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M.C. v. Antelope Valley Union High School District

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

March 27, 2017

M.C., by and through his guardian ad litem M.N.; M. N., Plaintiffs - Appellants,
v.
ANTELOPE VALLEY UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued and Submitted August 2, 2016 Pasadena, California

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California D.C. No. 2:13-cv-01452-DMG-MRW Dolly M. Gee, District Judge, Presiding

          Before: REINHARDT, KOZINSKI, and WARDLAW, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          KOZINSKI, Circuit Judge

         The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") guarantees children with disabilities a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"). 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). We consider the interplay between the IDEA's procedural and substantive safeguards.

         BACKGROUND

         M.C. suffers from Norrie Disease, a genetic disorder that renders him blind. He also has a host of other deficits that cause him developmental delays in all academic areas. M.C.'s mother, M.N., met with several school administrators and instructors to discuss M.C.'s educational challenges and draft an individualized educational program ("IEP"). At the conclusion of this meeting, she signed an IEP document and "authorize[d] the goals and services but [did] not agree it provides a FAPE."

         M.N. then filed a due process complaint alleging that the Antelope Valley Union High School District (the "District") committed procedural and substantive violations of the IDEA. The due process hearing took place before an Administrative Law Judge who denied all of M.C.'s claims and the district court affirmed.

         DISCUSSION

         The IDEA's "primary goal is 'to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services . . . .'" J.L. v. Mercer Island Sch. Dist., 592 F.3d 938, 947 (9th Cir. 2010) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A)). A FAPE must be "tailored to the unique needs of the handicapped child by means of an 'individualized educational program' (IEP)." Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 181 (1982) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1401(18)). An IEP must contain, among other things, "a statement of the child's present levels of academic achievement, " "a statement of measurable annual goals" and "a statement of the special education and related services . . . to be provided to the child." 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i). When formulating an IEP, a school district "must comply both procedurally and substantively with the IDEA, " M.L. v. Fed. Way Sch. Dist., 394 F.3d 634, 644 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206-07), so that the process "will be informed not only by the expertise of school officials, but also by the input of the child's parents or guardians, " Endrew F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist., 580 U.S. __, slip op. at 11 (Mar. 22, 2017).

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Judicial review in IDEA cases "differs substantially from judicial review of other agency actions, in which courts are generally confined to the administrative record and are held to a highly deferential standard of review." Ojai Unified Sch. Dist. v. Jackson, 4 F.3d 1467, 1471 (9th Cir. 1993). We review whether the state has provided a FAPE de novo. Union Sch. Dist. v. Smith, 15 F.3d 1519, 1524 (9th Cir. 1994). We can accord some deference to the ALJ's factual findings, but only where they are "thorough and careful, " and "the extent of deference to be given is within our discretion." Id. (citations omitted).

         The district court accorded the ALJ's findings substantial deference because the ALJ "questioned witnesses during a three-day hearing" and "wrote a 21-page opinion that reviewed the qualifications of witnesses and culled relevant details from the record." But neither the duration of the hearing, nor the ALJ's active involvement, nor the length of the ALJ's opinion can ensure that the ALJ was "thorough and careful."[1] J.W. ex rel. J.E.W. v. Fresno Unified Sch. Dist., 626 F.3d 431, 440 (9th Cir. 2010). And, in this case, the ALJ was neither thorough nor careful. As plaintiffs point out, the ALJ didn't address all issues and disregarded some of the evidence presented at the hearing. Even the district court recognized that the ALJ's analysis "is not entirely satisfying." Accordingly, the district court erred in deferring to the ALJ's findings.

         II. PROCEDURAL VIOLATIONS

         The IDEA contains numerous procedural safeguards that are designed to protect the rights of disabled children and their parents. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415. These safeguards are a central feature of the IDEA process, not a mere afterthought: "Congress placed every bit as much emphasis upon compliance with procedures giving parents and guardians a large measure of participation at every stage of the administrative process as it did upon the measurement of the resulting IEP against a substantive standard." Rowley, 458 U.S. at 205. Because disabled children and their parents are generally not represented by counsel during the IEP process, procedural errors at that stage are particularly likely to be prejudicial and cause the loss of educational benefits.

         Therefore, compliance with the IDEA's procedural safeguards "is essential to ensuring that every eligible child receives a FAPE, and those procedures which provide for meaningful parent participation are particularly important." Amanda J. v. Clark Cty. Sch. Dist., 267 F.3d 877, 891 (9th Cir. 2001). "Procedural violations that interfere with parental participation in the IEP formulation process undermine the very essence of the IDEA." Id. at 892.

         Plaintiffs allege that the District violated the IDEA by (1) failing to adequately document the services provided by a teacher of the visually impaired ("TVI"), (2) failing to specify the assistive technology ("AT") devices provided and (3) ...


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