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Renee J. v. Houston Independent School District

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

January 16, 2019

RENEE J., as parent/guardian/next friend of C.J., a minor individual with a disability; CORNELIUS J., as parent/guardian/next friend of C.J., a minor individual with a disability, Plaintiffs - Appellants
v.
HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant-Appellee

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before JONES, CLEMENT, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.

          JEDITH H. ONES, Circuit Judge

         The district court ruled in favor of Houston Independent School District ("HISD") on multiple claims brought by the Appellants under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act ("IDEA"). We find no procedural or substantive violations of the law or its implementing regulations. The judgment is AFFIRMED.

         I.

         The Appellants, parents of C.J., allege that HISD failed to provide him with a Free Appropriate Public Education ("FAPE") as required by the IDEA.

         C.J. is a seventeen-year old male student who has been diagnosed with Autism, intellectual disabilities including an IQ of 51, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"). He received no formal diagnosis until he was twelve years old and no specialized treatment plan until he was fifteen. He currently reads at a first-grade level. C.J. also has difficulty regulating his emotions and has allegedly been bullied at school.

         C.J.'s Individualized Education Program ("IEP") for the 2013-14 school year (his seventh-grade year) revealed that he had not been tested at the district-wide level since third grade and that his math and reading comprehension levels were below those of the average second-grader. When C.J. began eighth grade, however, his district-wide test results from third grade were again carried over to his IEP. C.J.'s "transition planning" program (a program required for students receiving IEPs under the IDEA) focused on preparing C.J. for a career as a police officer-as it did for several years-even though C.J.'s autism and other learning disabilities render such a career impossible.

         In January 2015, shortly after the beginning of the second semester of the 2014-15 school year (C.J.'s eighth-grade year), C.J. had an outburst at home that included repeatedly banging his head and hitting himself in the face. C.J. told his mother that two of the teacher's assistants in his classroom were bullying him and mocking his disabilities.

         C.J.'s parents wrote a formal complaint to the principal of C.J.'s school, and school authorities arranged a meeting the same day. At the meeting, C.J.'s parents requested homebound instruction for C.J., and school administrators provided C.J.'s parents with forms to complete that would trigger a formal investigation. They also provided additional information about homebound educational services. C.J. ceased attending school altogether a few days later.

         The parties disagree about the events that took place after this meeting. HISD requires a completed homebound services packet and a physician's statement before an Admission, Review, and Dismissal ("ARD") committee can meet and recommend homebound services for students with IEPs. HISD contends that C.J.'s parents delayed filling out the paperwork necessary to certify his eligibility for homebound care and voluntarily kept C.J. from attending school. C.J.'s parents characterize these forms as procedural irrelevancies and instead point to the initial documentation they provided, which HISD rejected.

         C.J.'s parents provided a note from C.J.'s physician on February 5, 2015 stating that C.J. suffered from "severe mental illness" and recommending 2-6 weeks of immediate partial hospitalization, followed by a 6-12-week trial period of homebound instruction. After receiving the letter, HISD sent a form to the family's physician that administrators said was required to trigger an ARD meeting. Shortly after the form arrived, C.J. underwent an unrelated surgery that required a week of hospitalization. C.J. remained home from school after his surgery, but neither his parents nor his physician provided the requested documents to HISD until mid-April. HISD officials repeatedly followed up with C.J.'s parents, asking them to return him to school. C.J.'s parents finally provided an updated letter from his physician on April 10, 2015 stating that C.J.'s risk factors put him at a "moderate" risk for suicide and again recommending homebound instruction.

         HISD held an ARD Committee meeting on April 30 to evaluate C.J.'s request for homebound instruction. The committee denied the request because it concluded that C.J. was able to attend school. School administrators questioned the sincerity of the updated letter, partly because the physician wrote that he was "told to specify other more severe reasons as to why this patient required home bound schooling," and partly because the physician's medical license was previously restricted "due to unprofessional or dishonorable conduct" likely to deceive, defraud, or injure the public.

         C.J. returned to school for one day on May 1, 2015, and his teachers reported that he appeared happy to be back. Nevertheless, C.J. did not return to eighth grade after May 1. Overall, C.J. missed almost his entire second semester of eighth grade.

         The ARD committee met on June 11, 2015 and approved C.J.'s promotion to ninth grade but recommended that he participate in Extended School Year ("ESY") classes over the summer. C.J.'s parents were present at meetings when his eligibility for ESY programming was discussed and were formally notified by voicemail and email on June 18 that he could begin ESY classes on June 22. By June 22, ...


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