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Somberg v. Utica Community Schools

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

January 20, 2017

JEANNINE L. SOMBERG, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UTICA COMMUNITY SCHOOLS, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER AWARDING COMPENSATORY EDUCATION, DENYING PRETRIAL MOTIONS AS MOOT, DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO SUPPLEMENT THE RECORD AND CLOSING ARGUMENT, GRANTING PLAINTIFFS' UNOPPOSED MOTION TO ENTER EXHIBITS, AND SCHEDULING STATUS CONFERENCE.

          ROBERT H. CLELAND UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This court previously granted Plaintiffs' motions for judgment seeking compensatory education but reserved its determination of the “quality and quantity” of such education pending the conclusion of a bench trial on that question. (Dkt. #30.)

         Both parties presented their proofs, and closing arguments were held on November 11, 2016. Several motions relating to the evidentiary hearing remain outstanding. Plaintiffs filed a Motion to Compel, (Dkt. #43), and a Motion in Limine, (Dkt. #49). Defendant filed a Motion to Compel Alternative Dispute Resolution, (Dkt. #37), a Motion for Continuance of Trial Date, (Dkt. #38), a Motion in Limine, (Dkt. #59), and a Motion Concerning Joint Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Dates for Evidentiary Hearing, (Dkt. #67). Following closing arguments, Defendant also filed a Motion to Supplement Record and Closing Argument, (Dkt. #83), then Plaintiffs filed a Motion to Enter Exhibits, (Dkt. #87), which Defendant indicated it does not oppose, (Dkt. #88). The court concludes that, to the extent that they were not already addressed at the evidentiary hearing, no additional hearing on the motions is necessary. See E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(f)(2). For the reasons stated below, the court will award compensatory education, grant the Motion to Enter Exhibits, and deny the other motions described above as moot.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This court's previous order decisively resolved the question of liability in favor of Plaintiffs. It held that Utica Community Schools had failed to provide Dylan Somberg, then a mentally disabled teenager, with the requisite “free appropriate public education” (“FAPE”) that he was owed under Section 1412(a)(1)(A) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. The court concluded that it would not defer to the “forward looking” remedies afforded by the Administrative Law Judge, because they were “designed to curtail further damage, but [failed] to address the need to compensate Dylan for education he was not provided in the past.” (Dkt. #30, Pg. ID 2231-32.) Specifically, it stated that Utica Community Schools “shall pay for compensatory education . . . in a manner and amount to be determined by further proceedings before this court.” (Dkt. #30, Pg. ID 2235.)

         A bench trial to resolve this question began on September 28, 2016 and the presentation of evidence concluded on October 3, 2016. The court then advised the parties of its general inclination as to a likely outcome but allowed the parties to reserve closing arguments and defer further hearings in the hopes that they may reach a settlement. (Dkt. #82, Pg. ID 3482-85.) No settlement was reached and the parties presented closing arguments on November 16, 2016.

         Since then, Defendant filed a motion arguing for dismissal in light of a recent Michigan Department of Education complaint decision arguably supporting a theory, which Defendant advanced at trial, that Plaintiffs' removal of Dylan Somberg from Utica Community Schools rendered his claims moot. (Dkt. #83.) Plaintiffs also filed a motion requesting the entry of exhibits which the court had agreed to “provisionally receive” while Defense counsel reviewed them and determined whether it would be appropriate to lodge an objection. (Dkt. #87.) Defendant filed a letter indicating that it does not object, (Dkt. #88), and Plaintiffs filed a reply asking for clarification that the court grant admission of all three proposed exhibits in light of vague language in Defendant's letter, (Dkt. #89).

         II. STANDARD

         In an IDEA action, the district court: “(i) shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; (ii) shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and (iii) basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(c).

         An award of compensatory education is an equitable remedy granted by the court as it finds appropriate. Bd. of Educ. of Fayette Cty., Ky. v. L.M., 478 F.3d 307, 316 (6th Cir. 2007). An appropriate award of compensatory education is “relief designed to ensure that the student is appropriately educated within the meaning of the IDEA.” Id. (quoting Parents of Student W. v. Puyallup Sch. Dist., No. 3, 31 F.3d 1489, 1497 (9th Cir. 1994)). In general, compensatory awards “should aim to place disabled children in the same position they would have occupied but for the school district's violations of IDEA.” Id. at 317 (quoting Reid ex rel. Reid v. Dist. of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 518 (D.C. Cir. 2005)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Mootness

         Defendant argues that Plaintiffs rendered their case moot when they removed Dylan Somberg from Utica Community Schools and then ultimately completed his high school education, as it prevented the school from supplying any prospective remedy (i.e., to modify the program designed for Dylan to provide a FAPE). During closing argument counsel cited a Sixth Circuit decision for the proposition that a case may become moot even after judgment on the merits, divesting the court of subject matter jurisdiction. (Dkt. #86, Pg. ID 3616.) The cited case, Fialka-Feldman v. Oakland Univ. Bd. of Trustees, involved a “continuing-education student with mild cognitive disabilities” who had been denied university housing on the basis that he was not a student in a degree-granting program. 639 F.3d 711, 713 (6th Cir. 2011). The student sued, winning an injunction requiring the school to provide housing. Id. Once the student had completed his university program and signaled no intention to return, the case became moot despite plaintiff's remaining request for money damages and attorneys' fees. Id. at 714.

         It is true that a case may become moot even after an adjudication on the merits, but such is not the case here. The Supreme Court has held that “[a] case becomes moot only when it is impossible for a court to grant any effectual relief whatever to the prevailing party.” Knox v. Serv. Employees Int'l Union, Local 1000, 132 S.Ct. 2277, 2287 (2012). (quotations omitted) “As long as the parties have a concrete interest, however small, in ...


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