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.

Pending Criminal Charges Insufficient to Stay Ohio University Disciplinary Proceeding

man wearing black officer uniform
This is where we are used to hearing about the “right to remain silent.”

Anyone who has watched a TV cop show knows that they have a right to remain silent when criminal charges are pending against them. This right emanates from the language in the 5th Amendment of the United States Constitution which ensures that citizens will not be “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself”. But, what happens when testimony is expected or necessary in a proceeding that isn’t a criminal case?

That was the issue in Roe v. Director, Case No. 19-CV-136,2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55246 (S.D. Ohio 4/1/19). In that case, John Doe, a student at Miami University faced, simultaneously, a university disciplinary proceeding and a criminal proceeding after he was accused of sexually assaulting fellow student, Jane Roe, in November, 2018. The common practice for criminal defendants in such a predicament is to request a stay of the non-criminal process until the criminal proceeding resolves. Doe did this, but because the university’s disciplinary policies expressly permitted hearings to proceed when criminal charges were pending, his request was denied. When the hearing was scheduled, Doe filed a Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order in the Southern District of Ohio to stay the hearing until the criminal process was resolved in order to vindicate his due process rights.

The standard for a TRO is a high one. In order to obtain relief, a party must show that he will experience irreparable harm if an injunction is not granted and that the equities favor granting the injunction. In addition, the party requesting a TRO must show that they are “likely to succeed on the merits”, or that the prevailing law strongly supports their claims. After considering these factors, Judge Timothy Black of the Southern District of Ohio denied Doe’s Motion.

Judge Black conceded that for Doe the university disciplinary process carried with it life-damaging penalties and that the prospect of hindering a defense in criminal proceedings was dire. Yet, the Court ruled that Doe was unlikely to succeed on the merits of his claims because the applicable disciplinary process did not violate the Due Process Clause. To reach this conclusion, the Court applied the well-established tripartite balancing test from Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976) and considered: (1) the private interest at stake; (2) the procedures used; and (3) the government interest.

While the Court agreed that Doe’s interests were strong, including his long-term employment prospects and reputation, it found that the university’s interest in addressing and promptly resolving sexual assault complaints was compelling. Although the Court acknowledged that Doe’s right to avoid self-incrimination was constitutionally enshrined, his right to stay other proceedings to ensure the exercise of this right was not. To the contrary, the Court cited to at least one past decision which found that a student received due process in a university proceeding even though it had occurred while criminal charges were pending. See Pierre v. Univ. of Dayton143 F.Supp.3d 703 (S.D. Ohio 2015).

As to the other elements, though the Court acknowledged that Doe’s situation was problematic, it was skeptical that it constituted irreparable harm because the proceeding had not yet occurred and no finding had been made against him. Additionally, the Court found that the public interest did not support a finding in Doe’s favor because, if such a ruling were entered, it would prevent universities from conducting disciplinary hearings in any case where criminal charges were filed until they were resolved. As the Court noted, this could prevent universities from resolving disciplinary complaints for months or, in some cases, years. For these reasons, the Court denied Doe’s request for a TRO.

So what does this case mean? It means that the “right to remain silent” we hear about in cop shows has limits and that it does not necessarily apply the same way in non-criminal proceedings, including university disciplinary proceedings.