Atlanta Indep. Sch. Sys. v. S.F.

Decision Date16 September 2010
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 1:09-CV-2166-RWS
Citation740 F.Supp.2d 1335
PartiesATLANTA INDEPENDENT SCHOOL SYSTEM, Plaintiff, v. S.F., a minor, by and through his parents and next friends, M.F., and C.F., and M.F. and C.F. Personally, Defendants, Counterclaimants, and Third-Party Plaintiffs, v. Gwendolyn Stokes and Sherri Jones, Third-Party Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Georgia

Sherry Hall Culves, Wallace W. Plowden, Jr., Rufus D. Sams, III, Jones Cork & Miller LLP, Macon, GA, for Plaintiff/Third-Party Defendants.

Jonathan A. Zimring, Zimring & Associates, LLC, Decatur, GA, for Defendants, Counterclaimants, and Third-Party Plaintiffs.

Joseph Hall Wieseman, Matthew Farish Barr, William Matthew Davis, Hawkins Parnell Thackston & Young, LLP, Atlanta, GA, for Third-Party Defendants.


RICHARD W. STORY, District Judge.

This case comes before the Court on Defendant and Counter-Plaintiff S.F.'s First Motion for Summary Judgment [48], Third-Party Defendant Sherri Jones's Motion to Dismiss [92], Third-Party Plaintiffs S.F. et al.'s Motion to Amend the Complaint as Against Defendant Jones [117], Third-Party Defendant Gwendolyn Stokes's Motion to Dismiss [64], Third-Party Plaintiffs S.F. et al.'s Motion to Amend the Complaint as Against Defendants Stokes [124], Third Party-Plaintiffs' Motion to Take Judicial Notice [150], Defendants' Motion In Limine [130], and Third-Party Defendant Jones's Motion forOral Argument [162]. After reviewing the record, the Court enters the following order.

As an initial matter, the Court does not find oral argument to be necessary regarding Jones's Motion to Dismiss [92] or Third-Party Plaintiffs' Motion to Take Judicial Notice [150]. Therefore, Jones's Motion for Oral Argument [162] is DENIED.


The underlying action arises from allegations that the Atlanta Independent School System ("AISS") denied S.F. a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE") and violated the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1491. (Amended Complaint, Dkt. No. [75] at ¶ 3). The stated purpose of the IDEA is "to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs ..." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). If the parents of a disabled child are dissatisfied with their child's individualized education program ("IEP"), the IDEA requires the educational agency to afford them an impartial due process hearing. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(A). S.F.'s parents, dissatisfied with S.F.'s IEP, sought a due process hearing.

An administrative hearing was held in the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings ("OSAH") from March 9-13, 2009. (Dkt. No. [75] at ¶¶ 7, 15). On May 11, 2009, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued a final order ("Final Order"), finding, among other things, that AISS failed to provide FAPE to S.F., that his school placement by AISS was not appropriate, and that S.F. will not receive an appropriate education from AISS going forward. ( Id. at ¶ 8; see Final Order, Dkt. No. [75-1] ). The ALJ also found that S.F. was injured by an adult as the result of being struck by a hand or object at school in his instructional program on October 21, 2008. (Dkt. No. [75-1] at 18). Based upon these findings, the ALJ ordered that:

S.F. shall receive one year of compensatory education to be provided at the end of the Plaintiffs [ sic ] educational entitlement and further, that Plaintiffs shall be reimburse[d] by AISS for privately provided services and private assessments in the amounts stipulated at trial for the two (2) years prior to the filing of their Complaint through the 2008-2009 school year, including, but not limited to direct services, related services, and transportation or travel services.

(Dkt. No. [75-1] at 26). The ALJ also ordered that "S.F.'s prospective placement for the remainder of his educational entitlement shall be in a private school at the Summit Learning Center," and that AISS shall pay for the placement as well as supplementary educational services for S.F. ( Id.).

Any party aggrieved by the result of the administrative proceedings in the state system has the right to bring a civil action in the district court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). Plaintiff has filed the current action to appeal the ruling of the ALJ. Defendants have filed a Counterclaim against AISS, as well as a Third Party Complaint against Gwendolyn Stokes, AISS's special education compliance coordinator and Sherri Jones, S.F.'s classroom teacher.

During the 2008-09 school year, S.F. and his parents ("Third-Party Plaintiffs" or "Plaintiffs") raised concerns with his safety, his school placement, the actions of Jones, and the denial of rights under the IDEA. (Dkt. [117-2] at ¶ 13). Jones wasaware of these concerns. ( Id.). S.F.'s parents allege that he suffered significant injuries at school in September 2008, and these injuries were not adequately explained. ( Id. at ¶ 15). Plaintiffs allege that Jones was aware of S.F.'s autism and the limits it placed on his ability to communicate to his parents anything that occurred within his classroom. ( Id. at ¶ 12). At least in part because of S.F.'s limitation, Jones failed to implement S.F.'s IEP or behavioral interventions. ( Id. at ¶ 17). Instead, she unilaterally created a schedule that failed to provide S.F. with FAPE. ( Id. at ¶ 18).

In addition to her failure to provide an appropriate educational program for S.F., Third-Party Plaintiffs also allege that Jones engaged in highly inappropriate behavior within the classroom. Failing to receive a satisfactory explanation for S.F.'s injuries and failing to make headway on determining whether S.F. was receiving appropriate services within the classroom, S.F.'s mother, C.F., sent him to school on October 21, 2008 with a recording device sewn into his shirt so that she could record his school day. The recording allegedly captures Jones discussing alcohol, male genitalia, and other inappropriate topics in the classroom. (Dkt. [124-2] at ¶ 19). Additionally, Plaintiffs allege that the recording captures Jones allowing S.F. to eat garbage from the trash can, taunting and ridiculing him, and ultimately beating him. ( Id. at ¶¶ 23-25). Following, Plaintiffs confrontation with school officials concerning Jones's behavior, they allege that Jones sought to hinder the investigation by intentionally withholding information and lying about her actions. ( Id. at 32). Plaintiffs assert several causes of action against Jones arising from this conduct.

Third-Party Defendant Stokes was the AISS administrator responsible for administering and coordinating S.F.'s AISS placement for 2008-09. Plaintiffs assert that she was responsible for ensuring that a safe environment was provided in which S.F. could receive the educational programs to which he was entitled. (Dkt. [124-1] at ¶ 9). Plaintiffs allege that AISS and Stokes failed to provide appropriate services to S.F. throughout the school year and failed to address any of their concerns as to the lack of services and injuries to S.F. in Jones's classroom. ( Id. at ¶ 11). Plaintiffs allege that even after Stokes became aware of the recording they made of S.F.'s school day, she never sought a copy of it and failed to remedy the concerns raised by the recording. ( Id. at ¶¶ 30-32). At an IEP meeting held in November 2008, Plaintiffs assert that Stokes accused them of committing a felony by recording S.F.'s school day. ( Id. at ¶ 31). Plaintiffs assert several causes of action against Stokes arising from this conduct.

I. Defendants First Motion for Summary Judgment [48]

In its Complaint, AISS asks the Court to order, among other things, that "Defendants C.F. and M.F. are required to reimburse AISS for AISS's payments for S.F.'s private services since the date of the ALJ's Final Order." (Dkt. [75] at 49). Defendants S.F. et. al. argue that even if this Court finds the ALJ's Final Order to be erroneous, the law does not allow AISS the right to reimbursement of the money paid for private services pursuant to that Order. Defendants seek partial summary judgment as to AISS's claim for reimbursement. (Dkt.[48] ).

It is well settled that parents of a disabled child are entitled to reimbursement of private school expenses if such placement, rather than the proposed IEP, is deemed to be proper. See Sch. Comm. of Town of Burlington v. Dept. of Educ., 471 U.S. 359, 369, 105 S.Ct. 1996, 85 L.Ed.2d 385 (1985); Georgia State Dept. of Educ. v. Derrick C., 314 F.3d 545, 552 (11th Cir.2002); see also 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j) ("stay put" or "maintenance of placement" provision of the IDEA); 34 C.F.R. § 300.518(a), (d). The question this Court must answer is whether AISS is entitled to reimbursement of the cost of the ALJ's award of private placement and services if that award is subsequently found to be erroneous. AISS notes in its response that this question "is purely a legal one and is proper for determination by this Court at this time." (Dkt. [71] at 1). Summary judgment should be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c).

While the specific question of law posed by Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [48] has not been addressed by the Eleventh Circuit, other courts have examined it. In Clovis Unified Sch. Dist. v. California Office of Admin. Hearings, the school district argued that the disabled child's parents should bear the cost of the private placement, despite the fact that they won administrative and district court decisions holding that the placement was appropriate. 903 F.2d 635, 641 (9th Cir.1990). The Ninth Circuit, however, agreed with the parents that "the...

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