Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion from July 26

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

G., et al. v. Harrison School District No. 2

Patrick G. is a 17-year-old boy with autism who qualifies for special educational services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires states receiving federal funding to offer children with disabilities a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. 

Since 2013, G. has attended the Alpine Autism Center for school. During enrollment, G.’s mother met with district officials and provided them with his prior school records, including his individualized education plan. In 2016, the Harrison School District proposed transferring G. to a special program at Mountain Vista Community School, allegedly tailored to G.’s needs. G.’s parents challenged the decision on his behalf, alleging the school district committed a host of violations in crafting an IEP for G. in 2015 and 2016. 

G.’s IEP team met with a neutral facilitator on Jan. 8, 2016, to discuss updating his IEP. The team concluded G. “did not exhibit the need for a Behavioral Intervention Plan based on the behaviors he exhibited during the [2015] evaluations,” but stated they would revisit this determination if things changed. They discussed the advantages and disadvantages of both Alpine and Mountain Vista. 

The advantages of Mountain Vista were G. would receive specialized, small-group social and academic instruction in a special education classroom for the majority of his school day while still accessing the general education environment to practice learned social skills and more rigorous, tailored academic instruction. The advantages of Alpine were that G. could continue his current placement, where he was making progress. At the conclusion of the January 2016 meeting, “[a]ll of the team members, with the exception of [the parents], opined that [G.’s] goals could best be met at Mountain Vista… and [its] public school setting was the least restrictive environment for him.” 

G.’s parents threatened to file a due process complaint if G. were removed from Alpine and the school district maintained his placement there until May 2016. The district discontinued its payments to Alpine on May 20, 2016. In response to the decision to discontinue payments to Alpine, and to the general impasse over G.’s 2016 IEP, G.’s parents filed a due process complaint on G.’s behalf on Aug. 25, 2016.

Specifically, they alleged the district committed myriad procedural and substantive violations regarding G.’s 2016 IEP, including that it “failed to provide G. the speech and occupational services required in his” IEP for several years;  “failed to comply with the… requirements of” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; “significantly changed G.’s educational placement without conducting a full or adequate reevaluation of G.”; “failed to include as members of G.’s IEP Team individuals who had specific and current knowledge about G. and his educational needs,” including “staff from [his] current educational placement at Alpine” and “pre-determined G.’s educational placement at Mountain Vista” without considering his “individual educational needs and abilities.” 

As relief, the parents requested “an order requiring the school district to place [G.] at Alpine… and reimburse the Parents for the costs associated from this educational placement [at Alpine] from May 20, 2016, to the present.” They also requested compensation for therapy services and attorney fees. 

The district court determined that the expiration of G.’s 2016 IEP rendered the lawsuit moot — there was no longer a live controversy for the court to resolve. Significantly, the district court held several related issues — including the parents’ request for attorney’s fees from the administrative proceedings, their argument that the school district had incorrectly reimbursed the parents’ insurance provider instead of the parents themselves and their motion for a “stay put” injunction to keep G. in his current educational placement during the proceedings — were also moot. 

In the appeal, the parents contended the district court erred by failing to find their substantive IDEA claims fall into the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” exception to mootness. Even if their substantive IDEA claims did not fall within this exception, they posited that their requests for attorney’s fees, reimbursement and a “stay put” injunction continue to present live claims.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that, while the parents’ substantive IDEA claims are moot and the stay-put claim — which depends on the IDEA claims — is also moot, the parents’ claims for attorney fees and reimbursement continue to present live controversies. These issues were remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

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