L.M.P. v. The Fla. Dept. of Education ( 2009 )


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                    IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
                                                                        FILED
                             FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT U.S. COURT OF APPEALS
                               ________________________ ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
                                                                    JUNE 23, 2009
                                     No. 08-15710                 THOMAS K. KAHN
                                 Non-Argument Calendar                CLERK
                               ________________________
    
                           D. C. Docket No. 06-61897-CV-KAM
    
    L.M.P.,
    on behalf of, E.P., D.P. and K.P., minors,
    
                                                                   Plaintiff-Appellant,
    
                                           versus
    
    THE FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION,
    COMMISSIONER OF THE FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF
    EDUCATION,
    John Winn,
    
    
                                                                Defendants-Appellees.
    
    
                               ________________________
    
                        Appeal from the United States District Court
                            for the Southern District of Florida
                              _________________________
    
                                    (June 23, 3009)
    
    Before BARKETT, HULL and FAY, Circuit Judges.
    PER CURIAM:
    
           L.M.P., on behalf of her autistic triplets, E.P., D.P. and K.P. (“Triplets”),
    
    appeals from a final judgment dismissing her complaint which sought a declaration
    
    that the Triplets’ right to a due process hearing under the Individuals with
    
    Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.,was violated
    
    because Administrative Law Judges (“ALJ”) in Florida do not have authority to
    
    grant equitable relief. In dismissing L.M.P.’s complaint, the district court
    
    concluded that it lacked authority over this matter as L.M.P. had not presented a
    
    “case” or “controversy” as required by Article III of the United States Constitution.
    
    
    
                                            I. Background
    
           This is L.M.P.’s second appeal before this Court. In her prior appeal, D.P.
    
    ex. rel. E.P. v. Sch. Bd. of Broward County, 
    483 F.3d 725
     (11th Cir. 2007), L.M.P.
    
    challenged the local school district’s denial of her request to continue services that
    
    the Triplets received pursuant to Individualized Family Service Plans (“IFSPs”)
    
    under the Early Intervention Program administered under Part C of the IDEA.1
    
    Upon turning three years of age, the Triplets aged out of the Part C program and
    
    
           1
             “Pursuant to IFSPs, disabled infants and toddlers may be provided with developmental
    services such as speech, occupational, and physical therapy services; medical services for
    diagnosis and evaluation purposes; and social work services.” D.P. ex. rel. E.P. v. Sch. Bd. of
    Broward County, 
    483 F.3d 725
    , 726 (11th Cir. 2007).
    
                                                   2
    became eligible for services under Part B of the IDEA, which guarantees that
    
    disabled children, three years and older, receive a free appropriate public education
    
    (“FAPE”), see 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(a), and attempts to do so through the
    
    provision of services that have been identified in a child’s Individualized
    
    Education Program (“IEP”). See 20 U.S.C. § 1414. This Court concluded that the
    
    plain language of the IDEA did not entitle the Triplets to ongoing services under
    
    their IFSPs even though the local school district and the parents had not agreed on
    
    a valid IEP upon the Triplets’s third birthdays. D.P., 483 F.3d at 730.
    
             In a separate administrative proceeding, L.M.P. also raised claims that the
    
    local school district had denied the Triplets their substantive and procedural rights
    
    to a FAPE under Part B of the IDEA. The ALJ dismissed the case, but without
    
    making a determination whether the Triplets had been denied a FAPE. That case,
    
    L.M.P. on behalf of E.P., D.P., and K.P., minors v. Sch. Bd. of Broward County,
    
    Fla., Case No. 05-60845-Civ-Marra, is presently being litigated in the district
    
    court.
    
             This appeal stems from L.M.P.’s fourth administrative action before the
    
    Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (“DOAH”) in which she sought a
    
    declaration that the Florida Department of Education violated the Triplets’s rights
    
    under the IDEA to a final decision in a due process hearing because the DOAH
    
    
    
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    does not give its ALJs power to grant the equitable relief that L.M.P. had been
    
    seeking in this and all prior administrative proceedings. The specific equitable
    
    remedy that L.M.P. asserts that the ALJ should be authorized to provide in this
    
    appeal as well as in all previous administrative proceedings is the reimbursement
    
    of the costs incurred by the Triplets’s parents for all of the services that they have
    
    provided to the children from the time of their third birthdays. The ALJ dismissed
    
    the case finding he lacked subject matter jurisdiction because L.M.P. had not raised
    
    any complaint that the Triplets had been denied a FAPE due to the identification,
    
    evaluation, or educational placement of the Triplets. L.M.P. sought review of the
    
    unfavorable ALJ decision in district court as is provided for pursuant to § 1414 of
    
    the IDEA.
    
           In denying L.M.P.’s motion for summary judgment, the district court
    
    concluded that the fact that the IDEA may make more remedies available to state
    
    or federal courts than it does to ALJs in administrative due process hearings does
    
    not render the decisions of the ALJs in such hearings less than “final.”2 Later
    
    when dismissing the case, the district court found that the issue of whether the
    
    
           2
               The IDEA provides that “[i]n any action brought under this paragraph, the court— . . .
    (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)(iii) (emphasis added). We agree with the
    district court’s conclusion that this provision of the statute speaks to the authority for granting
    relief that the courts possess and does not by its plain language extend the same authority to
    ALJs.
    
                                                      4
    ALJs should have the same equitable powers under the IDEA as the courts is
    
    speculative because L.M.P. has not yet established that the Triplets’s rights to a
    
    FAPE under the IDEA has been violated such that they potentially are entitled to
    
    an equitable remedy. Specifically, the court noted that no determination has been
    
    made in an administrative hearing or state or federal court that the Triplets’s IEPs
    
    are inadequate or that they are entitled to any services that the local school district
    
    has not provided and thus, the Triplets have not shown any injury that an ALJ or
    
    district court is able to redress.
    
                                              II. Discussion
    
           Upon review of the parties’ briefs, the record and the district court’s orders
    
    we find no reversible error. We agree the district court properly dismissed
    
    L.M.P.’s complaint on the basis that it lacks authority to decide this matter under
    
    Article III of the United States Constitution. Federal courts are empowered under
    
    Article III to adjudicate only “cases” or “controversies.” Midrash Sephardi, Inc. v.
    
    Town of Surfside, 
    366 F.3d 1214
    , 1223 (11th Cir. 2004). In order for there to be a
    
    “case” or “controversy” that a federal court can adjudicate, a plaintiff must make a
    
    sufficient showing of an injury that the court’s decision-making can redress.3
    
    
           3
              Courts have developed various doctrines to evaluate the case or controversy
    requirement of Article III, including the doctrines of standing and ripeness. The ripeness
    doctrine “asks whether there is sufficient injury to meet Article III's requirement of a case or
    controversy and, if so, whether the claim is sufficiently mature, and the issues sufficiently
    
                                                      5
           We agree with the district court’s determination that L.M.P.’s claim that her
    
    Triplets have been denied a final decision in their due process hearing because the
    
    ALJ lacks authority to grant the equitable relief she requested, i.e. reimbursement
    
    for the costs of the services that she has been providing since the Triplets’s third
    
    birthdays, is not justiciable. It is not at all clear that the ALJ cannot order
    
    reimbursement. However, before an ALJ or a court can consider whether L.M.P. is
    
    eligible for reimbursement for the costs of services that she has been providing for
    
    her children, L.M.P. must first establish that the Triplets’s rights under the IDEA
    
    have been violated, i.e. that they have been denied their guaranteed right to a
    
    FAPE. See M.M. ex rel. C.M. v. Sch. Bd. of Miami-Dade County, 
    437 F.3d 1085
    ,
    
    1097 (11th Cir. 2006); Burlington v. Dept. of Educ., 
    471 U.S. 359
    , 369-70 (1985).
    
    This she has not done (although perhaps her pending federal court complaint
    
    against the local school district will ultimately result in such a finding). Here, it is
    
    
    
    
    defined and concrete, to permit effective decisionmaking by the court.” Cheffer v. Reno, 
    55 F.3d 1517
    , 1524 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). Standing is “a threshold jurisdictional
    question which must be addressed prior to and independent of the merits of a party's claims.”
    Bochese v. Town of Ponce Inlet, 
    405 F.3d 964
    , 974 (11th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted).
    Standing requires the plaintiff to demonstrate: 1) an injury in fact or an invasion of a legally
    protected interest; 2) a direct causal relationship between the injury and the challenged action;
    and 3) a likelihood of redressability.” Midrash, 366 F.3d at 1223 (citing Lujan v. Defenders of
    Wildlife, 
    504 U.S. 555
    , 560-61 (1992)). We find that because both doctrines, in essence, require
    a showing of an injury that this court’s decision-making on the particular claim raised will
    resolve and because L.M.P. has not shown any such injury, her claim is non-justiciable under
    Article III.
    
    
                                                    6
    merely speculative whether the ALJ would order reimbursement to the Triplets’s
    
    parents for the costs of the services they have been providing on their own because
    
    it has not yet been determined whether the local school district has violated the
    
    Triplets’s rights under the IDEA, i.e. has denied them a FAPE. Without such an
    
    injury, there is no trigger of relief and hence, it would be speculative on our part to
    
    discuss the extent of the remedial powers of the ALJs.
    
          L.M.P. argues, however, that her asserted injury is not that the Triplets have
    
    been denied a FAPE but that they have been denied a final due process hearing and
    
    that as a result the Triplets’s parents have incurred unnecessary litigation expenses.
    
    L.M.P. claims that because the ALJ in the various administrative proceedings has
    
    either not awarded her the relief requested or has concluded that he was without
    
    jurisdiction to decide certain of L.M.P.’s claims, these administrative decisions are
    
    not “final.”
    
          We find no error in the district court’s conclusion that even if ALJs are
    
    without the same power to grant equitable relief as the courts, this in no way
    
    renders the decisions of the ALJs any less final for purposes of the administrative
    
    action. Moreover, the determination by the ALJ that he was without jurisdiction to
    
    render a decision on L.M.P.’s claims as presented does not make that decision less
    
    than final. The relevant provisions of the IDEA statute explicitly state that the
    
    
    
                                               7
    decisions at both the initial due process hearing and at the administrative review
    
    level are considered final and are capable of being reviewed by a state or federal
    
    court if the aggrieved party so chooses, which L.M.P. has done. See 20 U.S.C. §
    
    1415(i)(1). Simply because an ALJ may not be able to grant all possible forms of
    
    relief does not make the decision that he does render any less final for purposes of
    
    the IDEA. Thus, we do not agree that the Triplets have been injured because the
    
    ALJs did not or were unable to order the relief that they were seeking.
    
          Accordingly, the district court’s dismissal of L.M.P.’s complaint is hereby
    
    AFFIRMED.
    
    
    
    
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