134 F.3d 659 (4th Cir. 1998), 97-1482, Springer v. Fairfax County School Bd.

Docket Nº:97-1482.
Citation:134 F.3d 659
Party Name:Edward P. SPRINGER, a minor, by his parents and next friends, Edward and JoAnne Springer; Edward Springer; Joanne Springer, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. THE FAIRFAX COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, Defendant-Appellee, and Robert Spillane, officially as Superintendent, Fairfax County Public Schools, Defendant.
Case Date:January 23, 1998
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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Page 659

134 F.3d 659 (4th Cir. 1998)

Edward P. SPRINGER, a minor, by his parents and next

friends, Edward and JoAnne Springer; Edward

Springer; Joanne Springer, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

THE FAIRFAX COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, Defendant-Appellee,

and

Robert Spillane, officially as Superintendent, Fairfax

County Public Schools, Defendant.

No. 97-1482.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

January 23, 1998

Argued Dec. 1, 1997.

Page 660

ARGUED: Michael Jeffrey Eig, Bogin & Eig, Washington, DC, for Appellants. Thomas John Cawley, Hunton & Williams, McLean, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Matthew B. Bogin, Helen Goff Foster, Bogin & Eig, Washington, DC, for Appellants. John F. Cafferky, Arthur E. Schmalz, Hunton & Williams, McLean, Virginia, for Appellee.

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Before WILKINSON, Chief Judge, JONES, United States District Judge for the Western District of Virginia, sitting by designation, and MICHAEL, Senior United States District Judge for the Western District of Virginia, sitting by designation.

Affirmed by published opinion. Chief Judge WILKINSON wrote the opinion, in which Judge JONES and Senior Judge MICHAEL joined.

OPINION

WILKINSON, Chief Judge:

Edward Springer and his parents seek reimbursement from the Fairfax County School Board for tuition paid to a private school in which the Springers enrolled Edward after he failed the eleventh grade. The School Board determined that Edward was not suffering from a "serious emotional disturbance," as the Springers claim, and that he was therefore ineligible for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1415 ("IDEA"). The district court upheld the State Review Officer's determination that Edward was not disabled and that his parents were not entitled to tuition reimbursement. Because the applicable IDEA regulations do not equate mere juvenile delinquency with a "serious emotional disturbance," we affirm.

I.

During most of his years in the Fairfax County school system, Edward Springer demonstrated no need for special educational services. He progressed successfully from grade to grade in regular education programs. Throughout elementary school his grades were consistently average or above average. He attended a private school from seventh to ninth grade and received no special education services there. When he returned to Fairfax County schools for his tenth grade year, he enrolled in regular education classes at McLean High School and attained a C+ grade point average. Throughout this period, Edward maintained positive relationships with his teachers and peers. During high school he participated in a church group, the Boy Scouts, and the McLean High School wrestling team.

Edward developed significant behavioral problems in his eleventh grade year. He was arrested in August 1993 for possessing burglary tools and tampering with an automobile, offenses for which he was sentenced to one year probation, fifty hours of community service, and a suspended fine of $2,500. Edward would frequently sneak out of his parents' house and stay out all night with friends. He stole from his parents and others. He regularly used marijuana and alcohol. Edward often broke school rules and had a high rate of absenteeism. He was disciplined for driving recklessly on school property, cutting classes, forgery, leaving school grounds without permission, and fighting. Towards the end of the eleventh grade, Edward and his friends stole a fellow student's car. Edward kept the car for a week of joy-riding. In connection with this episode he was sentenced to probation until his eighteenth birthday.

Although he continued to score in the average to superior range of intellectual ability on standardized tests, Edward's eleventh-grade performance suffered because he cut class and frequently failed to complete assignments. During his week of joy-riding, he skipped school and missed his final exams, causing him to fail three of his seven courses for the year. His teachers, his mother, and Edward himself agreed that these difficulties resulted from truancy, lack of motivation, and poor study habits. At the time, Edward recognized that with more effort he could obtain above average grades.

In response to his behavioral problems the Springers enrolled Edward in September 1994 in the New Dominion School, a private residential school located in Dillwyn, Virginia. The Springers requested that the School Board fund this placement, claiming that Edward exhibited a serious emotional disturbance, a qualifying disability under IDEA. See 34 C.F.R. § 300.7(a)(1). A Fairfax County special education eligibility committee evaluated Edward's condition and determined that his behavior indicated a conduct disorder that did not qualify as a

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serious emotional disturbance. Thus the committee ruled that Edward was ineligible for special education services and tuition reimbursement.

The Springers requested a local due process hearing, which took place on February 9, 1995. The Local Hearing Officer ("LHO") rendered his decision on March 16, 1995. Relying exclusively on a letter written by a psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph Novello, to the Juvenile Court at the time of Edward's second brush with the law, the LHO found that Edward suffered from a conduct disorder and a dysthymic disorder (a moderate depressive disorder). Edward's "inability to get along with his teachers and fellow students and to abide by school rules" was deemed consistent with these diagnoses. The LHO concluded, without elaboration, that Edward "should be considered 'seriously emotionally disturbed' rather than merely 'socially maladjusted,' " and that he thereby qualified for special education services. Finding that Edward was making educational progress at the New Dominion School, the LHO ordered the School Board to reimburse the Springers for tuition there.

The School Board appealed to a State Review Officer ("SRO"), who reversed the LHO and found that Edward did not meet the criteria for a seriously emotionally disturbed student under state and federal special education regulations. The SRO primarily questioned the LHO's reliance on the letter from Dr. Novello. First the SRO noted that this letter was originally written at the Springers' request to persuade a juvenile court judge to sentence Edward to three weeks in a camp in Idaho rather than incarceration for the theft of another student's car. The SRO noted that Dr. Novello had never testified in person to elaborate on "[t]he sketchy, incomplete description and evaluation of the Student's makeup" in the letter. The SRO concluded that this sketchiness and incompleteness and "the casual reference to his 'clinical diagnosis,' all render [the letter] insufficient in detail and dignity to use as the LHO did, which was to supply the theoretical underpinning of a qualifying factual finding of disability."

Most critically, the SRO pointed out the abundant psychological evidence that Edward did not have a serious emotional disturbance--evidence that was not even mentioned by the LHO. Several separate evaluations of Edward had uniformly supported the conclusion that, while Edward was "socially maladjusted" and had a "conduct disorder," he exhibited no symptoms of a serious emotional disturbance. In the face of this evidence, the SRO could not accept the LHO's conclusory assertion that Edward should be considered "seriously emotionally disturbed" rather than merely "socially maladjusted."

The Springers filed suit in district court, seeking reversal of the SRO's decision. At this point, they sought to supplement the administrative record with live testimony from Dr. Novello, although at the state-level review they had represented "that the probable delays and inconvenience in scheduling" his participation (and that of another doctor) "outweigh the need for what they can contribute." The district court granted the School Board's motion in limine, disallowing Dr. Novello's testimony as "additional evidence" under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2). The district court found that Dr. Novello had in fact been available to testify throughout the administrative proceedings and ruled that the Springers would have to live with their repeated decisions not to call him. Further, given that Dr. Novello had not examined Edward since before Fairfax County's initial eligibility committee meeting, the district court determined that any testimony the doctor could offer would not qualify as "additional" under the statute.

The district court thus agreed with the SRO that Edward was not seriously emotionally disturbed. The court therefore ruled that the School Board was not required to reimburse the Springers for tuition at the New Dominion School. The Springers now appeal.

II.

A student becomes eligible for special education services if he suffers from a "serious emotional disturbance":

(i) The term means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics

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over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child's educational performance--

(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors;

(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers;

(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;

(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or

(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

(ii) The term includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have a serious emotional disturbance.

34 C.F.R. §...

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