M.C., by and through his guardian ad litem M.N.; M. N., Plaintiffs - Appellants,
ANTELOPE VALLEY UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant-Appellee.
and Submitted August 2, 2016 Pasadena, California
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.
KOZINSKI, Circuit Judge
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.
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."
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.
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).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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." 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
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
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.
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) ...