Eastern District of NY Affirms Tuition Reimbursement for Rebecca School in Absence of SRO Decision
In New York City Department of Education v. V.S., a July 29, 2011 decision from the Eastern District of New York (EDNY), Judge John Gleeson affirmed an impartial hearing officer's award of tuition reimbursement for the Rebecca School in the absence of an SRO decision. Typically, when the DOE appeals from an IHO's decision, the case goes to the State Review Officer who then rules on the merits of the case and, if that decision again favors the parents and the DOE wishes to appeal further, the case proceeds to federal or state court. Here, however, the SRO had decided not to rule on the merits of the case at all because he believed doing so would be pointless, leaving the district court in an interesting position.
The case involved a claim for tuition reimbursement for the 2009-2010 school year for a young boy with autism whose parents enrolled him in the Rebecca School, a school in Manhattan for children with autism. The IHO had determined that the IEP and public school recommendation were not appropriate, and that the Rebecca School was appropriate. The parents had previously succeeded in their claim for the 2008-2009 school year and, under pendency, the DOE was ordered to pay the Rebecca School tuition for the 2009-2010 school year until a final decision on the merits for that year was reached. By the time the SRO finally addressed the appeal, it was July 7, 2010 which meant that the 2009-2010 school year had ended and the DOE had been on the hook for the full amount of the tuition...regardless of the final outcome of the actual case. In light of that, the SRO concluded that the case was moot and, therefore, chose not to rule on the merits of the case. However, he neglected the fact that his decision would have pendency implications for the future.
Although the EDNY could have sent the case back to the SRO for a determination, Judge Gleeson concluded that he had authority to rule on the merits even in the absence of an SRO decision and decided to render his own decision in the interest of an "efficient administration of justice." Judge Gleeson explained that the case was not moot because of the pendency implications going forward. He deferred to the IHO's decision and concluded that the DOE failed to offer an appropriate program and placement, and the Rebecca School was appropriate to meet the child's needs. Judge Gleeson noted that the parents had signed a tuition contract prior to the child's annual review and that the parents had made a deposit which was only partially refundable. However, he did not feel that these points damaged the parents' reimbursement claim because the parents had otherwise cooperated in the process. The DOE argued, as it routinely does for cases involving the Rebeeca School and other for-profit institutions, that for-profit schools were not meant to be covered by the tuition reimbursement provisions of the IDEA. Judge Gleeson rejected this argument and explained that Section 1415 of the IDEA confers "broad authority on federal courts to craft remedies necessary to ensure that a child's right to a free appropriate public education is complete." He cited to several Supreme Court decisions - Burlington, Carter, Forest Grove - which support the point of the courts having broad authority.
In sum, Judge Gleeson agreed with the IHO's determination in favor of the parents on the merits. As a result, the Rebecca School will continue to be the child's last-agreed-upon placement, unless the case is further appealed and a different conclusion on the merits is reached.