62 F.3d 520 (3rd Cir. 1995), 94-7520, Carlisle Area School v. Scott P. By and Through Bess P.

Docket Nº:E. P., Appellant in No. 94-7520.
Citation:62 F.3d 520
Party Name:CARLISLE AREA SCHOOL v. SCOTT P., By and Through His Guardians, BESS P. and Richard
Case Date:August 08, 1995
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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Page 520

62 F.3d 520 (3rd Cir. 1995)

CARLISLE AREA SCHOOL

v.

SCOTT P., By and Through His Guardians, BESS P. and Richard

E. P., Appellant in No. 94-7520.

CARLISLE AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Appellant in No. 94-7539,

v.

SCOTT P., By and Through His Guardians, BESS P. and Richard E. P.

Nos. 94-7520, 94-7539.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

August 8, 1995

Argued March 10, 1995.

As Amended Oct. 24, 1995.

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Dennis C. McAndrews (argued), Wayne, PA, for Scott P., by and through his Guardians, Bess P. and Richard E. P.

Frank P. Clark (argued), James, Smith & Durkin, Hershey, PA, for Carlisle Area School Dist.

Before: BECKER, SCIRICA, and WOOD, [*] Circuit Judges.

OPINION OF THE COURT

BECKER, Circuit Judge.

This case arises under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. Secs. 1400-1485 (1990). The underlying administrative proceeding against the Carlisle Area School District was commenced by Scott P., a disabled twenty year old, through his parents, Richard P. and Bess P., on the grounds that the school district had not fulfilled its statutory obligations to Scott under IDEA. The hearing officer at the local educational level granted the relief requested, i.e., residential placement, and six months' compensatory education (to extend beyond Scott's 21st birthday.) An appeals panel at the state education agency level reversed the residential placement order but affirmed the award of compensatory education. The school district appealed this decision to the District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and the parents cross-appealed. The district court affirmed the decision of the appeals panel. The parents appeal the denial of residential placement. The school district appeals the award of compensatory education.

The appeal presents several questions of special education law of first impression in this Circuit. First, we must address the parents' contention that the administrative and judicial proceedings were procedurally defective because of an alleged violation of

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IDEA's efficiency-oriented finality requirements stemming from the district court's two remands to the appeals panel for clarification. Although the parents assail the fact that the district court twice remanded the case to the appeals panel, we hold that these remands did not violate IDEA's finality requirements since they advanced rather than impeded the goal of safeguarding access to meaningful judicial review.

Second, the appeal requires us to decide the proper scope of review to be used by a state appeals panel reviewing a local hearing officer's decision, and the proper scope of review by the district court in reviewing a ruling of a state appeals panel. We conclude that the appeals panel's review is plenary except that it is required to defer to the hearing officer's credibility determinations unless non-testimonial, extrinsic evidence in the record would justify a contrary conclusion or unless the record read in its entirety would compel a contrary conclusion. The district court may reach an independent decision, except that it must accord the decision of the state agency "due weight" in its consideration. In a related vein, we also address the parents' claim that the appeals panel and the district court misallocated the burden of proof on the appropriateness of the proffered Individualized Educational Program ("IEP"). We conclude that, while school districts bear the burden of proving the appropriateness of the educational plans they proffer, they are not required to prove the inappropriateness of any competing plans advocated by parents.

Next, we consider whether the appeals panel applied the correct standard in reviewing the order for residential education. As the district court correctly recognized, IDEA requires a placement calculated to confer only some educational benefit (not an optimal education), and also that the program be delivered in the least restrictive environment. On the developed record, the district court did not err in concluding that residential placement was not proper, and thus it correctly affirmed the appeals panel's reversal of the residential placement order.

Finally, we must determine the appropriate standard for the award of compensatory education and the correctness of the award in this case. Compensatory education effectively extends the disabled student's entitlement to a free appropriate education beyond the normal cutoff point, which occurs when the child reaches age twenty-one. We conclude that the award of compensatory education was improper here because there was no record evidence of any violation during the year purporting to serve as the basis for the award, and certainly no gross or prolonged deprivation, which other courts have required as a precondition to a compensatory education award.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Scott P., who was born on February 12, 1973, sustained serious brain injuries resulting in cortical blindness in a 1980 swimming pool accident. 1 Prior to the accident, Scott attended regular kindergarten and first grade, but he has been enrolled in various special educational programs since that time.

During the 1991-92 school year, Scott's parents and the school district were unable to agree upon an appropriate educational program for the 1992-93 year. The plan offered by the school district would have enrolled Scott in a physical support class at the Mechanicsburg High School operated by the Capital Area Intermediate Unit ("CAIU"). One other blind student and two students suffering from head trauma were also assigned to this class. Scott's parents contested the appropriateness of this plan because of its resemblance to the 1991-92 IEP, under which they contended Scott had not progressed.

The parents thereupon took Scott to the A.I. duPont Institute, which conducted an evaluation of Scott's needs. The duPont Institute

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recommended that Scott be placed in an intensive residential program at the Maryland School for the Blind ("MSB") so that he could attain greater independence. In light of this recommendation, and given Scott's failure to progress in preceding years, Scott's family and his private evaluator submitted that he needed (and that the IEP should provide) the specialized educational placement for blind students provided at MSB. In September, 1992, Scott's family enrolled him in MSB; they also requested the statutorily-provided due process proceedings in order to contest the educational program the school district had proposed for Scott. At issue was the district's obligation to reimburse Scott's parents for his education at MSB.

Due process hearings were conducted before a state hearing officer, Dr. Joseph French, on December 3, 15, and 17, 1992. Based on documentary evidence and the testimony of various experts and teachers, Dr. French filed a report and order directing the school district to develop an IEP for Scott that would provide academic, social, and vocational instruction with blind peers. The order also specified that such instruction continue beyond normal school hours. The effect of this order was to require that the school district provide (i.e., pay for) residential programming for Scott at the MSB, as neither the District nor the CAIU could accommodate such an IEP in their existing programs. Dr. French also ordered that Scott receive six months of education beyond his 21st birthday to "compensat[e] for the first half of the current [1992-93] school year." Op. at 9 (citations omitted).

The school district filed exceptions to Dr. French's decision. On March 3, 1993, a Pennsylvania Special Education Appeals Panel, Anne Hartwig presiding, issued a decision which acknowledged the inadequacy of the 1992-93 IEP, and ordered more instruction with blind peers, but reversed the order of residential placement. Although the panel recited that it had given "due deference" to the hearing officer's findings of fact, it rejected the finding that Scott required programming beyond normal school hours on the grounds that the record evidence taken as a whole did not support the conclusion that Scott required a residential placement in order to provide programming beyond normal school hours. However, the panel affirmed the award of compensatory education.

On April 2, 1993, the school district appealed the decision of the appeals panel by filing a complaint in the District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania alleging that "the panel erroneously ordered changes to Scott P.'s Individualized Educational Program that are in conflict with the narrative discussion in the panel's decision." A brief evidentiary hearing was conducted on January 24, 1994, at which the District Court heard additional evidence concerning Scott's program at MSB. On March 30, 1994, the district court, which found the appeals panel decision confusing, ordered that the case be "remanded to the Pennsylvania Special Education Appeals Panel for clarification...."

On April 27, 1994, Hartwig delivered a clarification for the appeals panel. The district court was still dissatisfied with this "clarification," which purported to find the 1992-93 IEP appropriate even though the panel had ordered modifications to the program in its original opinion; moreover, in justifying its award of compensatory education, the panel had declared the 1991-92 IEP inappropriate even though the appropriateness of that program had not been challenged and had not served as the basis of the hearing officer's award. The district court therefore remanded this case to the appeals panel for another clarification. On July 6, 1994, Hartwig issued a second "clarification." The district court, while commenting that the "renderings of the Appeals Panel remain somewhat confusing," stated that it was according...

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