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In re P.G.

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

July 18, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF P.G., through his parents, A.G. and R.G.; Plaintiff,
v.
GENESIS LEARNING CENTERS d/b/a GENESIS ACADEMY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          Aleta A. Trauger United States District Judge.

         P.G., acting through his parents, has filed a Motion to Determine Jurisdiction (Docket No. 10), to which Genesis Learning Centers (“Genesis”) has filed a Response (Docket No. 15), and P.G. has filed a Reply (Docket No. 16). For the reasons set out herein, the motion will be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., “offers federal funds to States in exchange for a commitment: to furnish a ‘free appropriate public education'-more concisely known as a FAPE-to all children with certain physical or intellectual disabilities.” Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., 137 S.Ct. 743, 748 (2017) (citing 20 U.S.C. §§ 1401(3)(A)(i), 1412(a)(1)(A)). “[T]he IDEA gives the ‘primary responsibility . . . for choosing the educational method most suitable to the child's needs . . . to state and local educational agencies”- commonly referred to as “SEAs” and “LEAs”-which work “in cooperation with the parents or guardian of the child.” Long v. Dawson Springs Indep. Sch. Dist., 197 Fed.Appx. 427, 433-34 (6th Cir. 2006) (quoting Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 207 (1982)). At the heart of this collaborative process is the child's individualized education program, or “IEP.” “The IDEA establishes procedures by which school officials, parents, and the student can collaborate to create an IEP” that takes into account the unique needs of the child, the special education expertise of the educators, and the voice of the child's parents or guardians as advocates for the child's best interests and educational needs. Id. at 432 (citing 20 U.S.C. §§ 1401(11), 1414(d); Sch. Comm. of Town of Burlington, Mass. v. Dep't of Educ. of Mass., 471 U.S. 359, 368 (1985)). IDEA regulations recognize that a private school may be charged with administering a child's IEP but provide that, “[e]ven if a private school or facility implements a child's IEP, responsibility for compliance with this part remains with the public agency and the SEA.” 34 C.F.R. § 300.325(c).

         “The IDEA . . . provides for administrative procedures to resolve disputes when the people involved in the creation of an IEP are not able to agree on its substance.” Id. (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)); see 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6), (f)-(g), (k). “[A]ny party” is entitled to present an administrative complaint “with respect to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6)(A). The state is required to provide an impartial administrative due process hearing related to that complaint, which may be performed by either the LEA or the SEA. If the hearing is performed by the LEA, however, the LEA's determination can be appealed to the SEA. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(A), (g)(1). “Any party aggrieved by the findings and decision made under” the administrative complaint process “shall have the right to bring a civil action with respect to the complaint presented” in either state or federal court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A); see also S.E. v. Grant Cty. Bd. of Educ., 544 F.3d 633, 642-43 (6th Cir. 2008).

         Genesis is a private company that operates schools, including Nashville's Genesis Academy. (Docket No. 1 ¶ 2.) Tennessee's education statutes permit local school districts to “make contracts with the proper authorities of private schools . . . whereby the county public elementary and high schools may be taught in the private . . . schools.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-2-109. In February 2014, the Board of Education of Rutherford County, Tennessee, entered into a contract with Genesis, pursuant to which Genesis would provide special education services to Rutherford County students. (Docket No. 1 ¶ 16; Docket No. 10-1.) The contract required Genesis to participate in the formulation of students' IEPs and provide services consistent with those IEPs. (Docket No. 10-1 at 4-5.) Genesis agreed that all of the services and programs it provided to Rutherford County students under the contract would “comply with all relevant Federal and State of Tennessee laws and regulations.” (Id. at 6.) With regard to the students' procedural rights, Genesis agreed that it, along with the Board of Education, would “insure [sic] that the rights and privileges available to students enrolled in the Rutherford County School System shall be available to students with disabilities served by GENESIS, including due process procedures . . . .” (Id. at 5.) The contract between Rutherford County and Genesis was renewed in June of 2018. (Docket No. 10-1 at 1.)

         P.G. is a child with a disability who lives in Rutherford County. (Docket No. 1 ¶ 1.) P.G. attended Rutherford County public schools as a preschooler during the 2015-16 school year and as a kindergartener for part of the 2016-17 school year. Near the end of that school year, however, he was transferred to Genesis Academy.[2] P.G. completed kindergarten at Genesis Academy and continued to attend the school for the entirety of his first-grade year. (Id. ¶¶ 17-18.) P.G., through his parents, alleges that, while at Genesis Academy, he was subjected to “numerous repeated and unnecessary restraints and isolations by Genesis Academy staff.” (Id. ¶ 20.)

         Tennessee, in its Special Education Behavior Supports Act (“SEBSA”), Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-10-1301 et seq., has set forth requirements for when and how restraint and isolation may be used with students receiving special education in Tennessee schools. District courts in the state, including this one, have held that the IDEA, which defines “FAPE” to include compliance with state special education standards, requires compliance with SEBSA. See, e.g., J.M. ex rel. Mata v. Tennessee Dep't of Educ., 358 F.Supp.3d 736, 744-47 (M.D. Tenn. 2018); I.L. ex rel. Taylor v. Knox Cty. Bd. of Educ., 257 F.Supp.3d 946, 964 (E.D. Tenn. 2017); see also Doe ex rel. Doe v. Bd. of Educ. of Tullahoma City Sch., 9 F.3d 455, 457 (6th Cir. 1993) (“[A] school district [that] complies with federal law . . . may still violate the Act if it fails to satisfy more extensive state protections that may also be in place.”) (quoting Thomas v. Cincinnati Bd. of Educ., 918 F.2d 618, 620 (6th Cir. 1990)).

         In the wake of the alleged SEBSA violations, P.G. filed an administrative due process complaint against the Rutherford County Schools and Genesis. (Docket No. 1 ¶ 6.) P.G. alleged that both defendants had violated the IDEA, but he also included claims under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”), 29 U.S.C. § 794, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. P.G.'s inclusion of non-IDEA claims in his administrative complaint is consistent with the requirement, recognized by Congress and the Supreme Court, that some non-IDEA claims seeking relief that overlaps with the IDEA must undergo the IDEA exhaustion process. See Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., 137 S.Ct. 743, 754 (2017); 20 U.S.C. § 1415(1).

         On February 8, 2019, Genesis filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that, as a private company and neither an LEA or SEA, it was not subject to a claim under the IDEA. (See Docket No. 10-2 at 1.) Administrative Judge Phillip R. Hilliard granted the motion and dismissed the IDEA claim against Genesis. Judge Hilliard also raised questions, however, about whether he had jurisdiction to consider the remaining claims against Genesis-an issue that Genesis has apparently raised in its reply. Judge Hilliard requested additional briefing addressing the issue. (Id. at 2-3.) After briefing and oral argument, Judge Hilliard concluded that he, as an administrative law judge for the Tennessee Secretary of State's Administrative Procedures Division, lacked jurisdiction to consider the Section 504 and ADA claims against Genesis. On March 25, 2019, he entered a final Order dismissing those claims. (Docket No. 10-3 at 6.)

         On April 8, 2019, P.G. filed his Complaint with this court, naming Genesis as the only defendant because his claims against Rutherford County had not yet been administratively exhausted. (Docket No. 1.) As he had in the administrative proceeding, P.G. pleaded claims under the IDEA, ADA, and Section 504. (Id. ¶¶ 6, 26.) He also asserted, however, that the court's consideration of those claims on the merits would be premature, because the administrative law judge had erred in (1) concluding that no claim existed against Genesis under the IDEA and (2) concluding that he lacked jurisdiction with regard to the other federal claims. P.G. asks that the court remand the claims to the administrative law judge and only address the merits in the alternative. (Id. ¶ 25-26.) P.G. seeks the following relief, in the event that the court does not remand the case: (1) a declaratory judgment that Genesis was in violation of the IDEA, Section 504, the ADA, and ADA regulations; (2) an injunction directing Genesis “to take all steps necessary to bring its educational facility and/or place of public accommodation into full compliance with the requirements set forth in the IDEA, Section 504, and ADA”; (3) compensatory educational relief, such as an appropriate alternative private placement; (4) monetary damages under Section 504; and (5) attorney's fees. (Docket No. 1 at 7-8.)

         On May 24, 2019, P.G. filed a Motion to Determine Jurisdiction (Docket No. 10), asking the court to hold that the administrative law judge has jurisdiction over P.G.'s claims against Genesis and, therefore, P.G. should administratively exhaust those claims before filing suit in federal court. Genesis filed a Response opposing the motion and asking the court to exercise its jurisdiction over the case and proceed ordinarily to an initial case management conference. (Docket No. 15 at 10-11.) Although Genesis continues to take the position that P.G. has no IDEA claim against it, it has not yet moved to have that claim dismissed. According to P.G., the administrative law judge has stayed proceedings against Rutherford County pending the resolution of this appeal. (Docket No. 10 at 2.)

         II. NATURE OF THE MOTION

         P.G. has styled his motion as a Motion to Determine Jurisdiction, under the theory that the administrative law judge's dismissal was inappropriate and that the administrative tribunal, not this court, has jurisdiction over P.G.'s substantively unexhausted claims. (See Docket No. 10 at 2 (discussing “whether this District Court or the ALJ . . . has jurisdiction over Genesis”).) There are, however, two problems with that premise. First, the Sixth Circuit, in recent years, has, at the very least, “implied that the IDEA's exhaustion requirement is not jurisdictional in nature.” Gibson v. Forest Hills Local Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 655 Fed.Appx. 423, 430-31 (6th Cir. 2016) (collecting cases); see also L.G. ex rel. G.G. v. Bd. of Educ. of Fayette Cty., Ky., No. 18-5715, 2019 WL 2419021, at *4 n.3 (6th Cir. June 10, 2019) (“This circuit has not determined whether exhaustion under the IDEA is a jurisdictional requirement. We note, however, that the Supreme Court has recently held that Title VII's administrative-exhaustion requirement is not jurisdictional but is, instead, a mandatory claims-processing rule.”) (citing Fort Bend County v. Davis, 139 S.Ct. 1843 (2019); Gibson, 655 Fed.Appx. at 430-31). Accordingly, it is far from clear that a failure to appropriately complete the administrative process would deprive this court of jurisdiction. Second, and perhaps more importantly, even if the exhaustion requirement were jurisdictional, it would not bar jurisdiction here because P.G. did not actually fail to exhaust these claims. He brought the claims before the administrative law judge. He pursued them, and, at least at that level and with regard to this defendant, he lost. He did everything the IDEA requires him to do.

         P.G.'s motion appears to the court to be more properly construed as a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 12(c) provides that “[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Pursuant to Rule 7(a), “[t]he pleadings are closed after the filing of the complaints, answers, and any replies ordered by the court.” Forest Creek Townhomes, LLC v. Carroll Prop. Mgmt., LLC, 695 Fed.Appx. 908, 913 (6th Cir. 2017) (citing 5C Wright & Miller, Fed. Prac. & Proc. § 1367). Genesis has filed its Answer, which contained no counterclaims, and the court has ordered no replies. (Docket No. 9.) A Rule 12(c) motion is, therefore, permissible. The court will construe P.G.'s motion as a motion for judgment on the pleadings, based on the argument that, under the agreed facts, P.G. is entitled to a judgment of reversal and remand based on the fact that the administrative law judge erred in concluding, as a matter of law, that P.G. had no IDEA claim against Genesis and/or the administrative law judge lacked jurisdiction over the remaining claims.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         The standard for reviewing a motion for judgment on the pleadings is the same as that applicable to a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Hayward v. Cleveland Clinic Foundation, 759 F.3d 601, 608 (6th Cir. 2014). For purposes of a motion for judgment on the pleadings, all well-pleaded material allegations of the pleadings of the opposing party must be taken as true, and the motion may be granted only if the moving party is nevertheless clearly entitled to judgment. Crossville, Inc. v. Kemper Design Center, Inc., 2010 WL 2650731 at * 2 (M.D. Tenn. July 2, 2010) (citing JPMorgan Chase Bank. N.A. v. Winget, 510 F.3d 577, 581-82 (6th Cir. 2007)).

         In ruling on a motion under Rule 12(c), the court may look only at the “pleadings.” The term “pleadings” includes both the complaint and the answer. Fed.R.Civ.P. 7(a). The court may consider documents attached to the complaint and the answer, so long as they are central to the plaintiff's claim and of undisputed authenticity. Beasley at * 3. Documents attached to a motion are considered part of the pleadings only if they are ...


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