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Albright v. Mountain Home School District

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 12, 2019

Jacquie Albright, As Parent and Next Best Friend of Child Doe Plaintiff - Appellant
Mountain Home School District; Debbie Atkinson, Director of Special Education; Susanne Belk, BCBA Consultant Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: December 13, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas - Harrison

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, WOLLMAN and GRASZ, Circuit Judges.

          WOLLMAN, Circuit Judge.

         Jacquie Albright alleges that her daughter Child Doe, a young student with autism and significant intellectual deficits, was not provided a free appropriate public education (FAPE) by Mountain Home School District (the District), as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA or Act), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. When her administrative challenge was rejected, Albright appealed that decision in federal district court and brought additional claims for constitutional violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, disability discrimination and retaliation under § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, disability discrimination under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and violations of Arkansas law. The district court[1] affirmed the administrative decision, granted summary judgment to the District on the remaining federal claims, and then declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Albright's state law claims. We affirm.

         Child Doe has been educated within the District from kindergarten to the present in accordance with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) formulated pursuant to the IDEA. The IEP sets forth the educational accommodations approved for Child Doe, as well as a behavior intervention plan (BIP) to address any problematic behaviors. An IEP team periodically discusses and revises Child Doe's IEP as needed. Albright and appellee Susanne Belk, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst employed as a consultant by the District during the relevant period, are members of Child Doe's IEP team. The highly contentious relationship between Albright and the District, complicated further by Albright's employment with the District, has made it difficult for Albright and the remainder of the IEP team to agree on many aspects of Child Doe's IEP.

         Albright has filed four due process complaints against the District challenging Child Doe's education. The first two complaints were resolved by settlement agreements in August 2012 and March 2014. On October 20, 2014, early in Child Doe's fourth-grade year, Albright filed the due process complaint at issue, alleging that the District had denied Child Doe a FAPE between November 15, 2013, and October 17, 2014. Events after October 17, 2014, are the subject of a separate due process complaint.

         After Albright filed the third due process complaint, the parties proceeded to an eleven-day hearing held between March and September of 2015. A hearing officer employed by the Arkansas Department of Education presided and heard testimony from witnesses, including Albright, Belk, and an expert hired by Albright. The hearing officer thereafter issued a forty-page decision setting forth findings of fact and conclusions of law. Relevant here, the hearing officer addressed whether Albright was denied the opportunity to participate in developing the IEP, whether Child Doe benefitted academically from the IEP, and whether the BIP adequately addressed Child Doe's behaviors or exacerbated them by permitting the use of sensory integration techniques.

         The hearing officer found that Albright had not been denied the opportunity to participate in the IEP process, citing the following facts: During the period in question, Albright attended all IEP conferences until September 2014, when she chose not to attend a meeting, and there was no evidence to substantiate Albright's claims that other IEP conferences were held in her absence. Although the District did not agree to or satisfy all of Albright's requests regarding Child Doe's education, there was no evidence indicating that the District had hampered Albright's active participation in developing Child Doe's IEP. Hundreds of pages of emails and transcripts of IEP meetings demonstrate that Albright actively participated in the IEP process.

         The hearing officer also found that the IEP itself was working. More specifically, he found that in light of Child Doe's significant disabilities, the evidence showed that the IEP did provide her with educational benefits. The hearing officer also found, however, that Albright believed that Child Doe was capable of greater academic achievements than indicated by the assessments. Nevertheless, he credited Belk's testimony that Child Doe had shown academic improvement during the relevant period.

         To complicate matters, Child Doe's disability was originally identified as intellectual deficits, but was changed to autism during the period in question. Despite the changed diagnosis, the hearing officer found that the BIP in place at the time addressed the same maladaptive behaviors identified by the psychologist who had diagnosed Child Doe with autism. Albright's expert testified that the BIP was inadequate, but the hearing officer found that his testimony was refuted by the District's behavior data and Belk's testimony regarding her understanding of Child Doe's behaviors.

         In sum, the hearing officer determined that after "reviewing the elicited testimony and the evidence in this case it is clear that the District attempted to focus on what they believed to be the unique needs of [Child Doe] even prior to changing the primary handicapping condition from intellectual deficits to autism." The hearing officer concluded that the District "recognized and accepted the additional challenge of addressing the maladaptive behaviors [Child Doe] exhibited as a consequence, more likely than not of her autism, as well as her intellectual deficits and the challenges that she presented to the educators," and it thus did not deny Child Doe a FAPE.

         Albright appealed the hearing officer's decision in federal district court (Count I) and brought several related claims under federal and state law (Counts II-VI), which were subsequently bifurcated. In her IDEA appeal, Albright specifically contested three of the hearing officer's conclusions: that she had participated meaningfully in the IEP process, that it had been unnecessary to develop a new BIP for Child Doe, and that the District had used evidence-based practices in Child Doe's IEP. The district court decided the appeal on the briefs, affirming the hearing officer's decision on each issue, and "wholeheartedly agree[ing]" with the hearing officer's determination that Albright had participated meaningfully in the IEP process. D. Ct. Order of July 5, 2017, at 6 [hereinafter July 5 Order]. The court also found that "the BIP that was already in place was working well." Id. Finally, the court determined that it "ha[d] not found any evidence in the record that sensory integration treatment is not based on peer-reviewed research, nor . . . that the District's use of sensory integration treatment somehow prevented the District from utilizing services that are based on peer-reviewed research." Id. at 8.

         Albright moved to alter or amend the judgment, asserting that the district court had made manifest errors of law or fact. The court denied Albright's motion, concluding that any errors it had made did not affect its disposition and that Albright's ...

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