County School Bd. of Henrico County, Vir. v. Rt

Decision Date14 June 2006
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 3:04CV923.
Citation433 F.Supp.2d 692
PartiesCOUNTY SCHOOL BOARD OF HENRICO COUNTY, VIRGINIA, Plaintiff,. v. RT, a minor, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Virginia

Joseph Thomas Tokarz, II, Joseph Paul Rapisarda, Jr., Office of County Attorney, Richmond, VA, for Plaintiff.

Adrienne Elaine Volenik, William Henry Hurd, E. Paige Selden Fitzgerald, Siran S. Faulders, Troutman Sanders LLP, Richmond, VA, for Defendants.


PAYNE, District Judge.

The County School Board of Henrico County, Virginia ("School Board") instituted ed this action against RT, a minor with disabilities, and his parents, RCT and CMT, challenging a State Hearing Officer's decision, made under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"),1 and applicable State law,2 in favor of the parents as to the appropriate educational placement for RT. The parents and RT (hereafter "the parents") filed a counterclaim. Now before the Court are the parents' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON COUNTERCLAIM COUNTS I AND II (Docket No. 28) and the School Board's SECOND MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Docket No. 14).


RT was born in 1998 and suffers from autism. It is undisputed that RT is a child with disabilities who is eligible for services under the IDEA and applicable state law. Among those services is the right to receive a "free appropriate public education" ("FAPE") pursuant to an individualized educational plan ("IEP") that is agreed upon by the parents and the State or the local education authority ("LEA"), and that prescribes the appropriate educational placement of the student. § 1412(a)(1)(A); § 1412(a)(4); § 1414(d).3

RT received educational services at home from 1999 to the fall of 2001 through various county supported home-based programs. In the fall of 2001, RT began attending the Pre-School Education For Developmentally Delayed ("PEDD") program at Maybeury Elementary School. In September 2002, RT moved to Twin Hickory Elementary School under an interim IEP. Concerned by RT's lack of progress under past IEP's offered by the School Board and aware that a critical window of developmental opportunity was closing for RT,4 the parents began to investigate other alternatives to those being proposed by the School Board for the 2002-2003 school year.

In late October 2002, the School Board proposed an IEP that placed RT at Twin Hickory Elementary School for the full school year. That IEP was finalized on November 4, 2002 ("November IEP"). After reviewing RT's progress under the past IEP's and after consulting outside educational experts, RT's parents concluded that the proposed Twin Hickory placement was not appropriate and that placement at the Faison School, a private school that specializes in the education of autistic children, would provide RT with the appropriate educational placement. The School Board summarily declined the parents' proposal that RT be placed at the Faison School, contending instead that RT's progress to date was sufficient and that the November IEP, which maintained many of the same goals as the previous IEP but moved RT to the so-called "TEACCH" program at Twin Hickory, satisfied the School Board's legal obligations.

On December 3, 2002, after being unable to resolve the dispute over the appropriate placement for RT, and after giving the School Board the requisite notice, RT's parents placed him in the Faison School. On June 10, 2003, pursuant to the IDEA and State law, the parents formally requested an administrative hearing to resolve the dispute. See § 1415(f)(1). The State Hearing Officer conducted a three-day administrative hearing in August 2003.

On December 29, 2003,5 the State Hearing Officer ruled in favor of the parents, holding that, under the IDEA and governing case law, the IEP proposed by the School Board was inappropriate and that the Faison School placement provided the statutorily required appropriate educational benefits. (State Hearing Officer's Decision at 32-34, attached to Complaint as Exhibit A.)6 Acting under the IDEA and applicable State law,7 the State Hearing Officer "ORDERED that the parents ... [and RT] are entitled to reimbursement of tuition costs and related expenses at the Faison School and the [parents] are the prevailing parties." Id. at 34. The decision was final and binding upon the parties, but judicial review could be sought within a year of the decision. See § 1415(i).

On December 17, 2004, with the one-year period for seeking judicial review coming to a close, the School Board filed its Complaint in this Court seeking review of the State Hearing Officer's decision. Counsel for the School Board attributed the delay in filing solely to the fact that counsel had other professional commitments. To date, the School Board has not complied with the State Hearing Officer's order of reimbursement.


The IDEA makes federal assistance available to States for a fiscal year if, in that year, the State assures "the Secretary of Education that the State has in effect policies and procedures to ensure that the State meets" the conditions imposed by the IDEA. § 1412(a). In so doing, the receiving State must certify that "[a] free appropriate education is available to all children with disabilities residing in the State between the ages of 3 and 21, inclusive ...." § 1412(a)(1)(A).

The IDEA defines the term "free appropriate public education" to mean "special education and related services that—(A) have been provided at public expense, under public supervision, and without charge." § 1401(8). The term "special education" means "specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents ... to meet the unique needs of a handicapped child ..." § 1401(25) (emphasis added). The term "related services" is defined as "transportation, and such developmental supportive services ... as may be required to assist a handicapped child to benefit from special education." § 1401(22).

The Supreme Court has held that the term "free appropriate public education" does not require the school district to provide the disabled child with the best education possible. Bd. of Educ. of the Hendrick Hudson Central Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 203, 102 S.Ct. 3034, 73 L.Ed.2d 690 (1982). The State meets its obligations if it provide a qualifying child with:

personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction. Such instruction and services must be provided at public expense, must meet the State's educational standards, must approximate the grade levels used in the State's regular education, and must comport with the child's IEP.

Id. (emphasis added). This reflects "congressional intent ... [inter alia] to require the States [that accept federal funds] to adopt procedures which would result in individualized consideration of and instruction for each [disabled] child." Id. at 190, 102 S.Ct. 3034 (emphasis in original).

If they meet the IDEA's requirements, children "placed in, or referred to" private schools by the State or the LEA are specifically included within the statute's protections. § 1412(a)(10)(B)(i); see also § 1412(a)(10)(A)(i).8 Under those circumstances, the private schooling must be at public expense. § 1412(a)(10)(B)(i).9

If there is disagreement about the appropriate placement of the child, the IDEA requires resolution of the dispute in an administrative proceeding that is subject to judicial review. § 1415(i)(2).10 In Virginia, to resolve disputes over the proper placement of a disabled child, a hearing officer appointed by the State conducts an administrative hearing and then makes findings of fact and conclusions of law. See generally § 1415(f)-(i)(1); Va.Code Ann. § 22.1-214; 8 VAC § 20-80-76.

If the hearing officer determines that the LEA has provided the child with a FAPE through the proposed IEP, the parents bear the cost of the private placement. § 1412(a)(10)(C)(i).11 Conversely, the IDEA specifically empowers hearing officers and the state and federal courts to order the school district to reimburse the parents following a determination that the child has not been afforded a FAPE in a timely manner. § 1412(a)(10)(C)(ii).12 No matter what the outcome of the State administrative hearing, the IDEA provides that the decision of a hearing officer "shall be final," except that a party to the proceeding may bring an action in the appropriate State court or federal district court to challenge a hearing officer's decision. § 1415(i)(1), (2)(A).

A. The Complaint And The Counterclaim

The School Board's Complaint is laden with factual details and reads more like a brief than a complaint. In the Conclusion section, the Complaint asserts that the IEP offered an appropriate education for RT and, therefore, that the parents are not entitled to reimbursement for the cost of the Faison School for the 2002-2003 school year. By way of relief, the School Board asks that the State Hearing Officer's decision be reversed and that final judgment be entered for the School Board.

The parents' Answer is also like a brief because it responds in kind to the detailed factual assertions and legal arguments made in the Complaint. At bottom, the parents deny that the administrative decision limited the required reimbursement to the 2002-03 school year, contending instead that it imposed a continuing obligation for the School Board to reimburse them for the cost of educating RT at the Faison School before the State Hearing Officer's decision and thereafter.13 They also seek attorney's fees and costs.

The parents also filed a two-count Counterclaim seeking relief under the IDEA and, alternatively, under State law. Under both counts of their Counterclaim, the parents pray for entry of an order requiring the School Board immediately...

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