Warton v. New Fairfield Bd. of Educ.

US District Court

125 F.Supp.2d 22 (D. Conn. 2000)

Nov 8, 2000

 

This is an interesting special education case affirming the principle that a federal court will uphold the “stay put” provision of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j) unless the parties agree otherwise.

Plaintiff Brian Warton, a twelve year old boy, sought a preliminary injunction against the defendant school district (“District”) to uphold an interim order of a “Due Process” hearing officer to keep him in a mainstreamed classroom during the pendency of a federal court proceeding challenging the hearing officer’s final order. Warton suffered from ADHD and other neurological impairments of unknown origin that provided the basis for special education services under IDEA. When Warton entered the sixth grade in September 1998, the District administered a battery of cognitive and psychological tests as part of a triennial review. During the ensuing planning and placement team meetings (“PPT”), the parents and the District disagreed on Warton’s placement; the parents opting for a totally mainstreamed setting, while the District recommended a multicategorical classroom setting.

The Wartons challenged the District’s IEP by requesting a Due Process Hearing. At the inception of the hearing, the hearing officer administered an interim order permitting Warton to remain in the mainstreamed classroom during the pendency of the hearing proceedings. In May 2000, the hearing officer issued her decision agreeing with the District’s placement. In June 2000, the Wartons filed a federal lawsuit challenging the hearing decision, and on August 24, 2000, they filed a motion for preliminary injunction requiring the District to implement the stay-put placement as defined in the hearing officer’s interim order.

The District court agreed with the plaintiff’s contention that the hearing officer’s interim decision constituted the stay-put placement during the pendency of the federal court litigation. The court reasoned that while IDEA’s vague definition of stay-put, namely that “the child shall remain in the then-current educational placement,” sheds little light on the matter, second circuit precedent indicated that the “then current placement” means the placement consented to by the school district and the parents before the parents requested a due process hearing. See Zvi D. v. Ambach, 694 F.2d 904 (2nd Cir. 1982). The court further rejected the District’s argument, relying on Murphy v. Arlington Cent. Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 86 F. Supp. 354 (S.D.N.Y. 2000), that the hearing officer’s final order constituted the proper stay-put placement; in this case a multicategorical classroom setting. The court distinguished Murphy, where the plaintiffs had unilaterally removed their child to a private school setting during the pendency of the review proceedings. The hearing officer in Murphy agreed with the parents, who then went to court seeking an injunction to remove the child to the stay put placement identified prior to their unilateral action. In Murphy, the hearing officer’s final order became the stay put placement. Here, the court found no analogous unilateral action by the Wartons; thus no agreement existed making the multicategorical classroom setting the stay put setting.

The court went to great lengths to emphasize that a party seeking an order upholding the stay-put provision under IDEA is in effect invoking an automatic preliminary injunction. The only scenario where parents would lose this type of proceeding is where they agreed to a different stay-put placement prior to the commencement of the Due Process hearing or if they met the limited factual scenario outlined in Murphy.

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