For matters dealing with special education, a due process hearing is the equivalent of a lawsuit in court. Each state has its own administrative body which adjudicates due process hearings. In Massachusetts, the administrative body is called the Bureau of Special Education Appeals ("BSEA"). The BSEA Hearing Rules for Special Education Appeals list factors that a Hearing Officer should consider when a request is made to join a third party (See BSEA Hearing Rule 1(J) in the above link).
The factors defined in Rule 1(J) are:
- The risk of prejudice to the present parties in the absence of the proposed party;
- The range of alternatives for fashioning relief;
- The inadequacy of a judgment entered in the proposed party's absence; and
- The existence of an alternative forum to resolve the issues.
Two recent rulings from the BSEA provide excellent examples of how a Hearing Officer applies the above factors to a real-life situation. In the case of Student v. North Middlesex Regional School District & Department of Children and Families (22 MSER 156 (2016)), the parents filed a BSEA due process hearing request against both the school district ("NMR") and the Department of Children and Families ("DCF") seeking a six month residential placement to address the student's chronic stress. DCF believed that it should not be joined as a party, and filed a Motion to Dismiss. The school district, on the other hand, was opposed to removing DCF as a joined party.
Hearing Officer Rosa Figueroa ruled in favor of the parents and the school district in denying DCF's Motion to Dismiss. Although DCF did not have care or custody of the student, it did provide a Treatment Plan and also arranged for a neuropsychological evaluation of the student, so there was a pre-existing relationship between the student and DCF. The hearing decision documents the school district's argument:
NMR argued that the scope of the Hearing therefore involves not only Student’s need for residential placement but also: a) whether her current private day placement offers her a FAPE; b) whether Student requires additional in-home or residential services; (3) whether those in-home or residential services would be educational in nature; and d) if not educational in nature, whether DCF is responsible to provide them. Moreover, according to NMR, given that Student and her family are currently receiving services under a Treatment Plan Document (June 1, 2016 Treatment Plan Document) it would appear that any difficulty experienced by Student in the home is attributable to the home environment rather than unmet educational needs, therefore, a private day placement for Student would suffice to offer her a FAPE in the least restrictive environment. Since a determination of the need for residential placement and/or home wrap-around services, as well as whether such services would be for educational reasons may involve orders against NMR and DCF, the BSEA would be unable to fashion the necessary remedies in the absence of DCF. Lastly, NMR argued that administrative efficiency could only be assured by maintaining DCF as a party.
22 MSER 156 (2016). Hearing Officer Figueroa agreed that "the existence of an active and comprehensive Treatment Plan establishes enough of a relationship to allow the BSEA to order non-residential services (such as additional home-based or therapeutic services) consistent with DCF’s rules and regulations, that are necessary to enable Student to receive a FAPE." Id. In other words, since there was at least a possibility that DCF's services might be needed in order for the student to be able to receive her Free and Appropriate Public Education ("FAPE"), DCF needed to stay involved as a joined party in the case.
It is important to realize that the ruling against DCF's Motion to Dismiss does not mean that the parents won their residential placement. This Motion was just one aspect of the larger overall litigation. The decision simply kept DCF involved as part of the case.
In the second case, Student & Natick Public Schools (22 MSER 159 (2016)), the result was the exact opposite (DCF was not joined), but for reasons that are very much in line with the North Middlesex case. In Natick, it was the parent who tried to join DCF "because she asserts that DCF was 'complicit' with alleged actions by Natick that Parent believes deprived Student of a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) and created a 'hostile environment' within the Natick Public Schools. Parent’s position is that... DCF (among others) collaborated with Natick to deprive Student of her rights." 22 MSER 159 (2016).
The facts in Natick show that Natick did apply for a Child Requiring Assistance (CRA) petition with the Juvenile Court. Natick also filed a 51A report with DCF because of concerns about the students school attendance. However, the student was never under DCF care or custody, DCF did not have an open case on the student or her family, and DCF was not providing any services to student or the family.
Hearing Officer Sara Berman provided an excellent summary of the factors that a Hearing Officer considers in determining joinder:
In general, factors that hearing officers consider in determining whether the criteria of 603 CMR 28.08(3) and Rule I.J have been met include the following:
- The student’s eligibility for services from the agency;
- status (or lack thereof) as a current client of the agency;
- length and degree of involvement that the agency already has with the student, if any;
- likelihood that the evidence at hearing will show that the student needs services that only are available from the agency to benefit from special education, that the agency has refused or failed to provide such services, and that no appropriate forum exists to contest the agency’s decision;
- likelihood that an order to the school district alone will provide the student with FAPE;
- administrative efficiency of joining a potentially responsible state agency early in the proceeding.
On the other hand, the BSEA has declined to join human services agencies in situations where the agency has found the student ineligible or has not determined eligibility under its own regulations, where the student is eligible only for minimal services from the agency, or where agency involvement in the future is theoretically possible but speculative.
22 MSER 159 (2016). The Hearing Officer concluded:
DCF should not be joined as a party in the instant case because none of the criteria for joinder listed in the “Legal Frameworks” section of this Ruling have been met. Student is not a current client of DCF. She is not in DCF care or custody, voluntary or otherwise, and receives no DCF services. Moreover, Parents seek no DCF services for Student and/or their family now, and there is no evidence in the parties submissions that they intend to do so in the future... [C]omplete relief, i.e. all relief sought by Parent from the BSEA, can be granted without DCF as a party. There is no risk of prejudice to any existing party if DCF is not joined because there is no remedy that the BSEA can order against DCF.
Id. Through these two cases, we can see how a very similar approach and analysis resulted in polar opposite decisions because the facts of the cases were so different.
The Law Office of James M. Baron represents students and parents in special education and other school-related legal matters throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Please visit http://www.lawbaron.com, or call 781-209-1166 for more information.