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Ogawa v. Saint Paul Public Schools

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 10, 2018

Lynne Ogawa, Parent and Natural Guardian of T.O.F., a Minor Child; and Laura Flockencier, Parent and Natural Guardian of T.O.F., a Minor Child, Plaintiffs,
v.
Saint Paul Public Schools, Independent School District No. 625, Defendant.,

          Amy J. Goetz, Esq., and Andrea L. Jepsen, Esq., School Law Center, LLC, St. Paul, MN, on behalf of Plaintiffs.

          Adam C. Wattenbarger, Esq., and Peter G. Mikhail, Esq., Kennedy & Graven, Chartered, Minneapolis, MN, on behalf of Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ANN D. MONTGOMERY U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On November 30, 2017, the undersigned United States District Judge heard oral argument on Plaintiffs Lynne Ogawa, Parent and Natural Guardian of T.O.F., a Minor Child; and Laura Flockencier, Parent, and Natural Guardian of T.O.F., a Minor Child's (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) Revised Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket No. 21], and Defendant Saint Paul Public Schools, Independent School District No. 625's (the “School District”) Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket No. 28]. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiffs' Motion is granted, and the School District's Motion is denied.

         II. BACKGROUND

         The only remaining issue in this case is the narrow one of whether Plaintiffs were the “prevailing party” in their administrative due process complaint brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the “IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1415. If so, Plaintiffs are entitled to an award of reasonable attorneys' fees. If they were not, no attorneys' fees will be awarded.

         A. T.O.F.

         T.O.F., a 10-year-old student, was first evaluated by the School District for special education services in April 2013. Compl. [Docket No. 1] ¶¶ 1-3. He was diagnosed as having emotional/behavioral disorders, and his parents agreed to an Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) based upon the initial evaluation. Administrative Record [Docket No. 11] (“AR”) at OAH001316.

         T.O.F. was reevaluated in March 2016, and his parents agreed to a new IEP based upon the reevaluation. Id.

         B. The December 6, 2016 Due Process Complaint

         On November 21, 2016, T.O.F. brought a pocketknife to school, showed it to a fellow student, and reportedly threatened to kill the student if he reported the knife. Compl. ¶ 4. T.O.F. was suspended from school for five days.

         On November 28, 2016, the School District provided T.O.F.'s parents with a Prior Written Notice/Consent to Evaluate, which was notice the School District sought to reevaluate T.O.F. after the knife incident. The performance areas to be evaluated included intellectual/cognitive functioning, academic performance, and emotional, social, and behavioral development. AR at OAH001316. The School District proposed to evaluate T.O.F.'s intellectual/cognitive functioning and his academic performance through a review of his previous testing. T.O.F.'s emotional, social, and behavioral development evaluations were to be conducted through observation, a functional behavioral assessment, and a review of T.O.F.'s previous testing. On November 29, 2016, T.O.F.'s parents consented to the School District's proposal. Id.

         On December 5, 2016, Plaintiffs filed a Complaint and Request for Hearing (the “Complaint”) with the Minnesota Department of Education. First Goetz Aff. [Docket No. 27] Ex. A. In the Complaint, Plaintiffs sought: 1) to secure T.O.F.'s right to stay in his current educational placement;[1] 2) an independent educational evaluation (“IEE”) at public expense; 3) an improved IEP and Behavioral Intervention Plan (“BIP”) incorporating the results of the IEE, and 4) compensatory education services.[2] Id.

         1. Pre-Hearing Motions

         After the Complaint was filed, the parties resolved the dispute regarding the administrative transfer, and T.O.F. was permitted to return to the same school building. AR at OAH001584. The other issues remained.

         On December 21, 2016, the School District filed a motion arguing that the Complaint should be dismissed because it lacked factual specificity as required under 34 C.F.R. 300.508(b)(5).[3] Id. at OAH001584-86. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) agreed that the Complaint was deficient, but provided Plaintiffs an opportunity to amend. Id. at OAH001498-02.

         On December 28, 2016, before an amended complaint was filed, the School District moved to dismiss Plaintiffs' demand for an IEE at public expense. Id. at OAH001461-67. The School District argued that since the parents never disagreed with any prior evaluation, they were not entitled to a publicly funded IEE. Id. at OAH001316. On January 24, 2017, while the School District's motion to dismiss the IEE demand was pending, Plaintiffs filed a motion for preliminary relief, requesting that the ALJ appoint three evaluators to conduct an IEE at public expense: 1) Dr. Richard S. Ziegler (“Dr. Ziegler”) to conduct the psycho-educational evaluation portion of the IEE; 2) Janice Ostrom (“Ostrom”) to conduct the functional behavior analysis portion of the IEE; and 3) Dr. Anne Gearity (Dr. Gearity”) to assess T.O.F.'s childhood trauma and its effects on his learning. The School District responded opposing its obligation pay for the IEE.

         On January 26, 2017, the ALJ denied the School District's motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' demand for an IEE at public expense. The ALJ concluded that his parents' acceptance of T.O.F.'s IEP in March 2016 did not waive their right to later disagree with the evaluation upon which that IEP was based. Id. at OAH001319-20. The ALJ therefore ordered the School District to perform an IEE at public expense. Id.

         On February 16, 2017, the ALJ appointed Dr. Ziegler and Ostrom as evaluators, but disagreed that Dr. Gearity was needed to assess T.O.F.'s childhood trauma. The ALJ also rejected Plaintiffs' contention that the School District pay for the expenses incurred by Ostrom and Drs. Ziegler and Gearity prior to January 26, 2017, concluding that the School District's financial responsibility to provide the IEE began on January 26, 2017.

         2. Complaint Dismissed

         The due process hearing was scheduled for April 18, 2017, and Plaintiffs were ordered to file witness lists and exhibits by April 11, 2017. Id. at OAH000021-22.

         Plaintiffs did not file an exhibit or witness list by the April 11, 2017 deadline. On April 12, 2017, the School District moved to dismiss the case due to Plaintiffs' failure to comply with the ALJ's scheduling order. Id. at OAH000016-18. On April 13, Plaintiffs' counsel wrote to the ALJ stating that the “primary issues raised for resolution in this matter are now resolved. The Student and his Parents withdraw the only remaining issue that has not been resolved, the claim for compensatory education services, and request dismissal.” Id. at OAH000009. Plaintiffs assert that “[o]nce the IEE was completed and its results were incorporated into a new and significantly improved IEP for T.O.F., and once the final order regarding the IEE was issued, Plaintiffs were satisfied with the outcome of the proceedings.” Compl. ¶ 16. The ALJ entered an order dismissing the case with prejudice that same day. Id. at OAH000008.

         Plaintiffs' counsel wrote another letter later that day requesting that the ALJ file an amended order eliminating the statement that the parties “have resolved all their differences.” Id. at OAH000005. T.O.F. additionally requested that the amended order reflect that dismissal be without prejudice. Id. at OAH000005. The ALJ filed an amended order that eliminated the objected to language, but again stated that dismissal was with prejudice. Id. at OAH000004.

         C. ...


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