L.M. v. Capistrano Unified School District

556 F.3d 900 (2009)

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L.M. v. Capistrano Unified School District

United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
556 F.3d 900 (2009)

  • Written by Jody Stuart, JD

Facts

After L.M. was diagnosed with autism, L.M.’s parents (plaintiffs) met with the Capistrano Unified School District (Capistrano) (defendant) to develop an individual educational program (IEP) for L.M. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (act) required that all disabled children receive a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) through IEPs. After Capistrano offered to place L.M. at Palisades Elementary School (Palisades), L.M.’s parents visited Palisades with a licensed psychologist, Melanie Lenington. Lenington asked to observe L.M.’s proposed program for 90 minutes but was limited to 20 minutes due to a district-wide policy. Lenington could have returned on other occasions for additional 20-minute visits but did not. L.M.’s parents requested a due-process hearing, alleging that the proposed IEP denied L.M. a FAPE. The administrative-law judge (ALJ) determined that Capistrano had violated § 56329(c) of the California Education Code by limiting Lenington’s observation time to 20-minute increments. The ALJ concluded that this procedural flaw in the development of the IEP was harmless and did not amount to the denial of a FAPE because the violation did not undermine § 56329(c)’s purpose. The purpose of § 56329(c) was to level the playing field between parents and a more knowledgeable school district. The ALJ determined that L.M.’s parents still had the opportunity to participate in the due-process hearing with an expert witness prepared to provide a knowledgeable opinion about the proposed IEP. Lenington testified that even with the time limitation she was able to develop opinions, advise L.M.’s parents, and provide informed testimony about the proposed IEP. L.M.’s parents challenged the ALJ’s decision in federal district court. The district court reversed the ALJ’s finding of harmlessness with respect to Capistrano’s procedural violation. The district court concluded that Capistrano’s procedural violation deprived L.M.’s parents of their right to meaningfully participate in the IEP process. The district court noted that L.M.’s parents had a substantial right to participate in the IEP process. The district court did not consider whether L.M.’s parents’ substantial right was significantly affected by Capistrano’s procedural violation. Capistrano appealed.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Tallman, J.)

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