Independent School Dist. No. 283 v. S.D. by J.D., 95-2497

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (8th Circuit)
Citation88 F.3d 556
Docket NumberNo. 95-2497,95-2497
Parties110 Ed. Law Rep. 987 INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 283, Plaintiff--Appellee, v. S.D., by her parents, J.D. and N.D.; J.D.; N.D., Defendants--Appellants, Linda Powell, Commissioner of Education; Gene Mammenga, Past Commissioner of Education; Robert Wedl, Acting Commissioner of Education; K.S., Hearing Review Officer, Defendants--Appellees.
Decision Date02 July 1996

Sonja D. Kerr, St. Paul, MN, argued (Dee Estelle Alpert and Ronald S. Stadler, on the brief), for appellant.

Susan Torgerson, St. Paul, MN, argued (Charles E. Long, Bernard E. Johnson and Rachel L. Kaplan, on the briefs of K.S. and Com'rs of Educ.), for appellee.

Before BOWMAN and LOKEN, Circuit Judges, and WOLLE, * Chief District Judge.

LOKEN, Circuit Judge.

S.D. and her parents 1 requested an administrative hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., when Minnesota Independent School District No. 283 (the "School District") refused to reimburse S.D. for private school tuition. A state-appointed hearing officer denied reimbursement, but a hearing review officer granted S.D. this relief. The School District then sought judicial review in federal court, and S.D. asserted counterclaims and cross-claims under various federal and state laws.

The district court 2 granted judgment on the administrative record, concluding that the School District had substantially complied with IDEA's procedural requirements and had provided S.D. "a free appropriate public education." See 20 U.S.C. § 1400(c); Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 203, 102 S.Ct. 3034, 3049, 73 L.Ed.2d 690 (1982). The court dismissed S.D.'s remaining claims as precluded by that judgment. On appeal, S.D. argues that the district court erred in refusing to expand the administrative record, in reversing the state hearing review officer, and in dismissing the non-IDEA claims. We affirm.


S.D. suffers from severe dyslexia, which impacts her reading and mathematics skills, and attention deficit disorder, which affects her concentration and learning. From kindergarten through third grade, S.D. attended regular classes at Peter Hobart Primary Center, a public elementary school in the School District. In first grade, an initial special education assessment suggested that S.D. has average to above average intelligence, but her reading, writing, comprehension, and mathematics skills were below her ability. That prompted development of an individualized education plan ("IEP") for S.D. Under IDEA, an IEP "sets out the child's present educational performance, establishes annual and short-term objectives for improvements in that performance, and describes the specially designed instruction and services that will enable the child to meet those objectives." Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311, 108 S.Ct. 592, 597-98, 98 L.Ed.2d 686 (1988). See 20 U.S.C. §§ 1401(a)(20), 1414(a)(5).

S.D. continued to be "mainstreamed" in regular classes. She also began receiving special education services from a licensed learning disabilities professional and "Chapter One" mathematics instruction under a federal program designed to reinforce classroom work in a small group setting. In 1991, while S.D. was in third grade, a psychological consultant concluded that she is a visually-based dyslexic. She was also diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder. Later that year, S.D.'s mother complained that public education supplemented with special education services was inadequate, but the School District refused to pay tuition at Groves Learning Center ("Groves"), a private school for children with learning disabilities. Following a conciliation conference, the School District agreed to S.D.'s request that the psychological consultant continue to monitor progress under the IEP.

In March 1992, the IEP was amended to provide summer instruction and special education in math. S.D.'s parents requested that she be held back in third grade at Peter Hobart school. The School District recommended she be placed in third or fourth grade at Susan Lindgren Intermediate School. After another conciliation conference, the School District agreed to provide group and private instruction that summer, but not at Groves. In the fall, S.D. began fourth grade at Susan Lindgren school, with a special education teacher assigned to help her adjust to the new environment. At the end of September, S.D.'s parents enrolled her at Groves without the School District's consent.

S.D. then requested a hearing, challenging the IEPs and seeking reimbursement for her tuition at Groves. The Minnesota Commissioner of Education appointed an administrative hearing officer. See Minn.Stat.Ann. § 120.17, subd. 3b(e); Minn.R. 3525.4000. After a twelve-day hearing, the hearing officer made detailed findings of fact and concluded: (i) "[e]xcept as to enhancing self-esteem," S.D.'s initial and modified IEPs met the requirement of IDEA and Minnesota law to provide a free appropriate public education; (ii) if S.D. had not withdrawn from public school in September 1992, "the IEP would have produced measurable educational benefit"; (iii) "Groves is not an appropriate educational placement for [S.D.] ... because Groves does not provide the education in the least restrictive environment"; and (iv) the School District need not reimburse S.D. for tuition at Groves but must remedy IEP inadequacies by reimbursing S.D. for summer tutoring, attention deficit and psychological consultations, and self-esteem counseling. The hearing officer explained:

[S.D.]'s self-esteem is the focal point of most of the conflicts in this matter.... Both sides in this matter believe that the approach they advocate for [S.D.]'s education is best for her own self-esteem.

* * * * * *

It is interesting to note that the District generally assessed the same needs as did Groves and that it used virtually all of the same teaching techniques as are being applied at Groves.... Each setting has its own weaknesses and strengths. In [S.D.]'s particular case, because of her relatively severe learning disabilities, it could be debated forever which program provides the better education for her. But it is not the duty of public schools to provide the better education. It is the duty of public schools to provide an appropriate public education and the District in this case has done that and has the ability to do that in the future.

S.D. appealed to a hearing review officer. See Minn.Stat.Ann. § 120.17, subd. 3b(g). The review officer reversed. She concluded that S.D.'s IEPs "were procedurally flawed"; the School District's services "did not provide educational benefit"; the School District had not provided a "free appropriate public education"; and Groves "was an appropriate placement." Although the review officer considered it "troubling" that S.D. spends all her time at Groves with other children with learning disabilities, the review officer concluded that "the Groves' environment is clearly superior for [S.D.]'s emotional needs," and therefore the School District must pay for S.D.'s tuition at Groves.

The School District then commenced this action, seeking judicial review of the review officer's adverse decision. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e). S.D. asserted counterclaims and cross-claims alleging violations of IDEA, its state law counterpart, Minn.Stat.Ann. § 120.17, and other laws. 3 The district court granted the School District judgment on the administrative record, thereby reinstating the hearing officer's decision. Concluding that the review officer had improperly reweighed the evidence, the court adopted the findings of the hearing officer "as amply supported by the preponderance of the evidence." The court further concluded that S.D. had failed to show "solid justification" for the submission of additional evidence. Turning to the key substantive issues, the court found that the School District had provided S.D. a "free appropriate public education" in a properly mainstreamed, least restrictive environment; "that Groves was not a proper placement for S.D., within the context of the IDEA"; and therefore, that the School District need not reimburse S.D. for tuition at Groves. The court agreed with the hearing officer that the deficiencies in S.D.'s IEPs were either harmless or remedied by the relief the hearing officer granted. Finally, the court dismissed S.D.'s counterclaims because the School District had complied with IDEA and dismissed her cross-claims because S.D. acquiesced in any administrative delay and suffered no harm from the Commissioner's appointment process. S.D. appeals.


S.D. first faults the district court for granting the School District judgment on the 2000-page administrative record. S.D. argues that this was procedurally improper because there were disputed issues of material fact, no discovery had been conducted, and S.D. wished to present additional evidence. Under IDEA, state law governs the administrative hearing process for challenging a child's IEP. But after exhausting these remedies, an aggrieved party may seek judicial review in federal court. In conducting that review, the court "shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings, shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party, and, basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2).

Although the statute permits the reviewing court to expand the administrative record, "[d]ecision on the record compiled before the administrative agency is the norm ... so a party that wants the judge to take evidence rather than decide the case on the record compiled before the hearing officers had better tell him." Hunger v. Leininger, 15 F.3d 664, 670 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 115 S.Ct. 123, 130 L.Ed.2d 67 (1994). Because the reviewing court must...

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