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R.S. v. Board of Directors of Woods Charter School Co.

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 4, 2019

R.S., by and through his father, RONALD E. SOLTES, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS OF WOODS CHARTER SCHOOL COMPANY, WOODS CHARTER SCHOOL, and DOES 1 TO 10, inclusive, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Thomas D. Schroeder United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff R.S. filed this action through his father, Ronald E. Soltes, against Defendants Board of Directors of Woods Charter School Company, Woods Charter School (together, “WCS”), and Does 1 through 10, [1] alleging violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Before the court are cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, R.S.'s motion will be granted and WCS' motion will be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act “Congress enacted IDEA in 1970 to ensure that all children with disabilities are provided ‘a free appropriate public education which emphasizes special education and related services to meet their unique needs [and] to assure that the rights of [such] children and their parents or guardians are protected.'” Forest Grove Sch. Dist. v. T.A., 557 U.S. 230, 239 (2009) (alterations in original) (footnote omitted) (quoting Sch. Comm. of Burlington v. Dep't of Educ. of Mass., 471 U.S. 359, 367 (1985)). To accomplish this goal, the “IDEA requires all states receiving federal funds for education to provide disabled schoolchildren with a ‘free appropriate public education' (‘FAPE'), ” Cty. Sch. Bd. of Henrico Cty. v. Z.P. ex rel. R.P., 399 F.3d 298, 300 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A)), which “consists of educational instruction specially designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child, supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child to benefit from the instruction.” Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 188-89 (1982) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         More specifically, the IDEA requires that States “ha[ve] in effect policies and procedures to ensure that the State” provides a FAPE. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a); see also North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, NC Policies Governing Services for Children with Disabilities, Public Schools of North Carolina, https://ec.ncpublicschools.gov/policies/nc-policies-governing-services-for-children-with-disabilities (last visited Feb. 26, 2019) (“NC Policies”). “[T]he definition of a FAPE under the IDEA requires that educational services meet the standards of the State educational agency, ” and therefore “[a] school run by a state or political subdivision of a state . . . must meet the standards established by the governing state educational agency, which in turn must meet or exceed the IDEA's minimum requirement.” G ex rel. RG v. Fort Bragg Dependent Sch., 343 F.3d 295, 304 (4th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         A FAPE is tailored by the local educational agency (“LEA”) to meet the needs of the disabled child through the development and implementation of an “individualized education program” (“IEP”), created through a collaborative process by an IEP team consisting at least of the child's parents, teachers, and an LEA representative. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d). “An appropriate IEP must contain statements concerning a disabled child's level of functioning, set forth measurable annual achievement goals, describe the services to be provided, and establish objective criteria for evaluating the child's progress.” MM ex rel. DM v. Sch. Dist. of Greenville Cty., 303 F.3d 523, 527 (4th Cir. 2002). While FAPEs and IEPs “must be reasonably calculated to confer some educational benefit on a disabled child, ” LEAs are not required “to provide a disabled child with the best possible education.” Id. at 526.

         Where a disabled child's parents or guardians have grievances with respect to an LEA's provision or non-provision of a FAPE, they are entitled to file a complaint against the LEA and to receive “an impartial due process hearing” conducted by a state officer “as determined by State law or by the State educational agency.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f). The parents or guardians have the right to be accompanied by counsel, the right to present evidence as well as to confront, cross-examine, and compel the attendance of witnesses, and the right to receive the written records and findings of the hearing officer. Id. § 1415(h).

         In North Carolina, the initial due process proceedings are held by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) appointed by the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings (“OAH”). E.L. ex rel. Lorsson v. Chapel Hill-Carrboro Bd. of Educ., 773 F.3d 509, 513 (4th Cir. 2014) (citing N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-109.6). The parties may appeal the ALJ's findings of fact and conclusions of law to a state review officer (“SRO”) appointed by the North Carolina Board of Education (“BOE”), who makes an independent decision on the written record. Id. (citing N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-109.9). Once this administrative review process has been exhausted, dissatisfied parties may bring a civil action in federal district court within 90 days of the final state administrative decision. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2). Pursuant to the IDEA, the court “(i) shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; (ii) shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and (iii) basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate.” Id.

         B. Procedural Posture

         On October 31, 2014, R.S., by and through his parents (“Father” and “Mother”), initiated a due process proceeding against WCS, the BOE, and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (“DPI”), contending that WCS had denied him a FAPE during the 2013-2014 school year. (Doc. 55-1 at 6-7.) OAH appointed Sidney S. Eagles, Jr. as the ALJ for the matter. (Id. at 7.) On May 28, 2015, the ALJ dismissed BOE and DPI as Respondents. (Id. at 8.) On October 22, 2015, after hearing the evidence, the ALJ issued a 61-page final decision finding that WCS denied R.S. a FAPE on numerous grounds and granting him extensive compensatory education. (Id. at 61.) WCS timely appealed, and BOE appointed Joe D. Walters as SRO for the appeal. (Doc. 55-2 at 3, 10.) The SRO received written arguments from the parties on December 30, 2015, and issued a 34-page decision on January 14, 2016, rejecting the ALJ's findings of fact, reversing most (but not all) of the ALJ's conclusions of law, and granting R.S. reduced compensatory education on the basis of a single denial of FAPE in that WCS failed to timely develop a North Carolina IEP for R.S. (Id. at 10, 33-34, 37.)

         On February 16, 2016, R.S. filed a civil action in this court, praying for the SRO's decision to be reversed and the ALJ's decision to be reinstated, as well as for attorneys' fees. (Doc. 1.) WCS filed an answer and counterclaim, praying for the SRO's decision to be affirmed, except for the finding of failure to timely develop a North Carolina IEP, and urging that no compensatory education be awarded. (Doc. 8 at 31.) R.S. requested additional discovery, which the Magistrate Judge denied. (Doc. 19.) R.S.'s attorneys subsequently requested that they be allowed to withdraw from their representation of R.S. (Docs. 27, 28), and the Magistrate Judge granted the requests. R.S. filed an amended complaint (Doc. 32) through new counsel on August 31, 2017, with the court's leave, and WCS answered (Doc. 37). The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on April 23, 2018. (Docs. 50, 52.)

         C. Due Weight Determination

         The court's first task is to determine the weight due the state administrative factfinding in this case. Although the court must ultimately make its own legal determination on “the preponderance of the evidence, ” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C), the Supreme Court has held that the IDEA's requirement that the court “receive the records of the administrative proceedings” amounts to an “implied requirement that due weight shall be given to these proceedings.” Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206. The Fourth Circuit has since elaborated that, where the administrative findings of fact are “regularly made, ” those findings of fact “are entitled to be considered prima facie correct.” Doyle v. Arlington Cty. Sch. Bd., 953 F.2d 100, 105 (4th Cir. 1991). “Factual findings are not ‘regularly made' if they are reached through a process that is ‘far from the accepted norm of a fact-finding process.'” Z.P., 399 F.3d at 305 (quoting Doyle, 953 F.2d at 104).

         The Fourth Circuit has repeatedly cautioned district courts not to reject an IDEA hearing officer's findings of fact because of mere disagreements about credibility determinations or the officer's perceived failure to explain his findings in sufficient detail. See, e.g., J.P. ex rel. Peterson v. Cty. Sch. Bd. of Hanover Cty., Va., 516 F.3d 254, 261 (4th Cir. 2008) (noting that Fourth Circuit “case law does not require an IDEA hearing officer to offer a detailed explanation of his credibility assessments, ” and that even where “the hearing officer d[oes] not explicitly state that he found the School Board's witnesses more persuasive, . . . implicit credibility assessments ‘are as entitled to deference under Doyle as explicit findings'” (quoting Z.P., 399 F.3d at 307)); Id. at 262 (holding that a hearing officer's findings should be given deference despite being “about as bare-boned as they could be” and “the opinion offer[ing] no explanation of which evidence the hearing officer found to be most important or why the hearing officer was persuaded by the School Board's evidence”).

         In two-tiered IDEA review systems like the one employed by North Carolina, the IDEA appeals officer must show like deference to the IDEA hearing officer. E.L. ex rel. G.L. v. Chapel Hill-Carrboro Bd. of Educ., 975 F.Supp.2d 528, 537 (M.D. N.C. 2013) (“The SRO is required to give due weight to the ALJ's factual findings, presuming them to be prima facie correct if regularly made.”), aff'd, 773 F.3d 509 (4th Cir. 2014). Where the IDEA appeals officer improperly rejects the IDEA hearing officer's findings, the reviewing district court should credit the IDEA hearing officer's factual findings, rather than the findings of the appeals officer. See Fort Bragg, 343 F.3d at 303 (“[W]here a reviewing officer or board reaches a factual conclusion opposed to one reached by the hearing officer but in doing so departs from the normal process of fact-finding, its decision may be entitled to little or no deference.”); Wittenberg v. Winston-Salem/Forsyth Cty. Bd. of Educ., No. 1:05CV818, 2008 WL 11189389, at *6 (M.D. N.C. Nov. 18, 2008) (“[A]n SRO's decision would not be regularly made if the SRO failed to give the ALJ's factual findings the appropriate deference.”).[2]

         If a district court determines that an IDEA administrative officer's findings of fact are “regularly made” and thus “entitled to prima facie correctness, the district court, if it is not going to follow them, is required to explain why it does not.” Doyle, 953 F.2d at 105. No. deference is accorded an IDEA administrative officer's conclusions of law. E.L., 975 F.Supp.2d at 537 (“A district court must review findings about the IDEA's legal requirements de novo.”); Fitzgerald v. Fairfax Cty. Sch. Bd., 556 F.Supp.2d 543, 550 (E.D. Va. 2008). Therefore, once the district court concludes its factfinding - including a “due weight” determination - the court makes an independent legal determination “on the preponderance of the evidence, as required by the statute.” Doyle, 953 F.2d at 105.

         In the instant case, the SRO rejected the ALJ's factual findings wholesale. The SRO's only explanation of his decision on this issue is as follows:

Upon reviewing the ALJ's Decision, the transcript of the hearing, and the entered exhibits, the Review Officer cannot reconcile many of the ALJ's facts with the actual record. It was discovered that the ALJ took almost all of the Petitioners' proposed decision and used it as the ALJ's Decision, even though it was clearly biased and included only the Petitioners' version of the facts. Some of the Petitioners' facts were clearly contradicted by the record of exhibits and testimony. Days of testimony and many exhibits were totally ignored by the ALJ. Entirely missing is the testimony provided by the teachers from Woods Charter School.
For the reasons mentioned above, the district court judge in Wittenberg . . . held that an [ALJ's] findings were entitled to no deference and were not entitled to be considered prima facie correct under Fourth Circuit precedent. The SRO holds that the findings of the ALJ in this case were not regularly made. As in Wittenberg, the findings are not entitled to be considered prima facie correct.

         (Doc. 51-2 at 9.) While the ALJ's opinion may fall short of the “aspirational standard” of “thorough[ness]” and “detailed analysis” the Fourth Circuit has admitted “would of course be preferable, ” J.P., 516 F.3d at 263, the court cannot agree with the SRO that the ALJ's findings of fact are so sweepingly deficient as not to be entitled to any deference.

         The SRO first took issue with the ALJ's decision to adopt R.S.'s proposed findings with only minor edits. It is true that federal district courts are ordinarily discouraged from “adopting the prevailing party's proposed findings of facts.” Cuthbertson v. Biggers Bros. Inc., 702 F.2d 454, 458 (4th Cir. 1983).[3] But the standards governing district court opinions do not necessarily govern the decisions of IDEA administrative officers. In fact, the Fourth Circuit has stated that IDEA hearing officers - who operate “under tight time constraints, ” typically without the same level of staff support as federal courts - “cannot be expected to craft opinions with the level of detail and analysis . . . expect[ed] from a district judge.” J.P., 516 F.3d at 263; see 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.510(b), 300.515 (setting timelines for IDEA due process proceedings). With these considerations in mind, the court does not agree with the SRO that the ALJ's findings of fact should be rejected on the basis that he largely adopted R.S.'s proposed findings. See B.F. v. Fulton Cty. Sch. Dist., No. 1:04-CV-3379-JOF, 2008 WL 4224802, at *25 (N.D.Ga. Sept. 9, 2008) (“The court agrees that the [ALJ] primarily (but not solely) adopted the chronology of facts as set forth by Defendant, but disagrees that this per se means the court should not defer to the [ALJ]”).

         The SRO next took issue with the ALJ's treatment of the record, alleging that some of the decision's “facts were clearly contradicted by the record” and that the ALJ “totally ignored” swaths of evidence. (Doc. 51-2 at 9.) The only instance of this phenomenon the SRO identifies with any specificity is that “the testimony provided by the [WCS] teachers” is “[e]ntirely missing.” (Id.) The ALJ, however, provided reasons for declining to rely on this evidence, finding WCS' “testimonial evidence” to be “generally conclusory in nature” and “not persuasive, ” especially where a WCS employee violated North Carolina policies by unilaterally shredding some of R.S.'s IEP documents “mere days after receiving [them]” and “the evidence showed that WCS did not reduce [the] comparable services [it was required to provide] to writing until months after [R.S.] first began attending.” (Doc. 51-1 at 41-42.) This amounts to a credibility determination, [4] and is therefore entitled to deference. See Z.P., 399 F.3d at 306-07 (“[T]he hearing officer's analysis and explanation for the basis of his ruling make it clear that he was not persuaded, (Image Omitted) and why he was not persuaded by the School Board's evidence. We have held that credibility determinations implicit in a hearing officer's decision are as entitled to deference under Doyle as explicit findings.”); see also S.A. v. Weast, 898 F.Supp.2d 869, 878 (D. Md. 2012) (“[B]y not addressing [certain] testimony, the ALJ made an implicit credibility determination that is entitled to deference by the Court.”); Id. at 875 (“Although a more detailed analysis is always preferable, an ALJ's failure to meet this aspirational standard is no basis for concluding that his or her findings were not regularly made and thus not entitled to deference.”).

         As discussed above, the Fourth Circuit has time and again disapproved of reversing an IDEA hearing officer's credibility determination - whether on the part of the IDEA appeals officer or the district court - even when the hearing officer provides little insight into his underlying reasoning. See id.; J.P., 516 F.3d at 262-63; Doyle, 953 F.3d at 104. In fact, the Fourth Circuit has required that the court find evidence to be so overwhelmingly compelling that it is “of the nature and quality that would require the hearing officer to accept it” before reversing an IDEA hearing officer's credibility determination. Z.P., 399 F.3d at 306.

         Here, the court cannot say that the testimony of the WCS teachers was so compelling that the ALJ was required to accept it. To the extent the court finds that certain discrete facts should have been (and will be) considered in the resolution of this case, see footnote 21, infra, these minor discrepancies are not sufficient to show that the ALJ's findings of fact - as a whole - were irregularly made. See J.P., 516 F.3d at 259 (an IDEA hearing officer's findings were regularly made when the officer “allow[ed] the parents and the School Board to present evidence and make arguments, ” and “resolved the factual questions in the normal way, without flipping a coin, throwing a dart, or otherwise abdicating his responsibility to decide the case”); Weast, 898 F.Supp.2d at 878 (“[C]riticism of a finding's substance, rather than the process in which [the] finding was made, is precisely the type of argument rejected by the Fourth Circuit as insufficient to demonstrate that fact-findings were not regularly made.”).[5]

         As a final matter, the court disagrees with the SRO that Wittenberg v. Winston-Salem/Forsyth Cty. Bd. of Educ., No. 1:05CV818, 2008 WL 11189389 (M.D. N.C. Nov. 18, 2008) compels a rejection of the ALJ's factual findings in this case. In Wittenberg, the SRO - incidentally, the same SRO as in the instant case - rejected the ALJ's findings, and the district court agreed. But although the district court there quoted the SRO's short paragraph explaining his rejection of the ALJ's findings, and although that paragraph reads strikingly similarly to the SRO's brief explanation in the instant case, [6] the district court also pointed out the difficulties caused by the vague, conclusory nature of the SRO's explanation. See Id. at *6 n.7. As a result, the district court undertook its own exhaustive review of the record, concluding that the ALJ had made such significant errors that “the entire factfinding process” had been “improperly affected, ” and that even the ALJ's credibility determinations were “the result, at least in part, of [his] application of an erroneous legal standard” - in addition to an assortment of smaller errors. Id. at *25-35. Since the ALJ in Wittenberg “did not limit his use of a fundamentally flawed and legally irregular process of factfinding” to any discrete set of findings, but instead used that process “to analyze all evidence presented during the due process hearing, ” the district court gave no deference to the ALJ's findings. Id. at 35 (emphasis added). In the instant case, the court has not uncovered errors on the ALJ's part that taint “the entire factfinding process.” Id. at 25.

         In conclusion, upon weighing the SRO's reasoning, the parties' arguments, [7] and the administrative record, the court determines that the ALJ's findings of fact were regularly made and therefore entitled to be considered prima facie correct.[8]

         D. Facts[9]

         R.S. was born in 2000 and is diagnosed with Non-Verbal Learning Disability. (Doc. 55-1 at 9.) During the 2008-2009 school year, while R.S. was enrolled as a third-grader in the Wake County Public School System of North Carolina, he was found eligible for special education under the category of “Specific Learning Disability.” (Id.) An IEP was developed for him. (Id.) He remained eligible (and enrolled in the Wake County Public School System) through the 2009-2010 school year, after which he was homeschooled for two years by his parents. (Id.) During the 2012- 2013 school year, he attended public school in the Pocono Mountain School District (“PMSD”) of Pennsylvania under an IEP developed there for him. (Id.) On August 20, 2013, R.S. enrolled as an eight-grader at WCS, in Chatham County, North Carolina. (Id.)

         Mother had informed WCS of R.S.'s special education status in his application to the school, so - upon accepting the WCS admissions offer on R.S.'s behalf - she was put in contact with WCS' “Special Education Director, ” Lawrence “Buddy” Smiley. (Id. at 11.) On August 1, 2013, PMSD mailed WCS R.S.'s educational records, including IEP documents. (Id.) On August 15, 2013, Smiley mistakenly gave R.S.'s records to a special education teacher from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school system. (Id.) After the teacher notified Smiley of the mistake, Smiley directed her to shred the documents, under the erroneous assumption that WCS had copies on file. (Id.; Tr. Vol. 2 at 233.) On August 19, 2013, PMSD Principal Dr. Kathleen Fanelli emailed WCS the latest copy of R.S.'s IEP, along with a “Speech/Language Progress Report, ” and Father later sent other missing documents at Smiley's request. (Doc. 55-1 at 12, 16.) The PMSD IEP called for 21 accommodations, including speech and language services, occupational therapy, adapted physical education, and assistive technology. (P. Ex. 14 at 148-51.)

         R.S. began attending WCS on August 20, 2013, and received speech and language services and occupational therapy beginning in early September. (Doc. 55-1 at 15-16, 18.) R.S.'s gym teacher testified that he took account of R.S.'s limitations in his provision of physical education. (Id. at 20.) On September 13, 2013, Smiley met with R.S.'s teachers individually to discuss the accommodations set out in R.S.'s PMSD IEP. (Id. at 17.) Smiley and WCS's principal, Cotton Bryan, held an informal meeting with R.S.'s parents on September 19 to discuss the parents' concerns and the status of efforts to develop a new IEP for R.S. (Id. at 18; P. Ex. 44 at 499-500.) As of October 5, 2013, R.S.'s grades were the following: D in Social Studies, F in Science, B in Language Arts, A in Chorus, F in Math, and “COM”[10] in both Physical Education and Art. (Doc. 55-1 at 19.) By this time, R.S.'s parents had begun expressing concerns about R.S.'s academic progress and questioning WCS's provision of accommodations - in Smiley's words, communication between the school and parents had become “strained.” (Id. at 17, 20.)

         Although WCS had proposed earlier IEP meetings (P. Ex. 31), WCS ultimately did not hold its first formal IEP meeting for R.S. until October 28, 2013. (Doc. 55-1 at 23.) Little was accomplished at that meeting, and communication between the school staff and parents continued to suffer despite the presence of an impartial “facilitator” sent (upon Smiley's request) from DPI in an attempt to strengthen the parties' cooperation. (Id. at 20, 23; P. Ex. 51.) A second IEP meeting - this time via telephone - was scheduled for 12:30 p.m. on November 1 with WCS staff, Father, and the DPI facilitator. (R. Ex. 37.) Father did not answer the phone at the appointed time, and the IEP team held the November 1 meeting without him. (R. Exs. 44, 46.) The team used the meeting to finalize documents finding R.S. eligible for special education services. (Doc. 57-1 at 25.) Smiley sent these documents to the parents, including a draft IEP. (Id.)

         Smiley scheduled a third IEP meeting for November 12, 2013, and invited R.S.'s parents. (Id.) By this time, R.S.'s absences and missed homework assignments had begun to add up; on November 6, 2013, WCS special education teacher Katy Hankins directed R.S.'s general education teachers to mark his final grades as “incomplete” for the first trimester. (Id. at 26-28; P. Ex. 87.) Also, by this time R.S.'s parents had retained legal counsel; their counsel contacted WCS on November 7. (Doc. 55-1 at 26.) On November 8, DPI notified the IEP team that it would not be sending a facilitator to the planned November 12 meeting because “[f]acilitation is an informal dispute resolution process” and “[n]ow that attorneys are being consulted, a new request for facilitation will need to be completed should those services be needed in the future.” (Id. at 26-27.) R.S.'s parents never confirmed their attendance at the November 12 IEP meeting, and the meeting was never held. (P. Ex. 70; Tr. Vol. 2 at 360.)

         After school on December 2, 2013, R.S. had a panic attack at home and fell down a set of stairs, injuring himself. (Doc. 57-1 at 28.) His parents did not send him back to WCS following his fall, and December 2 proved to be his last day of attendance. (Id. at 29.) Mother notified WCS of his absences through December 10. (Id. at 28.) On December 11, Mother emailed Bryan the following: “[R.S.] remains unable to attend. Further discussion regarding [R.S.'s] attendance need to be forwarded through the attorney for Woods Charter School and [our] attorney . . . .” (Id. at 28-29.) The parents received letters from Bryan in December 2013 and January 2014 regarding R.S.'s accumulation of unexcused absences.[11](P. Exs. 89, 90.) Through the end of February, Hankins emailed R.S.'s homework and assignments to his parents; Smiley directed her to cease this practice on February 28, 2014. (P. Ex. 100; Tr. Vol. 11 at 2453.) On March 6, 2014, Bryan sent the parents a letter informing them that WCS was withdrawing R.S. from enrollment. (P. Ex. 94.)

         II. ANALYSIS

         As discussed above, “[a] district court must review findings about the IDEA's legal requirements de novo.” E.L., 975 F.Supp.2d at 537. Although, as in this case, “a district court's review of IDEA administrative proceedings is typically conducted on motions for summary judgment, this is a procedural misnomer.” Lorsson, 773 F.3d at 516. Instead, “the IDEA requires that a reviewing court . . . base its decision (Image Omitted) on the preponderance of the evidence.” Id. at 516-17 (emphasis omitted). This inquiry is generally twofold: “First, has the State complied with the procedures set forth in the [IDEA]?[12] And second, is the [IEP] developed through the [IDEA]'s procedures reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits?” Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206-07.

         Not every procedural violation of the IDEA constitutes a denial of FAPE:

In matters alleging a procedural violation, a hearing officer may find that a child did not receive a free appropriate public education only if the procedural inadequacies (I) impeded the child's right to a [FAPE]; (II) significantly impeded the parents' opportunity to participate in the decisionmaking process regarding the provision of a [FAPE] to the parents' child, or (III) caused a deprivation of educational benefits.

20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(E)(ii). The Supreme Court has cautioned that, “[i]n assuring that the requirements of the [IDEA] have been met, courts must be careful to avoid imposing their view of preferable educational methods upon the States.” Rowley, 458 U.S. at 207. This is because “courts lack the ‘specialized knowledge and experience' necessary to resolve ‘persistent and difficult questions of educational policy'” or “methodology” - these questions should be left “for resolution by the States.” Id. at 208 (quoting San Antonio Ind. Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 42 (1973)).

         Finally, the burden on each issue is “properly allocated to the party bringing the civil action to challenge the state administrative decision” - here the SRO's decision - as to that issue. Spielberg ex rel. Spielberg v. Henrico Cty. Pub. Sch., 853 F.2d 256, 258 n.2 (4th Cir. 1988).

         A. Statute of Limitations

         As an initial matter, the court must determine whether North Carolina's one-year statute of limitations (“SOL”) bars any of R.S.'s claims. The text of the SOL is as follows:

Notwithstanding any other law, the party shall file a petition . . . that includes the information required under IDEA and that sets forth an alleged violation that occurred not more than one year before the party knew or reasonably should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the petition.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-109.6(b). The SOL also provides for narrow exceptions to the one-year rule:

The one-year restriction . . . shall not apply to a parent if the parent was prevented from requesting the hearing due to (i) specific misrepresentations by the [LEA] that it had resolved the problem forming the basis of the petition, or (ii) the [LEA]'s withholding of information from the parent that was required under State or federal law to be provided to the parent.

Id. § 115C-109.6(c). The ALJ held that R.S.'s claims did not accrue until December 2, 2013, and therefore that nothing in his due process complaint - brought on October 31, 2014[13] - was time- barred. (Doc. 57-1 at 54-55.) The ALJ also held, in the alternative, that the case fit the SOL exception in § 115C-109.6(c)(i). (Id.) The SRO, on the other hand, held that all claims based on “events that occurred and/or ...


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