from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Texas
REAVLEY, OWEN, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.
H. SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judge:
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.
AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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.
November 18, the District contacted Woody to schedule an
Admission, Review, and Dismissal Committee ("ARD
Committee") meeting.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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
Overview of the Individuals with Disabilities Education
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
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).
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).
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).
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.
The School District's Appellate Arguments
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.
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.
Did the district court create a non-statutory category of
private-school students and thereby err in awarding temporary
following is the section of the opinion in which the district
court allegedly ...