Doe v. Anrig

Decision Date08 November 1982
Docket NumberNo. 81-1807,81-1807
Citation692 F.2d 800
PartiesJohn DOE, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees, v. Dr. Gregory ANRIG, Massachusetts Commissioner of Education and the School Committee of Westwood, Defendants, Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Diana S. Gondek, Boston, Mass., for the School Committee of Westwood.

Francis X. Bellotti, Atty. Gen., and Linda M. Irvin, Asst. Atty. Gen., Boston, Mass., on brief, for defendants, appellants.

Anne M. Vohl, Burlington, Mass., for plaintiffs, appellees.

Before COFFIN, Chief Judge, FAIRCHILD, * Senior Circuit Judge, and CAMPBELL, Circuit Judge.

FAIRCHILD, Senior Circuit Judge.

This case, which involves questions of state and federal law for the education of handicapped children, arises from a dispute over the appropriate educational placement of John Doe, 1 a Down's Syndrome child with special educational needs. The district court set aside an earlier decision of the Massachusetts Department of Education and held that the appropriate placement for John during the 1977-1978 year was in a residential program. We affirm that portion of the district court's judgment. However, insofar as the judgment omitted any award of reimbursement to John's parents for expenses incurred in continuing his prior residential placement during the pendency of administrative and judicial review, we vacate and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Background

John was born in 1965 and has never lived with his parents. Instead, he has been raised and educated in a series of residential programs. The costs of such care were paid in full by the parents until 1975 when, prompted by the recent enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (the "Act"), 20 U.S.C. Sec. 1401 et seq., and parallel state law provisions, Massachusetts General Laws ch. 71B, the parents requested school officials to evaluate John and formulate for him an individualized education program ("I.E.P."). Their expectation was that some, if not all, of the costs of John's schooling could be assumed by the public school system. They believed that if education in a residential setting was required, the school committee would be obligated by law to pay for residential care expenses (e.g., room and board), as well as educational costs.

In February 1975, the Westwood, Massachusetts, school committee proposed an I.E.P. which called for placing John in a non-residential public school program, after a transitional year of continued residential placement. The parents rejected this plan, but did not attempt to challenge it through legal channels. Instead, the parents and school officials entered into discussions and reached an agreement whereby John would remain in residential placement, "the parents would assume the Crystal Springs community residence expense for their child and Westwood would assume the costs of the Crystal Springs day school component." 2 At the parents' request, 3 this agreement was submitted to the school committee and approved. Thereafter, the cost-sharing arrangement was described in a letter from a Westwood official to the Massachusetts Department of Education's Regional Office, whose approval was necessary. The letter stated:

"The parents attended a review meeting on 5-29-75 and indicated they would accept a 'split cost' arrangement wherein Westwood would assume the cost of the Crystal Springs day school but not the residence portion, provided such cost compared reasonably with the 502.4 TEC collaborative program 4 offered in [the] district." 5

In response, the Office issued a letter on September 4, 1975 6 approving John's placement in a 502.6 prototype (i.e., residential program) at Crystal Springs School, which is where John had lived the preceding eight years. The authorization letter referred to Westwood's letter of July 29, but made no express reference to the cost-sharing agreement.

The parties proceeded to share expenses until the fall of 1977. On September 12, 1977, John's parents requested a full re-evaluation of John's status. 7 A complete reassessment was thereafter conducted, and on November 15, 1977, a new I.E.P., for the period covering November 1, 1977 to November 1, 1978, was proposed. The plan contemplated the immediate placement of John in a non-residential program for mentally retarded youngsters at Walpole Junior High School, with later placement in a similar program at Westwood High School. It anticipated that John, for the first time, would live at home with his parents. Because John's parents still strongly felt that residential placement was required, they rejected the 1977 I.E.P., on November 20, 1977. 8 Thereafter, they sought administrative and judicial review in accordance with state and federal law.

The Massachusetts Department of Education's Bureau of Special Education Appeals ("Bureau") ruled the proposed 1977 I.E.P. adequate and appropriate, but found that a transitional program should be developed to facilitate John's move from residential to public school education. That determination was affirmed by the Department's State Advisory Council for Special Education ("S.A.C.") 9 .

Subsequently, the parents commenced an action under 20 U.S.C. Sec. 1415(e)(2) to set aside the state administrative decision. They requested that John's appropriate placement be found to be the residential setting at Crystal Springs School, and asked for a declaration of rights and responsibilities with respect to the financial expenses of John's attendance at that school.

The opinion of the district court found that the parents had demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that the appropriate placement for John during 1977-1978 was a residential one. It further concluded that the full cost of John's placement at Crystal Springs during 1977-1978 was the responsibility of the public school system, but that there should be no reimbursement for years after 1977-1978 and prior to the decision.

The judgment of the district court, consistent with its opinion, set aside the state determination and stated that the appropriate placement for John in 1977-1978 was the residential program at Crystal Springs. But unlike the opinion, the separately entered judgment was silent on the subject of reimbursement for any year. Apparently no request was made for the district court to amend its judgment to conform with its opinion.

Both parties have appealed. Defendants argue that the court erred by refusing to grant substantial deference to the decisions of the state administrative bodies, by using an improper standard of "appropriateness" in evaluating the 1977 I.E.P., and by incorrectly weighing the evidence. They seek reversal of the judgment and reinstatement of the decision of the state Department of Education. The parents contend that the district court's placement ruling was correct, but that the court failed to properly allocate the expenses of John's past residential placement. In general, they seek a "ruling" or declaration that they are entitled to reimbursement of expenses they have incurred during the pendency of review.

While the appeal has been pending the parties have continued to adhere to the terms of their cost-sharing arrangement, which appears to have been followed at all times since it was entered into in 1975. The parents' brief states that this division of costs has never been intended to preclude claims for reimbursement upon resolution of the appropriate placement issue. Defendants do not dispute that assertion.

In 1980, John was transferred from Crystal Springs to another residential facility. The district court's opinion noted that "it has been stipulated that that transfer is not at issue."

Neither the district court nor the parties in briefing and argument on appeal had the benefit of Board of Education v. Rowley, --- U.S. ----, 102 S.Ct. 3034, 73 L.Ed.2d 690 (1982). Although the Supreme Court confined its analysis to the situation there presented, "a handicapped child who is receiving substantial specialized instruction and related services, and who is performing above average in the regular classrooms of the public school system," --- U.S. at ----, 102 S.Ct. at 3049, the decision contains much concerning the Act that is significant in our quite different case. The Rowley Court was facing the question of the extent to which the Act requires fine-tuning of educational programs to provide equal opportunities for all students. We are confronting the more elementary dilemma of whether the school board plan would provide the basic services that are necessary for a significantly handicapped child's education. The decision will be frequently cited herein as Rowley.

II. Defendants' Appeal

Before considering defendants' challenges to the district court's decision, it seems appropriate to address a preliminary matter. The parties and the district court have uniformly referred to the 1977 I.E.P. and the educational placement of John during the 1977-1978 year. Of course, that period has long since passed, and it would be impossible to change the actual placement retroactively. Nonetheless neither party argues that the case is now moot. Rather, they appear to treat the 1977 I.E.P.--which to our knowledge has never been superseded by a later I.E.P.--as a placement continuing until changed. Such an approach is consistent with the terms of 20 U.S.C. Sec. 1415(e)(3), which provides for continuation of a child's "then current educational placement" during review proceedings under the Act. 10 Under that interpretation, there continues to be a controversy over current placement, as well as over reimbursement for costs in past years. Accordingly, we find no problem of mootness. 11

A. Deference to State Administrative Findings

In relevant part, 20 U.S.C. Sec. 1415(e)(2) provides that a party aggrieved by the findings and decision of a state educational agency with respect to the placement and...

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