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R.M.M. v. Minneapolis Public Schools

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

June 27, 2017

R.M.M., a minor child, by and through her Mother and Natural Guardian, T.M., Plaintiffs,
v.
Minneapolis Public Schools, Special School District No. 1; and Minneapolis Public School Board, Defendants. Special School District No. 1, Minneapolis Public Schools, Plaintiff,
v.
R.M.M., a minor child, by and through her Mother and Natural Guardian, T.M., Defendants.

          Amy J. Goetz and Andrea L. Jepsen, School Law Center, LLC, for R.M.M., a minor child, by and through her Mother and Natural Guardian, T.M.

          Laura Tubbs Booth and Roseann Therese Schreifels, Booth Law Group, LLC, for Minneapolis Public Schools, Special School District No. 1, and Minneapolis Public School Board.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SUSAN RICHARD NELSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter comes before the Court on three motions in the above-captioned related cases: the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the administrative record [Doc. Nos. 13, 16] in Case No. 16-cv-3085, and Minneapolis Public Schools' (“the School District”) Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [Doc. No. 96] in Case No. 15-cv-1627. For the reasons that follow the Court grants R.M.M.'s motion for judgment on the record, denies the School District's corresponding motion, and grants the School District's motion for judgment on the pleadings.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual History

         These lawsuits arise out of the alleged failure of the School District to timely and appropriately identify and evaluate R.M.M. as a student with learning disabilities, and to provide her with timely and appropriate special education services. See R.M.M. v. Minneapolis Pub. Schs., Nos. 15-cv-1627, 15-cv-1855 (SRN/HB), 2016 WL 475171, at *1 (D. Minn. Feb. 8, 2016). Briefly stated, the School District is a public school district serving approximately 36, 000 students from pre-school to age 21. (See Compl. [Case No. 16-cv-3085, Doc. No. 1] ¶ 4.) In addition to its other responsibilities, the School District provides special education services to individuals in public, private, and home schools located within its geographical boundaries. (See Id. ¶ 5.) R.M.M. is a minor who resides within those boundaries and who was voluntarily enrolled in Annunciation Catholic School (“ACS”), a private school within the district, from kindergarten through fifth grade. (See Id. ¶ 8.)

         During her time in elementary school, R.M.M. struggled academically, especially with reading skills. As early as the 2009-10 school year (R.M.M.'s first grade year), she began receiving individualized Orton-Gillingham reading instruction twice per week. (See Compl., Ex. 1 (“ALJ Remand Order”) at 4.) At the beginning of her second grade year, R.M.M.'s mother, T.M., was advised by ACS staff that R.M.M. was not reading at an appropriate level. (See Id. at 5.) T.M. subsequently met with Heather Zurell, the ACS Learning Specialist, who advised her to seek an assessment for R.M.M. (See id.) Options discussed apparently included seeking an assessment through the School District, or through another private school, Groves Academy. (See id.)

         T.M. ultimately decided to bring R.M.M. to Groves Academy for an evaluation on December 3, 2010. (See id.) The resulting report concluded that R.M.M. had dyslexia and a Disorder of Written Expression, causing difficulties in reading and writing. (See Id. at 6.) Based in part on the Groves Academy report, R.M.M. began receiving Title I reading services twice per week from teachers employed by the School District. (See Id. at 7.) Title I services are publicly funded educational services for students at risk of academic failure or who have certain other needs. (See id.) R.M.M. continued to receive Title I services throughout her third and fourth grade years, culminating in 2.5 hours of specialized instruction per week during the 2012-13 school year. (See Id. at 7-8.) T.M. also privately funded various after-school and summer tutoring programs for R.M.M. (See id.) Nonetheless, R.M.M. continued to have minimal academic success. (See id.)

         Although this fact is disputed, the record suggests that the ACS Learning Specialist provided multiple reports to Dr. Carolyn Cherry, the School District official in charge of Title I services, documenting R.M.M.'s struggling performance during her second, third, and fourth grade years. What is undisputed is that T.M. contacted Dr. Cherry in late 2012 to discuss R.M.M.'s performance and to ask for an increase in Title I services. (See ALJ Remand Order at 8.) Pursuant to that request, the School District received educational data from ACS in early 2013 indicating that R.M.M. had made little progress in reading during her time at ACS. (See id.)

         At the beginning of R.M.M.'s fifth grade year, ACS staff referred her to the School District for a special education evaluation to determine whether she was eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. The evaluation report determined that R.M.M. was indeed eligible, and an Individual Service Plan (“ISP”) was prepared. (See Id. at 9-10.) R.M.M. began receiving services under the ISP on March 11, 2014. After only four sessions, however, T.M. withdrew her consent to continued special education services from the School District. (See Compl. ¶¶ 21, 22.)

         Prior to the beginning of R.M.M.'s sixth grade year, ACS staff asked T.M. to remove R.M.M. from ACS, citing her lack of academic progress. (See Verified Compl. [Case No. 15-cv-1627, Doc. No. 1] (“R.M.M. Compl.”) ¶¶ 93-95.) T.M. subsequently enrolled R.M.M. in a public school. (See Id. ¶ 98.) Starting in seventh grade and continuing until the present time, R.M.M. has been enrolled at Groves Academy. (See ALJ Remand Order at 10.) The record demonstrates that she has made meaningful academic progress in her time at Groves, and has registered emotional improvement-in part reflecting her academic success. (See Id. at 11.)

         B. Procedural History

         This dispute has a lengthy procedural history, and is now before this Court for the second time. See generally R.M.M., 2016 WL 475171. On August 14, 2014, shortly after R.M.M. began her sixth grade year, T.M. filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Education (“MDE”), alleging that the School District had violated its location, identification, and evaluation obligations under the IDEA, as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”). See Id. at *2. On October 6, 2014, T.M. amended the complaint to include a claim that R.M.M. had been denied a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”), as required by the IDEA, while she was enrolled at ACS. See id.

         The matter was assigned to Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) James Mortenson. On October 14, 2014, the ALJ dismissed as moot the child find claim because he determined that R.M.M. had indeed been identified, evaluated, and determined to be a child with a disability. See Id. A due process hearing on R.M.M.'s FAPE claim was held in early December, 2014. See Id. The ALJ issued his Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order (“First ALJ Order”) on January 2, 2015, concluding that the School District had denied R.M.M. a FAPE while she was a private student. See Id. As a remedy, he ordered the School District to provide or pay for a set amount of additional instruction for R.M.M. in reading, writing, and mathematics. See id.

         On March 27, 2015, T.M. initiated the first of the present lawsuits, seeking reversal of the ALJ's October 14 and October 17[1] orders dismissing the child find claim and the FAPE claim to the extent it arose prior to January 2014. See Id. The lawsuit also asserted claims against the School District and the Minneapolis Public School Board (“the School Board”) for discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504. See Id. The School District responded with its own lawsuit on April 2, 2015, appealing the ALJ's January 2, 2015 due process hearing decision on the grounds that the ALJ lacked jurisdiction over R.M.M.'s FAPE claims, and had erroneously determined that R.M.M. was entitled to compensatory education. See Id. The parties subsequently brought cross-motions to dismiss, and this Court issued its order on February 8, 2016. The Court denied the School District's motion, concluding that a parentally-placed private school student has an individual right to a FAPE and a due process hearing.[2] The Court granted T.M.'s motion, reinstated the child find and FAPE claims, and remanded those claims to the ALJ for a due process hearing. See generally id.

         The ALJ issued his Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order on Remand (“ALJ Remand Order”) on July 1, 2016. He determined that the School District had failed to meet the child find requirements of the IDEA by, among other things, “fail[ing] to affirmatively seek out and identify [R.M.M.] as a child with a disability . . . .” (See ALJ Remand Order at 13.) In the ALJ's opinion, the record demonstrated that the School District's child find procedures consisted of little more than passively waiting for parents or private school officials to make referrals for evaluations, which improperly “shifted the burden of identification and location of possible children with disabilities” on to those parents and officials. (Id. at 17.) As the ALJ noted:

The School District never screened [R.M.M.] pursuant to its child find policy. School District staff never made inquiries about [R.M.M.], her performance, and the reasons for her performance. The School District did not propose to evaluate [R.M.M.] until the 2013-14 school year, following a referral from [ACS]. This is particularly surprising given that the School District was providing [R.M.M.] with Title I services to address her reading performance since second grade. Yet, the School District never made inquiries about why [R.M.M.] required such services. The School District's Title I coordinator testified that such an inquiry was not her job, even though she was a contact between the School District and [ACS] concerning specific struggling students. Such an inquiry would have led the School District to a reasonable suspicion that [R.M.M.] may be a child with a disability and a written proposal to evaluate could have followed. Parent could then have consented to the proposal or rejected it. Instead, the School District waited for Parent to approach it with a referral. The fact that she did not do so prior to [ACS]'s referral in fifth grade is immaterial because the School District did not seek out Student and propose evaluating her to Parent.

(Id.) As a remedy for this violation, the ALJ ordered the School District to reimburse T.M. for the cost of the December 3, 2010 assessment at Groves Academy, as well as for tuition and related services at Groves for the 2015-16 school year, amounting in total to $21, 145. (See Id. at 14.) The ALJ also ordered the School District to pay to maintain R.M.M. at Groves at least through the 2017-18 school year, as compensatory education for at least three years of ...


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