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Krawietz v. Galveston Independent School District

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Galveston Division

March 30, 2017

ASHLEY KRAWIETZ, et al, Plaintiffs,


          George C. Hanks Jr. United States District Judge

         The parties' cross-motions for summary judgment[1] stem from a dispute between student and school district over a Texas Education Agency (“TEA”) Due Process Hearing Decision (“The Decision”). Ashley requested the hearing to determine whether GISD failed to provide her with a free, appropriate public education (“FAPE”) from 2009 to 2015 as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).[2] The Decision found that although some of Ashley's claims for relief were barred by a one-year statute of limitations, GISD's continuing failure to evaluate Ashley for special education services entitled her to compensatory services and equitable relief.

         Ashley then brought this suit to assert her status as a prevailing party who is entitled to attorneys' fees. The cross-motions for summary judgment require the Court to decide the following issues based on the administrative record: 1) whether the Decision correctly granted Ashley relief; 2) whether Ashley is a prevailing party; and 3) whether the attorneys' fees sought are reasonable.

         I. Statement of the Undisputed Facts

         The undisputed facts are as follows.[3] Ashley was born in 1996 and has exhibited troubling behavior since she was in preschool. These behaviors can safely be attributed to a variety of genetic and environmental factors. In 2004, GISD identified Ashley as a student with disabilities who was eligible for special education services. GISD developed an Individualized Educational Plan (“IEP”). Ashley was evaluated annually through 2008. In 2008, Ashley's family withdrew her from GISD after she attempted to burn another student with a hot glue gun. Ashley began homeschooling in 2009, which was to last for the next four years.

         In 2013, Ashley returned to GISD, enrolling at AIM College and Career Prep Center (“AIM”). AIM is a GISD charter school. Ashley's AIM application stated that she had received special education services for a disability. Additionally, Ashley's family informed GISD upon her return that she had received special education services in the past. They further informed GISD that these services had never been dismissed. Unable to locate Ashley's records, GISD determined that she had been dismissed from special education status and services.

         Ashley started the ninth grade at AIM in August 2013. In September 2013, she was suspended for performing oral sex on two students in a faculty restroom. She was also placed on Disciplinary Alternative Educational Placement for two months. She was also failing three out of her five classes. GISD referred Ashley for Section 504 Plan (“504”) services in November 2013.[4] The Section 504 Committee determined that Ashley was eligible for 504 accommodations due to PTSD, ADHS and OCD. The Committee did not address her confirmed diagnoses of Triple-X Disorder and depressive disorders. Accommodations included “additional time to complete assignments, reminders to stay on task, “chunking” material, a quiet place to work, and, small group testing.” Dkt. 1-2, ¶ 36. GISD did not design or implement a behavior plan.

         Ashley's academic and behavioral performance improved after the fall of 2013, and she was ultimately successful in ninth grade (2013-14) at AIM. She began to struggle once again-both academically and behaviorally-in tenth grade (2014-15). She was hospitalized once again in September 2014. She was twice caught stealing in October 2014. She scored below the 20th percentile on multiple sections of the 2014 PSAT. She completed less than half of the expected credits for her fall semester (August 2014-December 2014).

         In response to Ashley's continuing struggles, GISD scheduled another 504 Conference in February 2015 over protests from Ashley's family. Ashley, now represented by counsel, submitted a Special Education Due Process Hearing Request letter on February 9, 2015. During a Resolution Session held prior to the Hearing, the parties agreed that GISD would conduct a Full Individual Evaluation (“FIE”). The FIE, completed in April 2015, found that Ashley suffered from poor self-esteem, and exhibited learning disabilities in the areas of reading, math, and written expression. The FIE concluded that Ashley was eligible for special education services. The FIE did not assess Ashley's sensory needs. Nor did it assess the need for post-school transition, in-home training, parent training, sexuality education, or speech/pragmatic language.

         Special Education Hearing Officer (“SEHO”) Ann Vevier Lockwood conducted the Due Process Hearing, which concluded in May 2015. Both Ashley and GISD were represented by counsel. Ashley argued that GISD had denied her the right to a FAPE from 2009 through 2015. Ashley sought the following relief:

i. That the district be ordered to provide to the student eligibility for special education and related services, an appropriate IEP in the least restrictive environment, which is a residential placement….
ii. If the district cannot or will not provide appropriate services to the student, then the parents seek reimbursement for the placement they assembled for the student. This would include reimbursement for private services, evaluations and mileage, incurred in the absence of a provision of FAPE by the district and whether the family is entitled to have the district fund private placement, evaluations and/or related services going forward for the time determined by the hearing officer to be appropriate.
iii. Compensatory educational services due to the district's denial of FAPE in the amounts and types determined by the hearing officer to be appropriate to compensate the student for any violations of law the hearing officer finds….
iv. Any relief that the hearing officer deems appropriate or which is recommended by the student's experts and evaluators.

Dkt. 1-1, p. 18.

         The SEHO released the Decision of the Hearing Officer on July 7, 2015. Dkt. 1-2. The Decision made the following conclusions of law and fact, categorized here based on their favorability to Ashley.

         i. Favorable Conclusions

• GISD had a continuing duty to re-evaluate Ashley when she returned to the school district. GISD should have recognized that a re-evaluation was overdue and identified Ashley as a student with a disability upon her enrollment with AIM. GISD's failure to implement an appropriate Individualized Educational Plan (“IEP”) harmed Ashley.
• Ashley met the criteria to be identified as the following: 1) a Student with an Emotional Disturbance; 2) a Student with Other Health Impairment; and 3) a Student with Specific Learning Disabilities.
• Ashley is entitled to compensatory and equitable relief for GISD's failure to timely meet its Child Find duty.[5]

         ii. Unfavorable Conclusions

• A one-year statute of limitations applied time-barred all claims that arose prior to February 9, 2014.
• Ashley was not entitled to residential placement because she had not demonstrated that such treatment constituted the least restrictive environment as required by IDEA.
• GISD was not required to reimburse Ashley for the Independent Educational Evaluation (“IEE”) that she had secured in preparation for the Due Process Hearing. Reimbursement is appropriate where the parent disagrees with the school district's recommendation. Here, GISD had not completed its own evaluation, so there was nothing with which to disagree.
• Any non-IDEA claims were dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

Dkt. 1-1, pp. 31-34.

         On July 21, 2015, Ashley counsel wrote to GISD. Her letter declared that Ashley was the prevailing party and thus deserving of attorneys' fees. The letter offered to reduce the attorneys' fees by 15% in consideration for a timely settlement. Dkt. 40-2. On July 31, 2015, GISD's counsel responded, concluding that “the law supports only a minimal award of attorneys' fees, if it supports any at all.” Dkt. 27-1. GISD's letter further explained that, “in the interest of collaborating to secure an end to this litigation, I am authorized to negotiate a settlement in which GISD would pay $10, 000 in exchange for a full release of all existing claims, including attorney's fees.” Id.

         The parties did not reach a settlement agreement. In August 2015, Ashley instead filed a Complaint with this Court pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). Ashley's Complaint sought to establish that she was a prevailing party in the Due Process Decision pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). GISD disagreed, asserting the following arguments in its motion for summary judgment: 1) GISD did not violate the IDEA; 2) alternatively, all relief granted by the Decision was time-barred; 3) Ashley is not a prevailing party and thus not entitled to recover attorneys' fees; and 4) alternatively, the Court should limit or deny attorneys' fees. Dkt. 27.

         Ashley's Complaint included affidavits from her counsel of record, Dorene J. Philpot and Deborah Ann Heaton McElvaney regarding attorneys' fees and costs.[6] A Response (Dkt. 32) and Reply (Dkt. 33) followed. Ashley also filed a motion for summary judgment that argued against all relief sought by GISD. Dkt. 40. A Response (Dkt. 46) and Reply (Dkt. 47) followed. Ashley's Complaint also included causes of action pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). See 29 U.S.C. § 701; 42 U.S.C. § 12101. GISD filed a supplement to its motion for summary judgment arguing against these additional causes. Dkt. 42. However, per the parties' joint stipulation (Dkt. 44), the Court dismissed with prejudice all claims other than those brought under the IDEA. Dkt. 45. Finally, Ashley filed a supplementary brief with the Court arguing that GISD bears the burden of proof. Dkt. 49. GISD responded. Dkt. 50.

         II. Standard of Review

         i. Motion for Summary Judgment and the IDEA

         Under the IDEA, a party aggrieved by an administrative decision may sue in district court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). The district court shall receive the administrative record, hear additional evidence at any party's request, and decide based on the preponderance of the evidence. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C). “If no party requests additional evidence to be heard by the district court, a motion for summary judgement is simply a procedural device for asking the Court to decide the case on the basis of the administrative record.& ...

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