J.S., individually and as parent and legal guardian of M.S., a minor; T.S., individually and as parent and legal guardian of M.S., a minor, Plaintiffs, Appellees,
THE WESTERLY SCHOOL DISTRICT; THE WESTERLY PUBLIC SCHOOLS, Defendants, Appellants, THE STATE OF RHODE ISLAND DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Defendant.
APPEALS FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
DISTRICT OF RHODE ISLAND [Hon. John J. McConnell, Jr., U.S.
Ann Carroll, with whom Henneous Carroll Lombardo LLC was on
brief, for appellants.
Gregory A. Mancini, with whom Sinapi Law Associates, Ltd. was
on brief, for appellee.
Howard, Chief Judge, Torruella and Kayatta, Circuit Judges.
KAYATTA, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
a student who until recently was enrolled in the Westerly
School District in Westerly, Rhode Island. M.S. suffers from
Lyme Disease and other tick-borne illnesses, and she receives
educational accommodations pursuant to Section 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act of 1973. For over two years, her parents
J.S. and T.S. unsuccessfully sought to have Westerly
determine that M.S. was also eligible for an Individualized
Education Program (IEP) under the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). M.S. and her parents have
since moved out of the Westerly District, thereby mooting the
dispute over M.S.'s entitlement to an IEP. In the course
of the parties' dispute, however, the parents obtained an
order from the district court forcing Westerly to forego
conducting its own evaluations and decide
"post-haste" if M.S. was eligible for an IEP.
Although that decision resulted in a determination that M.S.
was not eligible, the district court subsequently awarded the
parents attorneys' fees as the prevailing parties.
Westerly now appeals both the district court's order
compelling it to determine eligibility without first
obtaining its own evaluations and the fee award. For the
following reasons, we find the challenge to the order moot
and the attorneys' fee award mistaken.
begin with a basic description of the IDEA's framework
for determining a student's eligibility for an IEP and
the procedure for adjudicating a dispute over eligibility.
The purposes of the IDEA include "ensur[ing] that all
children with disabilities have available to them a free
appropriate public education" and "ensur[ing] that
the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such
children are protected." 20 U.S.C. §
1400(d)(1)(A)-(B). To these ends, the IDEA offers federal
funds to states that provide a free appropriate public
education (FAPE) to children with disabilities. See
generally id. §§ 1411- 1412. Rhode Island
accepted IDEA funding and agreed to provide FAPE to disabled
children. See 21-2-54:A R.I. Code R. §
the IDEA and its implementing regulations, parents may
request an initial evaluation "to determine if the[ir]
child is a child with a disability." 20 U.S.C. §
1414(a)(1)(B). Upon receipt of such a request, the local
educational agency (LEA) "must conduct a full and
individual initial evaluation . . . before the initial
provision of special education and related services to a
child with a disability." 34 C.F.R. § 300.301(a).
As part of this initial review, a team of professionals must
"[r]eview existing evaluation data on the child,
including . . . [e]valuations and information provided by the
parents of the child." Id. § 300.305(a);
see also id. § 300.502(c) ("If the parent
. . . shares with the public agency an evaluation obtained at
private expense, the results of the evaluation . . . [m]ust
be considered by the public agency, if it meets agency
criteria, in any decision made with respect to the provision
of FAPE to the child."). After reviewing any existing
data, the LEA must "identify what additional data, if
any, are needed to determine . . . [w]hether the child is a
child with a disability . . . [and the LEA] must administer
such assessments and other evaluation measures as may be
needed to produce the data identified." Id.
§ 300.305(a), (c). Only then, "[u]pon completion of
the administration of assessments and other evaluation
measures," do a group of professionals and the parents
of the child meet to determine whether the student is a child
with a disability under the IDEA and the educational needs of
the child. Id. at § 300.306(a). So, in sum,
before making an IDEA eligibility determination, the LEA must
(1) review existing data, including evaluations provided by
the parents; (2) identify what additional data are needed to
determine whether the child is eligible; and (3) administer
evaluations to collect that additional data.
the LEA decides that it needs additional data, the LEA must
obtain parental consent before conducting its own evaluations
of the child. See id. § 300.300(a)(1)(i)
("The public agency proposing to conduct an initial
evaluation to determine if a child qualifies as a child with
a disability under § 300.8 must, after providing notice
. . . obtain informed consent . . . from the parent of the
child before conducting the evaluation."). If the
parents refuse to consent, the school can -- but is not
required to -- pursue the evaluation through mediation or
administrative procedures. See id. §
300.300(a)(3)(i). But "the public agency does not
violate its obligation [to determine eligibility] if it
declines to pursue the evaluation." Id. §
who contest the identification, evaluation, or educational
placement of a child with a disability can file a "due
process complaint," which kicks off a state
administrative process for adjudicating the dispute. See
id. § 300.507(a). Any party aggrieved by the
findings or decisions made in the administrative proceeding
has a right to bring a civil action in a United States
District Court. See id. § 300.516(a).
sketch the relevant facts of this case. In the fall of 2015,
J.S. and T.S. ("the parents") requested that
Westerly determine that M.S. was eligible for special
educational services under the IDEA. The school and the
parents agreed to a meeting to be held on December 17, 2015.
The parties had different expectations about the meeting. In
a December 9 form sent to the parents, the school indicated
that the purpose of the meeting was to "address a
referral to the Evaluation Team." The parents replied
that they expected the meeting to include not only a referral