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M.C. v. Knox County Board of Education

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville Division

June 7, 2018

M.C., a minor through her parents/guardians R.C. & J.C.; and C.L., a minor through her parents/guardians J.L & K.L., Plaintiffs,



         On August 4, 2017, Plaintiffs filed this action pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Title II of the American with Disabilities Act, and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief [D.1]. Defendants moved to dismiss the action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted [D. 17].[1] Plaintiffs responded in opposition [D. 20] and submitted materials that, if considered by the Court, would convert Defendants' motion to dismiss into one for summary judgment. Defendants replied [D. 21] and urged the Court not to consider any materials external to the pleadings. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion will not be converted; the motion to dismiss will be granted; and this case will be dismissed.

         I. Background

         A. Legal

         1. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

         Plaintiffs first allege a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1491o. Congress enacted the IDEA in 1975 to ensure that children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE), which must be provided “in conformity with the individualized education program [IEP] required under section 1414(d) of this title.” Id. § 1401(9)(D). The IEP has been called “the centerpiece of the statute's education delivery system for disabled children.” Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311 (1988).

         An IEP is a detailed, often lengthy document that is developed and implemented for each student with a disability, in consultation with the student's parents. It sets forth “the child's functionality, her current academic performance, her academic goals, how to measure academic progress, and what accommodations she needs.” I.L. through Taylor v. Knox Cty. Bd. of Educ., 257 F.Supp.3d 946, 953 (E.D. Tenn. 2017) (discussing 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)). An IEP must also include:

a statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable, to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child, and a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided to enable the child
(aa) to advance appropriately toward attaining the annual goals;
(bb) to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum … and to participate in extracurricular and other nonacademic activities; and
(cc) to be educated and participate with other children with disabilities and nondisabled children in the activities described in this subparagraph.

20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(IV); 34 C.F.R. § 300.320(a)(4). Additionally, the IEP must specify “[t]he projected date for the beginning of the services and modifications described in subclause (IV), and the anticipated frequency, location, and duration of those services and modifications.” 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(VII); 34 C.F.R. § 300.320(a)(7). But Congress has been clear that the statute is not to be construed to require any additional information in a child's IEP “beyond what is explicitly required in this section.” 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(a)(ii).

         The IEP team must review a student's IEP at least once each year to assess whether the goals are being achieved. 34 C.F.R. § 300.324(b). Before the school proposes (or refuses) to amend certain aspects of an IEP, it must provide the student's parents with:

(1) prior written notice [PWN] that explains what the school district proposes to do and why, the factors that are relevant to the proposal, a description of the evaluative methods and results the school district used as a basis for the proposed action, and a description of other options that were considered and the reasons why they were rejected; (2) an opportunity to review all records pertaining to their child; and (3) a full explanation of their rights, including their rights to participate, object, and appeal.

K.A. ex rel. F.A. v. Fulton Cty. Sch. Dist., 741 F.3d 1195, 1203-04 (11th Cir. 2013) (footnotes omitted); 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(b)-(c); 30 C.F.R. § 300.324(b). The IDEA's procedural safeguards “guarantee parents both an opportunity for meaningful input into all decisions affecting their child's education and the right to seek review of any decisions they think inappropriate.” Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311-12 (1988).

         If the parents object to a proposed change, they may request a due process hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415. The party challenging the IEP bears the burden of persuasion regarding its inadequacy. Schaffer ex rel. Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 62 (2005). Parents that are dissatisfied with the outcome of the administrative process may seek judicial review by filing a civil action in state or federal court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2). During the pendency of the proceedings, “the child shall remain in the then-current educational placement, ” and the IEP shall not be changed. Id. § 1415(j). This so-called “stay-put” provision maintains the status quo while the parents seek review. 546 U.S. at 60.

         2. Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act

         Plaintiffs also allege a violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. While the IDEA guarantees individually tailored educational services, Title II and § 504 focus on non-discriminatory access to public facilities and federally funded programs more generally. See Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., 137 S.Ct. 743, 756 (2017). Public schools that receive federal funds are covered by all three statutes, and conduct by school staff can violate the IDEA, Title II, and § 504 all at once. Id. at 755-56. Even so, “nothing in the IDEA shall be construed to restrict or limit the rights, procedures, and remedies available under the Constitution, the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, or other Federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(1) (cleaned up). The only exception is when the lawsuit seeks relief for denial of a FAPE. Id. In those instances, a plaintiff is required to go through the IDEA's grievance procedure before seeking review in court. Cf. Fry, 137 S.Ct. at 752-55 (“[I]f, in a suit brought under a different statute [other than the IDEA], the remedy sought is not for the denial of a FAPE, then exhaustion of the IDEA's procedures is not required.”).

         “[C]laims under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act are largely the same.” Kaltenberger v. Ohio Coll. of Podiatric Med., 162 F.3d 432, 436 n.4 (6th Cir. 1998). Title II of the ADA bars public entities from discriminating against people “by reason of” their disabilities. 42 U.S.C. § 12132. To comply with Title II, covered entities must make “reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures when the modifications are necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability, unless the public entity can demonstrate that making the modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program, or activity.” 28 C.F.R. § 35.130(b)(7). Similarly, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act provides that no one may be excluded from a program receiving federal funds “solely by reason” of her disability. 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). Both acts require a public entity to administer its services, programs, and benefits in “the most integrated setting appropriate” to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities. 28 C.F.R. § 35.130(d); 45 C.F.R. § 84.4(b)(2).

         B. Factual

         1. M.C.

         M.C. is a nineteen-year-old woman with Down syndrome who attends school in the Knox County School (“KCS”) system in Knoxville, Tennessee. During the 2013-2014 school year, her IEP allotted 30 minutes each day for staff to modify the regular education materials for her benefit. This time was listed on the “Special Education and Related Services” page. The following school year, the IEP was updated, and the material preparation time was doubled.

         In April 2015, without issuing a Prior Written Notice to M.C.'s parents, KCS removed the duration and frequency of planning time from M.C.'s IEP. In August 2016, M.C.'s parents requested that this time be added back into the IEP. In response, KCS issued a belated PWN explaining that the planning time had been removed because “[c]urriculum preparation is a teacher responsibility as part of case management, ” and was not an additional service being provided pursuant to the IEP [D. 1, at 6]. M.C.'s parents repeatedly expressed their concerns that without dedicated staff time for material preparation, the modifications were being done “on the fly.” KCS agreed that staff time was necessary to modify the curriculum, but refused to specifically document this time in the IEP.

         In April 2017, M.C.'s parents requested a due process hearing on the issue. In their amended complaint, they argued that preparation of materials should be considered a “service” that must be documented in the IEP. KCS moved to dismiss the hearing request for failure to state a claim. On June 29, 2017, the ALJ granted KCS's motion after finding that “the petitioners have provided no legal authority to bolster [their] claim.” [D. 17, at 20]. To date, M.C.'s IEP does not document any time for materials modification, although she is still being educated within the general education classroom.

         2. C.L.

         C.L. is a thirteen-year-old student with Down syndrome who also attends school in Knox County. During the 2016-2017 school year, C.L.'s IEP included two hours per week for staff to modify materials, listed under the “Special Education and Related Services” section. Later that school year, the material preparation time was increased to two and a half hours per week.

         In April 2017, C.L.'s parents requested that this time be increased to five hours per week. In response, KCS issued a PWN in which it proposed removing all allotted curriculum modification time from C.L.'s IEP. Again, KCS explained that because staff are expected to do this work anyway, it does not need to be specifically documented in the IEP. C.L.'s parents timely objected, triggering the “stay-put” provision.[2] They filed a due process complaint, which KCS moved to dismiss. On June 6, 2017, the ALJ granted KCS's motion to dismiss after finding that the parents had provided “no legal authority” to bolster their claim, ...

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