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Wehrspann v. Dubuque Community School District

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division

July 27, 2018

ALEX WEHRSPANN, Plaintiff,
v.
DUBUQUE COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT; and KEYSTONE AREA EDUCATION AGENCY, Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          C.J. Williams Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         TABLE OF CONTENTS

         I. Factual Background ............................................................................ 3

         II. Procedural Background ........................................................................ 6

         III. Jurisdiction ....................................................................................... 8

         IV. Applicable Law ................................................................................. 9

         A. Definitions ..................................................................................... 9

         B. Obligations Imposed Under IDEA ...................................................... 10

         C. Administrative Process .................................................................... 13

         D. Transfer of Rights .......................................................................... 14

         E. Judicial Review ............................................................................. 15

         V. Legal Arguments ............................................................................. 16

         A. Plaintiff's Arguments ...................................................................... 17

         B. Defendants' Arguments .................................................................... 19

         VI. Discussion ..................................................................................... 20

         A. ALJ's Determination that Plaintiff Was Not a Child With a Disability ........... 20

         B. Statute of Limitations ...................................................................... 23

         C. Attorneys' Fees and Costs ................................................................ 29

         VII. Conclusion .................................................................................... 30

         This action is an appeal from an administrative agency decision. Alex Wehrspann's parents brought an administrative action under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), to which Mr. Wehrspann (“plaintiff”) was ultimately joined, alleging that Dubuque Community School District and Keystone Area Education Agency (collectively, “defendants”) violated plaintiff's rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400, et. seq. (“IDEA”), as well as plaintiff's parents' rights under the same act. Following dismissal of the administrative due process complaint and the amended administrative due process complaint, [1] plaintiff filed his complaint in this Court (Doc. 1), appealing the administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) order dismissing the two due process complaints (Doc. 8-2, at 35-40).

         Between June 2016, and August 2016, the parties filed their briefs. (Docs. 11, 13, 14, 17). On August 15, 2016, the Court deemed this case fully submitted and ready for decision. On December 1, 2017, plaintiff submitted additional authority. (Doc. 20). On June 14, 2018, the Honorable Linda R. Reade, United States District Judge, referred this case to me for a Report and Recommendation. On June 27, 2018, I held a hearing on the merits of this case. On June 29, 2018, plaintiff filed a letter of supplemental authorities (Doc. 23), which the Court has considered. (see Doc. 25). With leave of Court, defendants filed a brief in response to plaintiff's supplemental authorities. (Docs. 25-26). Plaintiff then filed additional supplemental authorities. (Doc. 27). The Court did not grant leave for plaintiff to file his second supplemental authority, and plaintiff was not otherwise permitted to file such supplemental authority under either the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or under the Local Rules. The Court has therefore not considered this authority, and plaintiff's second supplemental authority filing is hereby stricken.

         For the following reasons, I respectfully recommend that the Court reverse and remand the ALJ's decision for further proceedings consistent with this Report and Recommendation. I further recommend that the Court deny plaintiff's request for attorneys' fees and costs, regardless of whether the Court adopts my Report and Recommendation.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on February 22, 1995, and was twenty years old when both the first administrative due process complaint was filed and when the amended administrative due process complaint was filed. (Docs. 8-1, at 3; 8-2, at 1 through 2, 20 through 31). The first due process complaint named only plaintiff's parents as complainants. (Doc. 8-2, at 1 through 2). When the due process complaint was amended, plaintiff was added as a party. (Doc. 8-2, 20 through 31). The ALJ assumed, for the sake of argument, that the amended due process complaint related back to the date the original complaint was filed. (Id., at 38 n.1).

         The respondents to the administrative action-and the defendants in the instant action-are “local education agencies.” (Doc. 13, at 3). Plaintiff attended school in the Dubuque Community School District until he graduated from high school. (Id.). Although it is not clear what role Keystone Area Education Agency played, neither Keystone Area Education Agency nor Dubuque Community School District has alleged that either defendant is an improper defendant.

         The parties do not dispute the ALJ's factual findings. Rather, all points of contention are strictly legal issues. I will, therefore, rely on the ALJ's factual findings:

[Plaintiff] was 20 years old when his parents filed the complaint[2] initiating this action. [Plaintiff] graduated from [high school] on May 26, 2013. In his senior year, [plaintiff] was a member of the National Honor Society.
During the whole of his enrollment at [defendants' educational institutions, plaintiff] was not identified as a child with a disability in obtaining an education, also known as an “eligible individual.” See 281 Iowa Admin. Code 41.22, 41.8 (2015).[3] Thus, [plaintiff] never ha[d] an Individualized Education Program[, ] or[, ] IEP. 281 Iowa Admin. Code 41.22.[4] There is no evidence that he was ever evaluated for purposes of ascertaining whether he was an eligible individual.
[Plaintiff] is now an independent adult. He has no court-appointed guardian.
The relief sought in the original complaint was compensation to [plaintiff] for ongoing anxiety and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), payment for ongoing counselling, and for “all the educators to be held accountable.” The relief sought in the amended complaint (that does not duplicate the request in the original complaint) was compensatory education and damages for the “actual and consequential damages [that] [plaintiff] suffered because of [defendants'] actions and omissions in their behavior toward [plaintiff].”
[Plaintiff] was diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder in 2006, at which time [plaintiff] was in junior high school. The amended complaint alleges, and it is assumed true for the sake of argument, that [plaintiff's mother] provided this information to [defendants] ¶ 2006. It is also assumed arguendo that [plaintiff's mother] informed [defendants] in the spring of 2012 that [plaintiff] suffered from PTSD.
[Plaintiff] was the target of extreme bullying throughout his years at [defendants' educational institutions], star[t]ing in elementary school and continuing through the first semester of his senior year. He completed his final semester of high school by taking online courses at home, for which [defendants] granted him credit. Because of his anxiety, the Complainants allege that [plaintiff] did not learn social skills that would help him cope with the bullying. They aver that [plaintiff] could not learn these social skills without specially designed instruction “outside of the general education environment.”
In the spring of 2012, [defendants] began to develop a Section 504 plan for [plaintiff], which was finalized prior to his senior year. The 504 plan addressed [plaintiff's] reaction to emotionally upsetting situations, allowing him to “leave the building when he is experiencing a stress reaction.”

(Doc. 8-2, at 36 (record citations omitted) (footnotes added)).

         In addition to his anxiety and PTSD, plaintiff also has autism and Ehlers-Danlos Disorder, a connective tissue disorder that causes plaintiff difficulty in fine manipulation. (Docs. 8-2, at 26; 11, at 2). Although plaintiff is alleged to have had autism since birth, while plaintiff was in school, he and his parents “did not know enough to realize that [plaintiff] had an autism spectrum disorder [that] interfered with his educational progress.” (Doc. 8-2, at 20-21). Thus, plaintiff's autism was not a known cause of plaintiff's educational difficulties until after plaintiff graduated from high school.

         II.PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         After plaintiff's parents initiated the administrative action below, defendants filed a motion to dismiss the administrative due process complaint, arguing that plaintiff's parents, as the sole complainants, [5] did not have standing to litigate the claims presented. (Doc. 8-2, at 15 through 16). Defendants further argued that the statute of limitations for any claims that may have existed had already elapsed and the claims were, therefore, barred. (Id.). In response to the motion to dismiss, complainants requested additional time to file an amended due process complaint. (Doc. 8-2, at 18). The ALJ granted the request. (Id.). The amended due process complaint more fully discussed the specifics of complainants' allegations and requested “compensatory related services in the area of mental health therapy, ” as well as monetary damages and attorneys' fees and costs. (Doc. 8-2, at 20 through 31). The amended due process complaint also added Alex Wehrspann-plaintiff in this case-as a co-complainant, alongside both of his parents.[6](Id., at 20).

         On June 25, 2015, the ALJ held a hearing on the motion to dismiss. (Doc. 8-3). The hearing was held solely to discuss the legal issues surrounding the motion to dismiss. Neither party offered factual evidence, nor did the ALJ request any such evidence. Further, the ALJ did not consider plaintiff's disabilities. The inquiries were limited to whether the amended due process complaint had to be dismissed for lack of standing or based on an expired statute of limitations.

         The ALJ ultimately entered an order dismissing the due process complaint and the amended due process complaint. (Doc. 8-2, at 35 through 40). The ALJ found that plaintiff had standing to pursue his claims, but that his parents-who were co-complainants below-did not have standing to pursue the claims asserted. (Doc. 8-2, at 37 through 38).

         The ALJ went on to find that the two year statute of limitations within which a complainant may file an administrative complaint expired on May 26, 2015, two years after plaintiff graduated from high school. (Doc. 8-2, at 38). The ALJ reasoned-and the parties do not contest-that no claim could accrue after plaintiff graduated. The original due process complaint was filed on May 19, 2015. (Id.). The ALJ therefore concluded that the actionable period was May 19, 2013, through May 26, 2013. (Id.).

         In determining whether the statute of limitations had expired, the ALJ addressed whether either of two statutory exceptions to the statute of limitations applied. As explained by the ALJ, complainants argued that the statute of limitations period was tolled under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(D)(ii) because defendants did not notify plaintiff that his parents' rights under the IDEA transferred to plaintiff upon plaintiff reaching the age of majority. (Doc. 8-2, at 38 through 39 (citing 20 U.S.C. 1415(m); 281 Iowa Admin. Code 41.520)). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ mischaracterized complainants' arguments. (Doc. 11, at 8).

         The ALJ found that the procedural protections described, such as the tolling provision, “are predicated on a child being identified as an eligible child.” (Doc. 8-2, at 38). The ALJ went on to define “a child with a disability” as one who requires “special education and support and related services.” (Id., at 39). Turning to the Code of Federal Regulations, the ALJ found that a child “‘who only needs a related service and not special education . . . is not a child with a disability . . ..” (Id. (omissions in original) (citing 34 C.F.R. 300.8(a)(2)(i))). The ALJ “[took] the assertions in the complaint and amended complaint at face value” and found that plaintiff required only related services and not special education. (Id.). Because the ALJ found that plaintiff required only related services, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not a child with a disability. (Id.). Because the ALJ found that plaintiff was not a child with a disability, the ALJ concluded that the IDEA's procedural safeguards did not apply to plaintiff and the statute of limitations was, therefore, not tolled. (Id.). The ALJ did not address whether the statute of limitations barred any claims that may have accrued from May 19, 2013, through May 26, 2013. Plaintiff now appeals the dismissal of the due process complaint, but does not contest the ALJ's determination as to any individual's standing.

         III.JURISDICTION

         This Court has jurisdiction under 20 U.S.C. 1415(i)(2)(A) (2004) to hear the administrative appeal of the decision issuing from the Iowa Department of Education. (Doc. 8-2, at 35-40). The complaint in the instant case was timely brought pursuant to the proper procedures, and the Court may, therefore, hear this case.[7]

         IV.APPLICABLE LAW

         Congress provided that the reasons for enacting the IDEA were, inter alia,

to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living; [and] to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected . . ..

20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A)-(B).[8]

         A. Definitions

         The term “child with a disability” is defined as a child “with intellectual disabilities, . . . serious emotional disturbance . . ., orthopedic impairments, autism, . . . other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities, ” and “who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.” 20 U.S.C. § 1401(3)(A). A state and the local education agency may, at their discretion, include within the definition of “child with a disability, ” a child who is aged three through nine years of age, and who experiences developmental delays, “as defined by the [s]tate, ” in, inter alia, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development, and “who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.” 20 U.S.C. § 1401(3)(B).

         “Related services” means “such developmental, corrective, and other supportive services . . . as may be required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education, and includes the early identification and assessment of disabling conditions in children.” 20 U.S.C. § 1401(26).

         Congress defined the term “free appropriate public ...


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