Michigan Seclusion Case Demonstrates Fry’s Limits on IDEA Exhaustion

When the Supreme Court issued its decision in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 137 S.Ct. 743 (2017) two years ago, many experts believed that it would result in an increase in court claims against school districts. This is a reasonable interpretation, since Fry put plaintiffs in school litigation in the drivers seat. Under the holding in Fry, students and parents could, via careful pleading to avoid the IDEA, chart a course to sue in court for damages without first exhausting administrative remedies by seeking a due process hearing. While the ubiquitous “floodgates of litigation” may not yet have fully opened, a new Michigan case shows that, by and large, early assessments of Fry’s impact appear to be correct.

person wearing bandages
The student in Wadley won the right to sue in court for an injured hand but failed to prove school officials caused the injury by violating her rights.

In Wadley v. Hazel Park Community Schools, 2019 U.S.Dist. LEXIS 210377 (E.D. Mich. 2019), the Eastern District of Michigan found that the IDEA exhaustion mandate did not bar a disabled student’s claims. In that case, a student sought damages for alleged violations of her federal constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 and state law for injuries that occurred while school staff used restraint and seclusion techniques to control her behavior. While the school officials asserted that the child’s claims were barred by the IDEA since she had not first sought a due process hearing, the court disagreed. First, the court reasoned that, although the child was found eligible for an IEP after the incident at issue, she was not served under the IDEA at that time. Second, the court analyzed the complaint and determined that the student had not alleged that she was injured due to a denial of FAPE or violation of the IDEA. As a result, the court held that, under Fry, IDEA due process procedures would not redress the physical injuries (a broken finger and laceration) for which she sought compensation. Therefore, the court held it could not dismiss the suit outright and had to address the merits.

While the student won the right to have her claims decided on the merits, she ultimately did not prevail. The court granted summary judgment on the constitutional and state law tort claims, since the proof showed that the school staff’s behavior did not offend either the 4th or 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. In particular, the court found that the complaint allegations that (1) the student was placed unsupervised in seclusion for hours at a time; and (2) restraint procedures were used needlessly or in contravention of regulations to be unsubstantiated. Consequently, it granted summary judgment in favor of the school district and its employees.

In short, Wadley shows us that Fry made it easier for disabled students to bring claims for damages directly to court. Getting into court and getting past summary judgment, however, are two different matters. If students choose to sue directly in court, they still must be prepared to prove their allegations or their claims will fail.

Failed Abuse Claim against KY School District Demonstrates How High the “Deliberate Indifference” Standard Is

The Sixth Circuit recently affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of a Kentucky school district sued for allegedly tolerating the abuse of a special needs student. In K.C. v. Marshall County Bd. of Educ., Case No. 18-5186 (6th Cir. 2019) the parents of a special needs student filed suit under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act after they learned that their child may have been subjected to verbal and physical abuse and neglect while at school.

Though the record contained substantial evidence to verify that the abuse occurred, including a surreptitiously obtained recording of a staff member, reports of at least one fellow student, and findings from at least one child-protection agency, the Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the Board of Education. The reason for this, as the Court noted, was that the student’s claims under the ADA and Section 504 were subject to the onerous “deliberate indifference” standard. This standard, which governs a number of federal civil rights and constitutional claims, requires actual notice of alleged wrongdoing and a failure to act. Although the Court was plainly troubled by the facts in the record before it, as indicated by the concurrence of one Justice who wrote separately merely to express his concern, the Court found that there simply was no evidence that the Board had forewarning of the teacher’s behavior. As such, it affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the District.

The Court was able to sidestep a potentially more challenging issue–vicarious liablity–due to the parents’ failure to raise this issue at the trial court level. On appeal, the parents attempted to argue that the Court should follow the lead of some courts outside the Sixth Circuit to apply a “vicarious liability” standard to ADA Title II claims. Under this theory, an entity could be held responsible for it’s employee’s violation of law even if it does not have actual knowledge of it. In K.C., however, the Court refused to address this issue since the parents had not alleged it in their complaint or raised it when opposing the District’s motion for summary judgment.

In short, K.C. suggests that there may be some developments as to the legal standard underlying disability harassment and abuse claims in the future. For the time being, however, K.C. demonstrates that the currently prevailing standard governing such claims is a difficult one to satisfy.