The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has issued an important ruling in the area of educational law holding that where a special education claim seeks redress that is not offered under the IDEA, the plaintiff (read parent suing a district) does not need to have exhausted the administrative remedies offered under it. For many, the above writing may not make a whole lot of sense, sounding like legal mumbo-jumbo, so following is an interpretation of what that means in everyday language and as applied to an everyday situation.
Formerly here in California, if parents were suing the school district for their special needs child being placed in a dimly lit hallway for long periods of time, the parents would need to show at the outset of their federal case that they had already utilized the administrative law remedies available to them. In a case such as this, that would mean that they had filed for a due process hearing (DPH) and had lost that case. Then, since they lost there, the parents could file a claim in federal court under a (federal civil rights violation) and under an IDEA cause of action.
Under this new ruling, Payne v. Peninsula School District, a parent has a right to file immediately in federal court for monetary damages for violation of a student’s civil rights under Section 1983.
The essential facts of Payne are as follows. D.P., an autistic student who also has been diagnosed with oral motor appraxia (an inability to coordinate and/or initiate movement of the jaw, lips, and tongue on command), in accordance with his IEP, was placed in a self-contained, SDC classroom. The teacher in that room utilized a safe room, essentially a closet, where students who became “overly stimulated” were housed to allow them time to deescalate. While initially objecting to use of this room, D.P.’s parents eventually agreed to its limited use under certain conditions. The teacher was not to place him in the room as punishment, the door had to remain open at all times, and he was not to be left alone in the room.
The Payne’s allege in their suit that the teacher continued to use the room as punishment, locking him in without supervision. During some of these “time-outs,” D.P. responded by removing his clothing and urinating or defecating on himself. During this period of time, the teacher began not allowing the Payne’s to visit the classroom for the proffered reason that they might “misinterpret what they observed.”
The Paynes filed for mediation which they and the school district went through. In that mediation, it was agreed that D.P. would attend another school in the district. The Paynes though removed their son from the public school system and began home schooling him. During all this, they never filed for or were part of a formal DPH.
The Paynes then filed suit under Section 1983, alleging violations of the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, and the IDEA. Under Washington state law, they also filed claims of negligence and outrage. Without deciding if the facts as alleged were true, the lower court through the case out based on the exhaustion theory, that the Paynes had not first gone through a due process hearing as it believed was necessitated under the IDEA.
The 9th Circuit, sitting en banc, meaning all the justices were part of the decision, held that the case, or at least parts of it, should be heard because exhaustion of administrative remedies for some of the causes of action was unnecessary.
The reasoning is long and detailed, but in its essence states that since the family here was seeking monetary damages, something the IDEA does not provide for, that part of the claim did not require exhaustion since it did not come under the IDEA.
In dissent, some members of the court lamented that this holding would lead to artful pleading, a legal term-of-art meaning that a skilled lawyer would simply in his initial pleading of the case word his desired remedies in such a way as to allow the plaintiff to not utilize administrative remedies when they in fact should have been utilized.
The majority downplayed this worry, laying out the situations when exhaustion of remedies would still be necessitated. Agreeing with the Department of Justice’s “relief-centered approach,” the Court said exhaustion was necessary where: (1) a plaintiff seeks an IDEA remedy or its functional equivalent; (2) a plaintiff seeks prospective injunctive relief to alter an IEP or the educational placement of a student; or (3) a plaintiff is seeking to enforce rights that arise as a result of a denial of FAPE, whether pled as an IDEA claim or any other clam that relies on the denial of a FAPE to provide the basis for the cause of action.