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Special School District No. 1 v. R.M.M.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 29, 2017

Special School District No. 1, Minneapolis Public Schools Plaintiff- Appellant
v.
R.M.M., by and through her parents, O.M. and T.M. Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: November 17, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - Minneapolis

          Before BENTON and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges, and EBINGER, [1] District Judge.

          SHEPHERD, Circuit Judge.

         This case is about the provision of special education services to a young child attending a nonpublic school. Federal law grants this child neither an individual right to a free appropriate public education nor the right to dispute the provision of special education services in a due process hearing. The question before us is whether Minnesota state law grants either of these rights. After careful analysis, we determine that state law does grant these rights, and thus we affirm the district court.[2]

         I.

         R.M.M. was a young student who voluntarily attended a Catholic private school in Minneapolis beginning in kindergarten. She struggled in the classroom and received what support and instruction the private school could offer. Finally, in the fifth grade, she received an evaluation from the Minneapolis Public Schools, Special School District No. 1 ("MPS"). The evaluation determined that R.M.M. needed special education instruction for reading, written expression, and math. MPS proposed an individual service plan that would provide R.M.M. two 30-minute reading sessions per week and two 30-minute writing sessions per week. The plan called for R.M.M. to be bussed twice per week from her private school during science class to a nearby public school for the reading and writing sessions, to be held back-to-back over the course of an hour.

         R.M.M. enrolled in MPS part time in the spring of her fifth grade year. But her parents grew dissatisfied with the quality of instruction and declined to send her again after four sessions. Her private school later informed R.M.M.'s parents that it could no longer meet her educational needs and recommended that R.M.M. enroll in MPS as a full-time student. She began her sixth grade year enrolled in MPS full time.

         R.M.M.'s parents then filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Education ("MDE") and requested an impartial due process hearing. The amended complaint stated a claim that MPS had denied R.M.M. a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") while R.M.M. was enrolled at her private school. MPS moved to dismiss the claim, but the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied the motion. Following a three-day due process hearing, the ALJ concluded that MPS had denied R.M.M. a FAPE. MPS then filed a lawsuit in federal district court appealing the ALJ's decision. MPS argued that the ALJ lacked jurisdiction over R.M.M.'s FAPE claims. Each party filed motions over this issue. R.M.M.'s parents moved to dismiss MPS's appeal for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). MPS moved for Judgment on the Administrative Record under Rule 12(c), arguing that the ALJ lacked jurisdiction over the FAPE claim because private school students do not have an individual right to either a FAPE or a due process hearing.[3]

         The district court granted the motion to dismiss and denied the motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record. On the issue of R.M.M.'s right to a FAPE, the district court first analyzed federal law. The court found that federal law did not grant the right to a FAPE to a private school student but did permit states to grant rights beyond the minimum requirements set out by federal law. Turning to Minnesota state law, the court held that Minnesota granted private school students the right to a FAPE. On the issue of a due process hearing, the court ruled in favor of R.M.M. and held that private school students in Minnesota are entitled to a due process hearing to dispute whether they have received a FAPE. MPS now appeals.

         II.

         We review the district court's ultimate decision under a de novo standard. See Fort Zumwalt Sch. Dist. v. Clynes, 119 F.3d 607, 611 (8th Cir. 1997). Our duty is to interpret and apply the law, not to "substitute [our] own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which [we] review." Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist., Westchester Cnty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982). To determine whether state standards exceed minimum federal standards, we look to state law. See Gill v. Columbia 93 Sch. Dist., 217 F.3d 1027, 1035 (8th Cir. 2000). Because the Minnesota Supreme Court has not spoken on this issue, we may "consider relevant state precedent, analogous decisions, considered dicta, . . . and any other reliable data" to predict how that court would rule. PHL Variable Ins. Co. v. 2008 Christa Joseph Irrevocable Trust ex rel. BNC Nat'l Bank, 782 F.3d 976, 979 (8th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         A.

         Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") "to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). Thus, IDEA created a substantive right to a FAPE for children with disabilities. See Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v. Douglas Cnty. Sch. Dist. RE-1, 137 S.Ct. 988, 993 (2017). A FAPE is defined as special education and related services that-

(A)have been provided at public expense under public supervision and direction, and without charge;
(B)meet the standards of the State educational agency;
(C)include an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school education in ...

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