family v. RSU 21, Case No. 13.078H (Me. Dep't of Educ. Jan. 17, 2014), at 39, 41-43, ¶¶ 124, 128-33.[1] The due process hearing commenced on October 21, 2013, and spanned six days, ending on November 7, 2013. See id. at 1. The question of whether the October 2013 proposed IEP and placement offered a FAPE was added to the list of issues. See id. at 2.

In her decision, dated January 17, 2014, the hearing officer found that the IEPs dated March 13, 2013, and March 27, 2013, provided E.H. with a FAPE, see id. at 51-53, the annual IEP dated April 23, 2013, did not provide her with a FAPE, ...

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