M.B. v. HAMILTON SOUTHEASTERN SCHOOLS (December 22, 2011)
M.B., the son of Damian and Amy Berns, was four years old when he suffered a traumatic brain injury. The Berns approached Hamilton Southeastern Schools for information about special education services. Within a few months, both the Berns' psychologist (Dr. Bryan Hudson) and the School's psychologist had evaluated M.B. The Berns and the School held several meetings over the course of the next year to develop a individualized education program. A principal point of contention was the Berns' frequent requests that M.B. be provided full days of schooling (as recommended by Dr. Hudson) and the School's reluctance or inability to do so. The Berns eventually moved M.B. to a different school and initiated proceedings at the Indiana State Department of Education. After a due process hearing, a hearing officer found that the school had not denied M.B. an appropriate education and refused to grant any relief to the Berns. The Indiana Board of Special Education Appeals agreed. On the administrative record, Judge Pratt (S.D. Ind.) denied the Berns' request for relief. The Berns appeal.
In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Williams and Tinder and District Judge Gottschall affirmed. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a state that accepts federal funding for educating disabled children must provide a "free, public, and appropriate" education that is reasonably calculated to provide an educational benefit. The IDEA contains both procedural and substantive requirements. The Berns made several arguments on appeal, which the Court addressed in turn. First, the Court rejected the argument that procedural inadequacies constituted denial of a free education. There were some procedural errors, but they were not significant enough to amount to a denial of a free and appropriate education. There were other alleged procedural errors that could have risen to that level but were unsupported by the record. Second, the Court concluded that the School did not violate the IDEA by not providing full-day education. The administrative record contains evidence that M.B. was making progress toward his goals in his half-day program. Although Dr. Hudson thought otherwise, the School was not required to give his report or testimony dispositive weight and was allowed, in fact was required, to consider the entire record. The conclusions of the administrative tribunals were reasonable. Third, the Court rejected the Berns' argument that the school violated the IDEA by not commencing services within 60 instructional days. The Court found that the School met its 60-day requirement. Plus, any delay was due to the Berns' refusal for several months to give consent to the school to conduct an evaluation. Finally, the Court noted that the Berns failed to meet their burden of proving that the new school was an appropriate placement. Under the IDEA, when parents unilaterally transfer schools, they are entitled to reimbursement only if they show both that earlier school violated the IDEA and that the new school was an appropriate placement.