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Dallas Independent School District v. Woody

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

July 27, 2017

DALLAS INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Plaintiff-Appellant
v.
MICHELLE WOODY, as next of friend to K.W., Defendant-Appellee

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before REAVLEY, OWEN, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.

          LESLIE H. SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judge:

         The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA" or the "Act") requires public school districts to provide all resident disabled students with a "free appropriate public education, " or "FAPE." Arguing that Dallas Independent School District impermissibly failed to offer her high-school daughter FAPE during her senior year, Michelle Woody sought reimbursement for the cost of her daughter's private-school tuition. The hearing officer found for Woody, awarding her $25, 426.93. The district court affirmed but reduced the award to $11, 942.50. The school district appealed. Woody did not. We AFFIRM in part, REVERSE in part, and REMAND.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Kelsey Woody was a high-school student with learning disabilities. After starting high school at a Dallas private school, she moved to Los Angeles, California, with her mother, Michelle Woody ("Woody"). Once there, Woody enrolled Kelsey at private school and then at a Los Angeles Unified School District ("LAUSD") public school. Upon learning of Kelsey's educational history, LAUSD evaluated Kelsey in April 2012. That evaluation uncovered learning problems, so LAUSD recommended that Kelsey be referred to an Individual Education Program ("IEP") team to determine her special-education options. In May 2012, the IEP team met and concluded that Kelsey was eligible for services under the Act. The resulting IEP designated general education, which meant a public school, as her proper instructional setting.

         Kelsey's situation worsened that summer. While in South Korea visiting her sister, she had a psychotic break. She returned to California yet continued to experience "dramatic symptoms of an emotional breakdown despite mood stabilization medication[.]" She was therefore admitted to the UCLA Psychiatric Hospital, where she was diagnosed with "schizophrenia in addition to her previously diagnosed learning disabilities[.]" As a result, her doctors recommended a specialized learning environment with significant support and close monitoring, noting in a September 2012 follow-up that Kelsey was "far too fragile to be placed on a general education campus."

         Still, LAUSD offered only general-education services. At this point, Woody moved Kelsey back to Dallas to live with her godparents. One of them is a psychiatrist, likely equipping them to better provide Kelsey with the support necessary to transition her out of the hospital setting. Woody, who was finishing an advanced degree at the University of Southern California, remained in Los Angeles for the 2012-13 school year.

         After moving her to Dallas, Woody enrolled Kelsey at the private Winston School, which offered a specialized learning environment for students with learning disabilities. Kelsey's performance improved, but she continued to receive psychiatric treatment. In January 2013, Children's Medical Center in Dallas evaluated Kelsey, finding her to be psychologically vulnerable and recommending "continued follow-up with her psychiatrist for medication management, consistent structure with no significant life changes, and family and individual therapy."

         Meanwhile, Woody initiated a due-process action against LAUSD to challenge its failure to offer Kelsey private-school placement. The parties settled in April 2013, and LAUSD agreed to reimburse Woody for educational costs associated with Kelsey's placement at the Winston School and for counseling services during the 2012-13 school year. LAUSD also agreed to place Kelsey at an appropriate non-public school for the 2013-14 school year. LAUSD's May 2013 IEP placed Kelsey at the Westview School in California, not the Winston School in Dallas.

         Woody moved back to Dallas in August 2013, and Kelsey became a resident of the Dallas School District, which hereafter we will call the "District." On September 16, 2013, Woody notified the District of Kelsey's new residence and of Woody's desire for Kelsey to receive FAPE in the form of tuition reimbursement. She provided the IEP from May 2013 that placed Kelsey in a non-public school for her senior year and indicated that she was a student with a disability. She also provided the Children's Hospital evaluation from January and other background information. In turn, she asked the District to provide her with the necessary forms.

         Kelsey remained at the Winston School that fall. As the district court found, "[t]he record is clear that Woody believed it critical for Kelsey to remain at the Winston School and intended, from the beginning, to pursue funding for her tuition from" the District. The District responded to Woody's letter on October 4 requesting additional information, including the complete IEP team document from 2012, the most recent Full and Individual Evaluation ("FIE"), and all records from the Winston School. Woody provided those documents on November 5. On November 13, the District sought consent from Woody to obtain LAUSD records, which Woody granted on November 19.

         On November 18, the District contacted Woody to schedule an Admission, Review, and Dismissal Committee ("ARD Committee") meeting.[1]An important purpose of such a meeting is to allow parents to participate in the shaping of an IEP for their children. See 34 C.F.R. § 300.322. The parties agreed to meet on December 17. The District asked that Winston School personnel attend the meeting, but that school had a policy requiring payment of staff for offsite meetings. By November 22, Woody had a copy of this policy but did not inform the District of its existence until December 13. Neither party was willing to pay for Winston staff to attend, so none of Kelsey's teachers were present at the meeting.

         Woody learned when she arrived at the meeting that the District considered it to be a "student transfer meeting, " not an ARD Committee meeting. The District's purpose in having the meeting, which apparently is not required under the IDEA, was "to document a student transfer into the district and plan for comparable services." In turn, the transfer document provided that Kelsey would receive temporary special-education services. No such services were offered or provided, though, and it is unclear whether the District actually determined Kelsey to be eligible. The District did not offer FAPE at the meeting.

         The minutes from the December meeting show that the District rejected LAUSD's IEP and planned to evaluate Kelsey and develop its own IEP. The District was aware of Kelsey's disabilities (including her diagnosis of schizophrenia) and Children Medical Center's recommendations. It was also aware that LAUSD had found her to be eligible for special-education services under IDEA. It did not offer temporary services but instead sought consent to evaluate Kelsey. Woody gave consent on January 24, 2014, and the District completed an FIE and provided it to Woody on April 8. The initial FIE found Kelsey to be IDEA-eligible. On April 16, though, the District gave Woody a revised FIE in which its psychologist concluded Kelsey was not IDEA-eligible due to her successful performance in the "mainstream" environment at the Winston School. The FIE did not acknowledge Children's recommendation that any significant life change could place Kelsey at high risk for a relapse of psychosis. The ARD Committee agreed that Kelsey did not require special-education services.

         Woody disagreed and asked for an Independent Educational Evaluation ("IEE"), which the District denied. Woody then sought a psychological consultation from a different psychologist, who reviewed relevant materials and observed Kelsey at school. That psychologist concluded that the District's FIE was defective, specifically taking issue with the FIE's description of the Winston School as a "mainstream setting." She concluded that a change in schools would have been devastating, that Kelsey needed special-education services, and that the Winston School was a proper placement. She provided a report (not an IEE) reflecting these conclusions to the District on May 20.

         As a result, the ARD Committee reconvened on May 22. It determined that Kelsey was IDEA-eligible and developed an IEP for Kelsey to be implemented at a District high school from April 2014 to April 2015. Kelsey was to graduate in May 2014, though. Woody disagreed with the IEP for four reasons: (1) the IEP was futile so close to graduation; (2) the IEP offered inadequate services and supports; (3) the IEP's goals and objectives failed to address Kelsey's needs; and (4) the IEP placed Kelsey at a public school for the last week of high school.

         The May 22 proposed IEP was the District's first attempt to offer FAPE. That summer, Woody's psychologist completed an IEE and provided it to the District. The District never reconvened the ARD Committee to consider the IEE, so the district court found that the District "never finalized the May 2014 IEP, thereby never finalizing its offer of FAPE."

         In October 2014, Woody requested a due-process hearing. The hearing officer concluded that the District "had a legal obligation to make a timely offer of FAPE available to [Kelsey] for the 2013-14 school year[.]" Because it failed to do so, the hearing officer concluded that Woody was entitled to reimbursement in the amount of $25, 426.93, an amount that covered the cost of sending Kelsey to the Winston School for the entire 2013-14 school year.

         The district court conducted a bench trial. It affirmed in part, agreeing that the District impeded Kelsey's right to FAPE for 2013-14, but it reduced the reimbursement award to $11, 942.50 because it found that Woody's "conduct contributed in part to the imbroglio before the court." See Dallas Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Woody, 178 F.Supp.3d 443 (N.D. Tex. 2016). The District now appeals. Woody does not cross-appeal.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Overview of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

         When reviewing the decision of the due-process officer, the district court's review is "virtually de novo." Cypress-Fairbanks Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Michael F., 118 F.3d 245, 252 (5th Cir. 1997). Although the district court is to give "due weight to the hearing officer's findings, the court must ultimately reach an independent decision based on a preponderance of the evidence." Id. (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         This court, in turn, reviews legal questions de novo and factual questions for clear error. See Klein Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Hovem, 690 F.3d 390, 395 (5th Cir. 2012). "Mixed questions should be reviewed under the clearly erroneous standard if factual questions predominate, and de novo if the legal questions predominate." Seth B. ex rel. Donald B. v. Orleans Par. Sch. Bd., 810 F.3d 961, 967 (5th Cir. 2016). The district court's ultimate conclusion that the District failed to provide FAPE is a mixed question of law and fact in which legal questions predominate, so we review it de novo. See Hovem, 690 F.3d at 395. We review the factual findings themselves for clear error. Seth B., 810 F.3d at 967. We will not reverse underlying findings unless we are "left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." R.P. ex rel R.P. v. Alamo Heights Indep. Sch. Dist., 703 F.3d 801, 808 (5th Cir. 2012).

         Generally, the Act "offers States federal funds to assist in educating children with disabilities." Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v. Douglas Cnty. Sch. Dist. RE-1, 137 S.Ct. 988, 993 (2017). In exchange for such funds, States pledge to ensure "[a] free appropriate public education is available to all children with disabilities residing in the State between the ages of 3 and 21 . . . ." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). Children with disabilities are those evaluated under IDEA and determined to have some qualifying intellectual, physical, or emotional disability. Id. § 1401(3)(A); 34 C.F.R. § 300.8(a).

         Once a school accepts that one of its students is eligible under IDEA, the school must develop an individualized program of education for that student. Michael F., 118 F.3d at 247. The program is described in detail in the IEP, which is "a written statement prepared at [an ARD Committee] meeting attended by a qualified representative of the school district, a teacher, the child's parents or guardians, and, when appropriate, the child [her]self." Id. The IEP must be "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances." Endrew F., 137 S.Ct. at 999. It must match the school's services with the needs of the child, Richardson Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Michael Z., 580 F.3d 286, 292 (5th Cir. 2009), and is "the centerpiece of the statute's education delivery system for disabled children, " Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311 (1988).

         Although school districts are required to provide a free appropriate public education - a FAPE - to all eligible students, a district's obligations vary depending on the circumstances of the student and her placement. Relevant here, IDEA and its regulations impose obligations on the public-school district even for students who are being educated in private schools. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10); 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.130-300.148.

         II. The School District's Appellate Arguments

         The District raises three grounds for reversal. First, its central claim is that the district court created a new category of student under IDEA who is entitled to reimbursement for tuition, namely, a child placed in private school by a parent who has made it clear she will reject any offer of a public-school education. Its closely related second argument is that the district court erred by not recognizing either that Kelsey was a parentally placed private-school student or that Woody categorically rejected FAPE. Finally, the District argues that it did comply with its IDEA obligation to offer FAPE to Kelsey, a parentally placed student in private school.

         The District relies heavily on the specific section of IDEA that discusses how local public school districts are to assist students who have been placed in private schools. See § 1412(a)(10). The first subsection discusses children enrolled by their parents in private school and provides for the children's participation in special education and related services. § 1412(a)(10)(A). The second subsection requires that the public school pay for the special education outlined in a child's IEP if the child is in a private school because the public school is consensually using it "as the means of carrying out" its IDEA obligations. § 1412(a)(10)(B). Finally, a child may be placed in a private school without the consent of the public school. § 1412(a)(10)(C). Different provisions address when the costs of the special education must be reimbursed, which largely turn on whether the public school offered FAPE. Id.

         A. Did the district court create a non-statutory category of private-school students and thereby err in awarding temporary services?

         The following is the section of the opinion in which the district court allegedly ...


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