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Ohio School District Sued for Alleged Unclothed Search of Student and Improper Questioning

close up court courthouse hammer
The Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit require strong justifications for unclothed searches of students.

An Ohio school district south of Cleveland was sued last week in federal court as a result of the search and questioning of a 10-year-old Muslim boy. The Complaint alleges that, a teacher’s aide, teacher and nurse removed the boy, who is of Palestinian heritage, from class and proceeded to question him about his religion, home life, and his love of God and America.

Later in the day, the Complaint asserts that the boy was questioned further due to teacher’s incorrect suspicions of abuse in the home. This resulted in the boy being asked to lift his shirt and lower his pants to permit school officials to view his body. Ultimately, child protective services in Ohio investigated but clear the plaintiff’s parents of abuse. The suit was then filed against the District and its officials, alleging that the search and questioning were wrongful and negligence in the district’s response following the search.

Infringing on a student’s right to religious freedom or engaging in discrimination on the basis of religious are both plainly prohibited by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Complaint alleges that the questioning of the student, which allegedly included references to his religion, constituted both.

Likewise, the Supreme Court has long held in New Jersey v. T.L.O.that school officials must have reasonable suspicion of a violation of the law or school policy to conduct a search of students and that the search conducted must be reasonable in scope in relation to the matters suspected. As one might imagine, federal courts have been quite skeptical of unclothed searches of students. The Supreme Court in Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. Reddingfound an unclothed search of a female student suspected of possessing ibuprofen tablets in violation of school policy. Subsequently, in Knisley v. Pike County Joint Voc. Sch. Dist., the Sixth Circuit invalidated an unclothed search of a group of students in order to locate a missing credit card. While suspected abuse, in theory, may provide a justification for school officials to conduct a search, the court in the new suit will most certainly be focused on whether the suspicion was strong enough to justify the invasion into the student’s privacy.

Moreover, while claims pursued against public entities are generally far more difficult to pursue than those asserted only against individuals, the Complaint also alleges that the district should be held responsible for the violation of rights for several reasons. First, it alleges that district officials altered records to hide the incident. Second, it alleges that the district failed to remove the student from the officials who conducted the search, despite repeated complaints. Normally, when a plaintiff tries to sue a public entity on a theory of inaction, such as the failure to prevent harm, the high “deliberate indifference” standard applies. This is a difficult standard to satisfy but, if proven, alteration of public records is something for which judges and juries alike have little sympathy. It is, of course, very early in the litigation so it remains to be seen whether the plaintiff will present sufficient proof to show his rights were violated and avoid qualified official immunity.

Under New Law, KY Schools Add “In God We Trust” Motto to Buildings

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Sixth Circuit authority appears to distinguish between the nature of this religious image and the motto “In God We Trust”.

In the public mind, the United States Constitution mandates a “separation” between church and state. As a result, many people espouse ideas that suggest that public schools may not so much as permit discussion of religion on school premises. Most school attorneys know, however, that the reality is much different.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution does indeed prohibit the “establishment” of a national religion and courts have construed this to mean that government, including state and local government via incorporation under the Fourteenth Amendment, may not entangle itself excessively with religion. Yet, case after case has demonstrated that the line between religion and government is a dashed one at best. Moreover, the First Amendment’s protection of individual rights to expression of religion mean that government cannot excessively interfere with or burden the rights of citizens to engage in religious activity. As a result of this, religion happens in public schools in America; there are just limits on how and when it happens.

A recent example of this is H.B. 46 which the Kentucky General Assembly passed last term. It amends KRS 158.195 to require public schools to post the national motto “In God We Trust” in a prominent location on its elementary and secondary schools. The ACLU of Kentucky opposed the bill, on the belief that it “sent a message that only students who believe in God are welcome in our public schools.” No action has yet been taken to challenge the law in court or prevent its enforcement. This may be because Sixth Circuit precedent suggests that such a challenge would be an uphill battle. In ACLU v. Capitol Square & Advisory Board, 243 F.3d 289 (6th Cir. 2001), the Sixth Circuit rejected a First Amendment challenge to Ohio’s state motto “With God All Things Are Possible”. While this decision does not apply to schools specifically, it certainly suggests that a motto which merely mentions “God” does not necessarily offend the Establishment Clause.

Thus, as it now stands, Kentucky public schools are preparing for the school year by, among other things, adding the motto to their school buildings.

Sixth Circuit Rules IDEA Eligibility Is Necessary to Establish Prevailing Party Status

Attorney fees in IDEA due process cases are often the tail that wags the dog. Since pure money damages are often unavailable in IDEA cases, fee exposure is often the biggest out-of-pocket monetary item of exposure that school districts can face. At the same time, fee-shifting under 42 U.S.C. 1988 is, in many cases, what makes litigating due process hearings on the parents’ side financially viable. Thus, many IDEA due process hearing cases relate, not to questions about substantive and procedural compliance with the IDEA itself, but rather fee liability.

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Attorney fee liability is an important aspect of IDEA due process litigation.

As under other federal civil rights statutes, the right to fee reimbursement hinges on a litigant’s attaining the status of a “prevailing party.” Now, the law in the Sixth Circuit and elsewhere makes it clear that one does not have to win on every issue raised in a suit to earn the right to reimbursement of attorney fees. Rather, a party must only prevail on a significant issue that results in some material benefit.

Notably, under the IDEA, the definition of a prevailing party is restricted to one “who is the parent of a child with a disability[.]” 20 U.S.C. 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). Recently, the Sixth Circuit interpreted this language to hold that eligibility is required to establish “prevailing party” status in IDEA cases. In Burton v. Cleveland Heights University Board of Education, 119 LRP 25157 (6th Cir. 2019) the Court rejected a student’s fee petition since IDEA eligibility, and thus entitlement to tangible relief, had not been established. In that case, the parent filed a due process action alleging, among other things, that a student qualified as a “child with a disability” and was entitled to relief for an alleged denial of FAPE. After a full hearing, the state-level hearing officer ruled that the child had a qualifying disability, but was not in fact eligible under the IDEA for relief or services because the proof was insufficient to show a need for specially designed instruction.

The parents then appealed to federal court and sought fees. They argued that the finding that the child’s disability fell into a protected category under the IDEA was sufficient to qualify them as prevailing parties and fee reimbursement. Furthermore, they argued that the hearing officer ordered the school district to evaluate the student to determine her eligibility under the IDEA. Yet, both the Northern District of Ohio and, later, the Sixth Circuit rejected this argument. Although the parents arguably had succeeded on certain elements of their claims, the Court held that the record was insufficient to demonstrate the student’s eligibility under the IDEA. Citing the plain language of the statute and the decisions of several other Circuit Courts, the Court held that edibility was required to attain prevailing party status for purposes of recovering attorney fees.

Eligibility is often a central issue in IDEA cases. In such cases, the Burton decision could make it harder for parents to establish a right to fee reimbursement even when procedural violations occur. In other words, this decision is a good reminder for parents, school districts, and attorneys in the Sixth Circuit to never forget the fundamentals when litigating IDEA cases.

 

KY Pregnant Workers Act Soon to Become Effective

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This is a fabulous restroom. The Pregnant Workers Act, among other laws, would mandate that it should not also be a lactation room.

Legislation protecting the rights of pregnant and breastfeeding workers existed in several jurisdictions before this month. The Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act mandated “reasonable accommodations” for employees affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition. Similarly, the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibits discrimination against disabled workers, which includes those affected with pregnancy-related conditions, such as preeclampsia or gestational diabetes. Likewise, the Affordable Care Act, Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act requires covered employers to allow employees to take unpaid breaks at work to express breast milk and to provide a clean, private place other than a bathroom for employees to express breast milk. Furthermore, at least two states in the Sixth Circuit, Ohio and Michigan, had included protections for pregnant and breastfeeding workers in their civil rights statutes.

On June 27th, however, Kentucky is the next state to see specific protections for pregnant and breastfeeding become operative law. The Pregnant Workers Act amends the Kentucky Civil Rights Act to mandate “reasonable accommodations” for pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions, which includes “lactation or the need to express breast milk for a nursing child.” Like under other civil rights statutes, accommodations will be required under the employer can show that it would cause an “undue hardship” on its business or operation.

In terms of develop accommodations for employees, the Act requires the provision of notice to employees as to these protections and further mandates the following:

  1. An employee shall not be required to take leave from work if another reasonable accommodation can be provided;
  2. The employer and employee shall engage in a timely, good faith, and interactive process to determine effective reasonable accommodations; and
  3. If the employer has a policy to provide, would be required to provide, is currently providing, or has provided a similar accommodation to other classes of employees, then a rebuttable presumption is created that the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer.

Critically, other portions of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act remain unchanged. Thus, the private right of action and remedies, including damages and attorney fees, under KRS 344.450 are available to any employee who alleges protection under the Pregnant Workers Act. Furthermore, the Act continues to apply to any entity which employs more than 15 employees. Thus, the vast majority of schools and school districts will be responsible for complying with the Pregnant Workers Act.

More than 2/3 of teachers across the United States are women, so school districts in Kentucky should work with their board attorneys to become familiar with the requirements of the Pregnant Workers Act. As with all things, good planning and compassion go a long way in supporting employees through life transitions such as pregnancy and new parenthood. Now, the Pregnant Workers Act in Kentucky will require for workers as a matter of law.

KY Parent Volunteer Sues School for Allegedly Disrupting Breastfeeding

More and more, public spaces, companies, and entities are making efforts to accommodate breastfeeding mothers. As a recent example of this, you may have noticed if you’ve traveled in airports recently that small privacy pods are being installed so that breastfeeding mothers can pump or feed their babies in private. For many weary mothers traveling with babies or a bag of pumping supplies, this privacy option (that isn’t a bathroom stall) is probably much appreciated.

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In honor of Mother’s Day, our posts for May will discuss accommodations for expectant and breastfeeding mothers. 

Still, even if private accommodations are available, does this mean breastfeeding mothers should be required to use them? That is the issue in a civil lawsuit just filed against the Jefferson County Schools in Louisville, Kentucky. The suit, filed by a parent volunteer and member of the school’s site-based council, alleges that the District violated KRS 211.755 when its officials asked the mother to move to private office to feed her infant daughter. According to an interview given by the plaintiff and her attorney, this conversation occurred after she had started feeding her daughter. After the incident, the plaintiff alleges that she was told by school officials that breatsfeeding in the future while volunteering would need to occur in a private office. As a result of this encounter, the plaintiff claims she has missed out on other volunteer opportunities and is seeking money damages and an injunction.

Notably, while KRS 211.755 certainly appears to protect the rights of mothers to breastfeed or express milk and prohibits interference with the act of breastfeeding, there are no judicial interpretations of its meaning. Moreover, the protections apply only in spaces where the mother is “otherwise authorized to be.” Since no court has yet to interpret this phrase, it is not clear to what extent a public entity or school could make advance arrangements or craft policies to address breastfeeding by members of the public or volunteers. It is also not clear what rises to the level of “interference” under KRS 211.755(3).

Furthermore, no remedy for violations of KRS 211.755 is stated in the statute itself. This may mean that the only mechanism for enforcing the statute is KRS 446.070, a statute that authorizes civil suits for violations of Kentucky statutes. However, certain elements must be satisfied for this mechanism to be available. Moreover, some case law suggests that an action filed pursuant to KRS 446.070 may be subject to immunity defenses available to school districts and officials under Kentucky law. Since no court has yet interpreted KRS 211.755, it is not currently clear whether damages suits for violations of that provision are available.

Regardless, schools and other public entities who rely on the time and talent of parent volunteers, would be wise to review the requirements of KRS 211.755 with their attorneys. As education about breastfeeding accommodations becomes more widespread, these issues are likely to only increase. Furthermore, ensuring quality communciation and respect for the rights of mothers is a great way to establish and build relationships with the public and volunteers who contribute so much to schools.

Beyond this, advocates are working hard to expand the protections for breastfeeding mothers in public spaces. Just recently, Kentucky passed Senate Bill 18 which amends its Civil Rights Act to include protections for expectant and breastfeeding mothers. We’ll cover this topic is our next post.