United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma
TED and PAULETTE PHILLIPS, individually and as next friends of T.L.P., a minor child, Plaintiffs,
INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 3 OF OKMULGEE COUNTY, a/k/a MORRIS PUBLIC SCHOOLS, Defendant.
A. White, United States District Judge.
the parents of minor T.L.P., bring this action (1) seeking
attorney fees pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (“IDEA”), (2) for violation of
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, (3) for violation of
Title II of the ADA/ADAAA, and (4) for partial appeal of the
final administrative decision. Defendant School District
(“the District”) has filed a counterclaim,
presenting its own appeal from the administrative
decision. Among other arguments, defendant contends
the appeal officer erred in finding T.L.P. was a resident of
the school district during the 2013-2014, 2014-2015, and
2015-2016 school years. (#15 at 16-22, ¶¶27-40).
The court asked the parties to brief this issue as a
preliminary matter (#39).
IDEA looks to state law for determining the educational
responsibilities of school districts. 20 U.S.C.
§1413(a)(1). School districts in Oklahoma are not
responsible for providing education services for children
that are not residents of their district. 70 O.S.
§13-101. A child's residence “for school
purposes shall be . . . [t]he legal residence of the parents,
guardian, or person having legal custody.” 70 O.S.
§1-113(A)(1). See J.P. v Enid Public Schools,
2009 WL 3104014, *6 (W.D.Okla.2009).
was born on December 4, 2001 and has a diagnosis of Rett
syndrome. Her parents initially presented her for enrollment
in the District on December 2, 2004. The accompanying
paperwork from SoonerStart listed the parents' address as
20254 Highway 266, Henryetta, Oklahoma. The parents were
informed that this address was not located within the Morris
School District, but rather within the residential boundaries
of the Dewar School District. The parents again sought to
enroll their daughter in the Morris District at the beginning
of the 2005-2006 school year. They claimed to have purchased
property within the District's boundaries at 18888
Bristlecone Road in Morris. The District investigated and
determined the parents were residing at the Morris address,
and T.L.P. was allowed to enroll in the District on December
her enrollment, T.L.P. received special education and related
services as required by the IDEA. At the beginning of the
2015-2016 school year, she began experiencing increased
seizure-like activity while at school. The District sought
medical information from the parents but the parents declined
to provide such information. At an IEP (“Individualized
Education Program”) meeting on December 14, 2015,
T.L.P.' s IEP team changed her educational placement to
homebound services, while awaiting the necessary medical
information from her parents. On February 29, 2016, the
District received a special education due process hearing
complaint from the parents on behalf of T.L.P. In response,
the District's counsel subpoenaed records from various
health care providers of T.L.P. Some of these documents
indicated the parents' address was the Henryetta address
(outside the District's boundaries) rather than the
Morris address. The District then began an investigation and
concluded the parents were not residing in the District. The
District sought dismissal of the parents' due process
complaint on this basis, which argument was denied by both
Hearing Officer Bost and (on administrative appeal) by
Hearing Officer Welsh. T.L.P. stopped attending the District
at the end of the 2015-2016 school year.
appeal from a decision of a hearing officer following a due
process hearing, a district court shall “receive the
records of the administrative proceedings, ”
“hear additional evidence at the request of a party,
” and “basing its decision on the preponderance
of the evidence, . . . grant such relief as [it] determines
is appropriate.” 20 U.S.C.
§1415(i)(2)(C).The court uses a “modified de
novo” review. Sytsema ex rel. Sytsema v. Acad. Sch.
Dist. No. 20, 538 F.3d 1306, 1311 (10th
Cir.2008). In doing so, the court must give “due
weight” to the hearing officer's findings of fact,
which are considered prima facie correct. Id.
of the standard of review is not straightforward here,
however, because the findings made by the hearing officers
create an unusual posture. Hearing Officer Bost stated
“there may be some doubt concerning the residency of
the Parents, ” but concluded that “Equity demands
a hearing, ” based upon the length of time T.L.P and
her siblings had attended school in the District and
suggestions in the evidence that the District was aware of a
residency question earlier but did not take action. (Admin.
Rec. 3736-3737). On appeal, Hearing Officer Welsh seemed to
make the interpretation that Hearing Officer Bost had made a
factual finding of residency. Hearing Officer Welsh
purported to affirm this factual finding (citing no
evidence), but also found the residency decision could be
affirmed on equitable grounds. (Admin. Rec. 3823-3824).
Hearing Officer Welsh found the District's argument
“disingenuous at best” (Admin. Rec. 3823) and
“understated as unconscionable.” Id. She
found that T.L.P. had been enrolled and attended the district
since 2005, (receiving special education services from the
District during that time) but the District had not raised
the issue of residency until the parents made a request for
due process. The District had investigated in 2005 and
determined residence was proper, but did not launch another
investigation until recently. Without using the terms, the
hearing officer appeared to invoke a version of waiver or
estoppel against the District.
a clear factual finding to review, this court's review
seems closer to de novo than “modified de novo”.
The parties have gone into granular detail regarding the
evidence, plaintiffs seeking to establish the District's
knowledge of a residency issue over the years (to establish
waiver or estoppel) and the District seeking to establish
that the parents “actively misrepresented” their
legal residence in the District. The court finds this
evidence insufficiently clear on either side to make a
factual finding with confidence, as indeed the Hearing
Officers evidently concluded. Limited to that evidence, the
court would reach its conclusion based upon which side bears
the burden of proof as to residency. Is it the parents'
burden to prove residency in the first instance or is the
defendants' burden (having filed a motion to dismiss) to
prove non-residency? This is not a simple question either.
Oklahoma Administrative Code provides that “A school
district may, as part of its procedures for determining
student residency, require reverification of student
residency at the beginning of each school term.” OAC
§210:10-1-17(e). This seems to place the burden on the
student. Subsection (b), however, states that the school
district “shall verify” the student's
residence. In subsection (c), the Code also makes it
incumbent upon the school district to adopt a policy
providing “the procedures and criteria to determine if
a student is a resident of the school district” . The
pertinent Oklahoma statute states that “[e]ach school
district board of education shall adopt a policy establishing
the requirements for student residency for that district
which provides for residence as described in this
paragraph.” 70 O.S. §1-113(A)(1). Plaintiffs
assert there was “apparently” no such policy in
place (#43 at 5-6), and defendant has not responded on this
point. The absence of a policy leaves a school district with
standardless discretion to deny residence, potentially in an
arbitrary fashion.In general terms, the Oklahoma
Administrative Code (“OAC”) provides that a
parent may document residence by “proof of provisions
of utilities, payment of ad valorem taxes, local agreements
or contract for purchasing/leasing housing, ” among
other methods. OAC §210:10-1-17(c). It appears
T.L.P.'s parents submitted a utility bill each year, and
the District accepted it as adequate documentation.
District notes, residency is determined each school year.
(#44 at 10). This is reflected in the OAC at
§210:10-1-17(e). Once the student has been enrolled,
however, (as T.L.P. was for the 2015-2016 term), she is
allowed to remain. “If, during the course of the school
year a dispute arises as to the residence of a student who is
enrolled and attending school, the student shall be allowed
to continue in that school until these dispute procedures
have been exhausted.” §210:10-1-17(f)(2). Here,
the dispute proceedings evidently extended beyond the
conclusion of the school year. Thus, T.L.P. was properly
allowed to continue in the District for the 2015-2016 school
year. Defendant's position is that, as regards the
student's rights under the IDEA, the residency question
remains open and the District is not responsible for that
school year, and indeed previous years if non-residency is
the court reaches the same conclusion as the Hearing
Officers, but by a different route. By failing to have a
policy in place, the District gave the parents no guidance as
to how residency was to be resolved. By failing to make a
timely and proper residency determination for the
2015-2106 school year, the District assumed
responsibility. Needless to say, under this analysis the
District's attempt to reach back and “negate”
T.L.P.'s enrollment for IDEA purposes during the
2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years based on residency is
implication of the OAC (and the IDEA) is that the District
must make its determination of residency in a timely fashion.
The court finds that the District's argument (that
residence remains an open question, capable of being raised
years after the fact) is incompatible with the IDEA. The Act
requires each local education agency (i.e., school district)
to have in effect an IEP for each child with a disability
within the agency's jurisdiction, “[a]t the
beginning of each school year.” 20 U.S.C.
§1414(d)(2)(A). It is an absurd result if a school
district need not resolve the residency issue before the
beginning of the school year, let alone raising it two years
later. The District's argument essentially is that its
strict interpretation of state law can frustrate the purpose
of the IDEA, a federal Act. The court disagrees.
facts here differ substantially from those in Burdick v.
Independent School Dist., 702 P.2d 48 (Okla.1985), which
noted that “[g]enerally, Oklahoma jurisprudence does
not allow the application of estoppel against the state, the
political subdivisions or agencies, unless its interposition
would further some principle of public policy or
interest.” Id. at 53 (footnote omitted).
Nevertheless, under the facts before it, this court finds
that estoppel may be invoked against the District in this
the order of the court that no aspect of this action will be
dismissed based upon the issue of student residency in the
School District. A scheduling ...