M.K. ex rel. Mrs. K. v. Sergi

United States District Court, D. Conn.

2007 WL 988621 (D.Conn. Mar. 30, 2007)

In a procedurally complicated case the parents of a psychiatrically disabled teenager, and the prevailing party in a due process hearing, sued, among other defendants, the former Commissioner of the State Department of Education (SDOE) for violations of IDEA. Specifically, the parents alleged that the SDOE failed to put in place a hearing process that would enable hearing officers to enter orders against state agencies, such as DCF, which provide services that might impact the provision of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”). The former SDOE Commissioner, Theodore Sergi, moved to dismiss on the grounds that he was not a proper party to the complaint and moved, in the alternative, for summary judgment claiming that even if he was a proper party, the state had complied with its obligations under state and federal law.

The plaintiffs’ teenage son received numerous mental health services from DCF that arguably qualified as “related” services under IDEA. As the teen aged out of the DCF voluntary services program, his parents wanted to ensure that he was appropriately supported and transitioned and requested that the hearing officer enter orders against both the school district (LEA) and DCF. The hearing officer acknowledged that “significant problems existed in the coordination of special education services provided by [the LEA] and DCF,” but the officer determined that he had limited jurisdiction over DCF and could not issue the necessary orders. Accordingly, the parents alleged that SDOE failed to fulfill its oversight obligations of ensuring that hearing officers have authority to issue appropriate relief, including the ability to join DCF as a party to due process hearings in cases where both an LEA and DCF provide services necessary to FAPE.

The court held that the SDOE commissioner was a proper party to a systemic procedural complaint. Moreover, the court acknowledged that from a practical standpoint, the plaintiffs’ arguments made sense and that the principles of efficiency would be well served if the hearing officer could assert jurisdiction over any and all state or local agencies that provide services impacting a disabled student’s ability to receive FAPE. However, the court held that state and federal law do not give the hearing officer such authority. The hearing officer has jurisdiction over a state agency only where the agency is acting as the LEA. The inter-agency agreement between SDOE and DCF indicates that DCF acts as the LEA when a child resides in a DCF facility and his needs require that his educational program be provided within the facility. Under those circumstances, U.S. District # 2 is responsible for the cost of educational services provided within the facility.

Additionally, the court held that Congress intended to ensure that the LEA has ultimate responsibility for the provision of services necessary to receive FAPE, even if the LEA contracts with or seeks reimbursement from a state agency for the provision of those services. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(12); see also Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-76b (providing that the LEA shall be responsible for cooperating and consulting with other state agencies to ensure that children under its jurisdiction receive FAPE.) Consequently, because the buck stops with the LEA, the LEA is the proper subject of an IDEA based complaint, not the state agency.

Accordingly, the court held that (1) even if services being provided by a state agency are considered “related services” that does not render the state agency liable as an LEA under IDEA; (2) a plaintiff who believes his related services are deficient should pursue remedies against the LEA, not the state agency providing those services; (3) even if DCF or another state agency has statutory responsibility to provide mental health services to a child, DCF is not necessary liable under IDEA; and (4) the fact that a state agency arranged for services that impacted a child’s educational performance does not necessarily result in legal liability under IDEA. See also Naugatuck Bd. Of Educ. V. Mrs. D., 10 F. Supp.2d 170, 179 (D. Conn. 1998) (Nevas, D.J.); Mrs. B. v. Milford Board of Educ., 103 F.3d 1114 (2d Cir. 1997).

The court concluded that because the LEA has final responsibility for the provision of educational services (except as provided for in the interagency agreement between DOE and DCF), the State DOE did not violate its obligations under IDEA in failing to provide a mechanism for state hearing officers to join state agencies to actions brought against the LEA. Summary judgment in favor of SDOE was granted.

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