K.L. v. Rhode Island Board of Education, 102918 FED1, 17-1517

Docket Nº:17-1517
Opinion Judge:LIPEZ, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
Party Name:K.L., THROUGH HER PARENT L.L. ON BEHALF OF A CLASS OF THOSE SIMILARLY SITUATED Plaintiff, Appellant, v. RHODE ISLAND BOARD OF EDUCATION; BARBARA S. COTTAM, Defendants, Appellees.
Attorney:Jason H. Kim, with whom Sonja L. Deyoe and Paul Aston were on brief, for appellant. Paul Sullivan for appellees.
Judge Panel:Before Lynch and Lipez, Circuit Judges, Ponsor, District Judge. LYNCH, Circuit Judge, dissenting.
Case Date:October 29, 2018
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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K.L., THROUGH HER PARENT L.L. ON BEHALF OF A CLASS OF THOSE SIMILARLY SITUATED Plaintiff, Appellant,

v.

RHODE ISLAND BOARD OF EDUCATION; BARBARA S. COTTAM, Defendants, Appellees.

No. 17-1517

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

October 29, 2018

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF RHODE ISLAND Hon. William E. Smith, Chief U.S. District Judge

Jason H. Kim, with whom Sonja L. Deyoe and Paul Aston were on brief, for appellant.

Paul Sullivan for appellees.

Before Lynch and Lipez, Circuit Judges, Ponsor, District Judge. [*]

LIPEZ, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

This case involves the alleged failure of Rhode Island to provide a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") to qualified students with disabilities, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"). Specifically, K.L., through her parent L.L., and on behalf of a certified class of those similarly situated, asserts that Rhode Island violates the IDEA because it provides "public education" to individuals without disabilities between the ages of 21 and 22, but does not provide special education services to qualifying individuals with disabilities of the same age.

At the core of this dispute is the meaning of "public education" in a section of the IDEA specifying that a state need not provide FAPE to qualified students aged 18 through 21 if doing so "would be inconsistent with State law or practice . . . respecting the provision of public education." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(B)(i). The IDEA does not define "public education," and we have not previously interpreted the phrase. The district court concluded that the adult education programs Rhode Island provides to non-disabled students beyond the age of 21 do not constitute "public education" within the meaning of the IDEA, and, therefore, Rhode Island does not discriminate against students with disabilities by failing to provide FAPE to qualifying students of the same age.

We disagree with the district court's narrow interpretation of the term "public education." Accordingly, we vacate the decision of the district court and remand the case for entry of judgment in favor of K.L. and for remedial proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Procedural History

K.L.'s original complaint and amended complaint were filed on her own behalf and on behalf of a class of those similarly situated. The district court granted K.L.'s motion for certification of a statewide class that includes [a]ll individuals who were over 21 and under 22 within two years before the filing of this action or will turn 21 during the pendency of this action who are provided or were provided a FAPE under the IDEA by any [Local Education Agency] in the State of Rhode Island and who, but for turning 21, would otherwise qualify or would have qualified for a FAPE until age 22 because they have not or had not yet earned a regular high school diploma ("the Class").

Following certification, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court determined that the only significant factual dispute concerned "the degree of public supervision the Rhode Island Department of Education ("RIDE") exercises over the state's adult education programs." Concluding that this dispute was immaterial to the scope of the term "public education," the court granted summary judgment for appellees on the basis of its holding that Rhode Island's "adult education" services do not qualify as "public education" within the meaning of the IDEA.

In this appeal, K.L. argues that, for purposes of the IDEA, "public education" includes the adult education services Rhode Island provides to persons up to age 22. Accordingly, she argues that the IDEA obliges the state to provide FAPE to students with disabilities up to age 22, which Rhode Island does not currently do.

We review de novo the district court's ruling on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. See AES P.R., L.P. v. Trujillo-Panisse, 857 F.3d 101, 110 (1st Cir. 2017). In assessing the competing views of Rhode Island's obligation, we begin by determining the meaning of "public education" as used in the IDEA. We then consider whether Rhode Island's adult education services constitute "public education" within that meaning.

II. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

A. The Meaning of "Public Education"

The IDEA requires states to provide "[a] free appropriate public education . . . to all children with disabilities residing in the State between the ages of 3 and 21, inclusive[.]" 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). Pursuant to this mandate, all students "who are [otherwise] eligible for special education services are entitled to continue receiving those services until they turn twenty-two." L.A. Unified Sch. Dist.

v. Garcia, 669 F.3d 956, 959 (9th Cir. 2012); see also St. Johnsbury Acad. v.

D.H., 240 F.3d 163, 168-69 (2d Cir. 2001). Notwithstanding this general requirement, the IDEA permits an exception to the applicable age range: "[t]he obligation to make a free appropriate public education available to all children with disabilities does not apply with respect to children . . . [aged] 18 through 21 in a State to the extent that its application to those children would be inconsistent with State law or practice, or the order of any court, respecting the provision of public education to [such] children[.]" 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(B)(i).

In assessing the meaning of the phrase, "inconsistent with State law or practice," the Ninth Circuit examined the IDEA's legislative history. See E.R.K. ex rel. R.K. v. Haw. Dep't of Educ., 728 F.3d 982, 986-87 (9th Cir. 2013). Citing the Senate Report accompanying the 1975 statute that first created the exception, the Ninth Circuit held that § 1412(a)(1)(B)(i) means that a state may only deny FAPE to students with disabilities ages 18 through 21 to the extent it also abstains from providing "public education" to students without disabilities of the same ages. See id. at 987 (quoting S. Rep. No. 94-168, 1975 U.S.C.C.A.N. 1425, 1442-43 (1975) (explaining that the "exception shall not apply . . . where a state does now in fact provide or assure the provision of free public education to non-handicapped children in these age groups")). We agree with this interpretation of § 1412(a)(1)(B)(i). Appellees do not challenge it. Therefore, a state's provision of "public education" for students from age 18 through age 21 triggers the IDEA's § 1412(a)(1)(A) FAPE mandate for students with disabilities in the same age range.

The IDEA, however, does not include "public education" among the three dozen terms for which the statute provides definitions. See 20 U.S.C. § 1401. We infer from that absence Congress's recognition that "public education" has a commonly understood meaning accessible to courts if they must resolve disputes involving the meaning of that phrase. See United States v. Chuong Van Duong, 665 F.3d 364, 366 (1st Cir. 2012) ("We assume that the words that Congress chose to implement its wishes, if not specifically defined, carry their ordinary meaning and accurately express Congress's intent." (quoting Boivin v.

Black, 225 F.3d 36, 40 (1st Cir. 2000)); In re Hill, 562 F.3d 29, 32 (1st Cir. 2009) (same). Appellees agree that the term "public education" should "carr[y] its ordinary meaning," and, indeed, this ordinary meaning assumption is a rule of necessity. Faced with a case that turns on the meaning of an undefined statutory term, we cannot decline to decide the lawsuit because Congress failed to provide a definition. Instead, we draw on our awareness of ordinary usage, as Congress would have understood it.

We begin with the two core attributes of "public education" that are undisputed: (1) a significant level of state or local governmental funding, and (2) the public administration or oversight of the educational services. Although appellees advocate for a narrower conception of "public education" under the IDEA, see infra Section II.B, they acknowledge that "public education" is education that is "subject to and meeting state standards" and provided "at public expense."

The view that "public education" is commonly understood to involve government funding and administration or oversight is confirmed by our review of multiple dictionary definitions. Although dictionaries are not dispositive in interpreting statutory language, they provide useful guidance on the common meaning of words and phrases. United States v. Lachman, 387 F.3d 42, 51 (1st Cir. 2004) ("Dictionaries of the English language are a fundamental tool in ascertaining the plain meaning of terms used in statutes and regulations."); see also, e.g., Wis. Cent. Ltd.

v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 2067, 2071 (2018); Voisine v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2272, 2278 (2016). In this instance, for...

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