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P.G. v. Rutherford County Board of Education

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

May 29, 2018

P.G., a minor student by and through his parents, R.G. and A.G., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
RUTHERFORD COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          WAVERLY D. CRENSHAW, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         P.G., by and through his parents R.G. and A.G., and each parent individually, bring suit against the Rutherford County Board of Education (“RCBOE”). This case arises out of alleged mistreatment of P.G. by school personnel. Plaintiffs bring suit under (1) the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., and the Special Education Behavior Supports Act (“SEBSA”), Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-10-1304, et seq. which is incorporated therein; (2) Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq.; (3) Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”), 29 U.S.C. § 794; and (4) Tennessee common law of negligence. Before the Court is RCBOE's Motion to Dismiss. (Doc. No. 15.) Plaintiffs have responded in opposition (Doc. No. 19) and RCBOE has replied (Doc. No. 22). For the following reasons, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background[1]

         P.G. is a six year old boy with autism and developmental delay. (Doc. No. 13 at ¶ 4.) Running, escaping, or wandering behavior is common to such young children. (Id. at n.1) P.G. has behavioral challenges including limitations on interacting with others, being confrontational, and being non-verbal. (Id. at ¶ 7.) P.G. receives special education services under the IDEA. (Id. at ¶ 4.) P.G. has a “disability” under the ADA and Section 504. (Id.)

         In May 2016, P.G.'s teacher at Barfield Elementary School put him in a “mechanical restraint” and fed him crackers in order to keep him still during a preschool graduation ceremony, even though P.G. was not misbehaving. (Id. at ¶ 5.) The mechanical restraints illegally restricted P.G.'s movement and humiliated him. (Id. at ¶ 5 & n.3.)

         During the 2016-17 school year, P.G. attended Brown's Chapel Elementary School (“BCES”) for kindergarten. (Id. at ¶ 7.) There, because of his disability, “P.G.'s classroom teacher began abusing him.” (Id.) This was different than how the teacher treated children who were not confrontational or who were verbal. (Id.) The teacher's aggressive behaviors toward P.G. included “rough handling, scratching or choking his neck.” (Id.) On the morning of September 8, 2016, the teacher struck P.G. in the face. (Id. at ¶ 8.) This incident was witnessed by one or more educational assistants who reported it to police and the school. (Id.) P.G.'s parents were called several hours later. (Id.)

         The Amended Complaint also alleges that the RCBOE (1) failed to “properly train teachers in handling challenging behaviors, ” causing emotional and physical injury to P.G; (2) should not have allowed the teacher to be in the classroom on September 8, 2016, and (3) failed to take remedial measures such as offering counseling or support. (Id. at ¶ 9.)

         II. Legal Standard

         The Defendant has not specified which Federal Rule of Civil Procedure it relies upon for dismissal. Many courts have found that, in this situation, “Rule 12(b)(1) is not an appropriate avenue” for dismissal, Gibson v. Forest Hills Local Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 655 Fed.Appx. 423, 430 (6th Cir. 2016) (collecting cases), because the IDEA's exhaustion requirement is waiveable. The Court agrees and finds the proper vehicle for dismissal in this circumstance to be Rule 12(b)(6), not Rule 12(b)(1). Sophie G. v. Wilson Cty. Schs., 265 F.Supp.3d 765, 768 (M.D. Tenn. 2017).[2]

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “‘a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). “If the plaintiffs do not nudge their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, their complaint must be dismissed.” Lutz v. Chesapeake Appalachia, L.L.C., 717 F.3d 459, 464 (6th Cir. 2013) (citation and brackets omitted). Dismissal is likewise appropriate where the complaint, however factually detailed, fails to state a claim as a matter of law. Mitchell v. McNeil, 487 F.3d 374, 379 (6th Cir. 2007).

         III. Discussion

         Defendant contends that Plaintiffs were required to exhaust all of their claims under the IDEA. The outcome of this motion is largely dictated by the Supreme Court's recent opinion in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 137 S.Ct. 743 (2017), which requires that the Court consider the “crux” - the “gravamen” - of the claims in the Amended Complaint to determine whether Plaintiffs seek relief for “denial of the IDEA's core guarantee [of] . . . a free and appropriate education, ” id. at 748 (quotation marks omitted); if so, then Plaintiffs must exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA.

         A. Legal Standards

         The purpose of the IDEA is to provide a free and appropriate public education (“FAPE”) to “all children with certain physical or intellectual disabilities.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A); Fry, 137 S.Ct. at 748-49 (citations omitted). “As defined in the Act, a FAPE comprises ‘special education and related services' - both ‘instruction' tailored to meet a child's ‘unique needs' and sufficient ‘supportive services' to permit the child to benefit from that instruction.” Id. at 748-49 (citing 20 U.S.C. §§ 1401(9), (26), (29)). The IDEA also incorporates state law. See, e.g., 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(15)(A). Indeed, a FAPE must “meet the standards of the state educational agency.” Id. § 1401(9)(B). Thus, even if a school district complies with federal law, it can still run afoul of the IDEA by violating state law. Doe ex rel. Doe v. Bd. of Educ. of Tullahoma City Schs., 9 F.3d 455, 457 (6th Cir. 1993). Tennessee has a statutory scheme meant to provide “special education services sufficient to meet the needs and maximize the capabilities of children with disabilities.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-10-101(a)(1). Part of that scheme is the SEBSA. The SEBSA outlines when and how a teacher may restrain a special education student. Id. § 49-10-1304.

         “Congress enacted the ADA with the noble purpose of providing a clear and comprehensive mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities, ” Melange v. City of Ctr. Line, 482 Fed.Appx. 81, 84 (6th Cir. 2012) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted), by providing that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity, ” 42 U.S.C. § 12132. Similarly, “Congress sought with [Section] 504 . . . to remedy a broad, comprehensive concept of discrimination against individuals with disabilities, ” Ability Ctr. of Greater Toledo v. City of Sandusky, 385 F.3d 901, 912 (6th Cir. 2004) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted), by providing that a qualified individual with a disability shall not, “solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance, ” 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). Because the ADA and Rehabilitation Act “contain similar language and are ‘quite similar in purpose and scope, '” they are said to be “roughly parallel[ ].” Babcock v. Michigan, 812 F.3d 531, 540 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting McPherson v. Mich. High Sch. Athletic Ass'n, Inc., 119 F.3d 453, 459-60 (6th Cir. 1997)). For example, “[e]ach Act allows disabled individuals to sue certain entities, like school districts, that exclude them from participation in, deny them benefits of, or discriminate against them in a program because of their disability.” Gohl v. Livonia Pub. Sch. Dist., 836 F.3d 672, 681 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing Anderson v. City of Blue Ash, 798 F.3d 338, 357 (6th Cir. 2015)). There is “some overlap in coverage” as between the ADA, Section 504, and IDEA's FAPE obligation, and “[t]he same conduct might violate all three statutes.” Fry, 137 S.Ct. at 756; see also I.L. through Taylor v. Knox Cty. Bd. of Educ., 257 F.Supp.3d 946, 954-55 (E.D. Tenn. 2017) (stating that “[s]ome claims can be brought under the IDEA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act, ” and observing that “conduct by school staff can violate the IDEA, [the ADA], and [Section] 504 all at once”).

         The IDEA sets forth an administrative mechanism for resolving disputes concerning whether a school has complied. 20 U.S.C. § 1415. It provides for an impartial due process hearing conducted by the state or local educational agency, id. § 1415(f), and the right to appeal the results to the state educational agency if the due process hearing was conducted by the local educational agency, id. § 1415(g). The IDEA also requires parties to use these procedures whenever they seek relief “available under this subchapter” even if they are pursuing relief under other federal laws. Id. § 1415(1). Specifically, the IDEA provides that:

[n]othing in this chapter shall be construed to restrict or limit the rights, procedures, and remedies available under the Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 [42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.], Title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 [29 U.S.C. § 791 et seq.], or other Federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities, except that before the filing of a civil action under such laws seeking relief that is also available under this subchapter, the procedures under subsections ...

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