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D.R. v. Michigan Dept. of Ed.

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

September 29, 2017

D.R. et al., Plaintiffs,
Michigan Dept. of Ed., et al., Defendants.

          Anthony P. Patti U.S. Magistrate Judge


          Arthur J. Tarnow Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs filed a class action civil rights action against Defendants Flint Community Schools (FCS), Genesee Intermediate School District (GISD), and Defendant Michigan Dept. of Ed. (MDE) on October 18, 2016. They alleged systemic violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.; discrimination based on disability in violation of § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), 29 U.S.C. § 794; Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq.; and violations of M.C.L. § 380.1701.

         Defendants FCS and MDE filed Motions to Dismiss on December 8, 2016 [22, 23], and Defendant GISD filed a Motion for Judgment [25] on December 15, 2016. Defendants FCS and MDE filed replies [32, 33] on January 3, 2017. Plaintiff responded [29] to these Motions on January 13, 2017. Defendant GISD filed a reply [31] on January 27, 2017. A hearing was held on these Motions on August 23, 2017.

         For the reasons stated below, Defendant MDE's Motion to Dismiss [23] and Defendant GISD's Motion for Judgment [25] are DENIED without prejudice. Defendant FCS's Motion to Dismiss [22] is GRANTED in part as to Defendant's request to dismiss the claim for universal preschool, and DENIED in part as to the remainder of Defendant FCS's Motion to Dismiss.


         The proposed class is made up of the approximately 30, 000 school-age children in Flint, Michigan at risk of developing a disability as a result of the elevated levels of lead in the drinking water. Against all Defendants, Plaintiffs bring claims of systemic violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), specifically alleging: failure to develop and implement child find procedures; failure to provide free appropriate public education that confers a meaningful educational benefit in the least restrictive environment; failure to protect students' due process procedural safeguards in the disciplinary process; discrimination on the basis of disability and denial of access to educational services. Plaintiffs also allege that all Defendants have discriminated based upon disability in violation of § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (§ 504) and in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As to Defendants FCS and GISC only, Plaintiffs allege violation of MCL § 380.1701 as a result of a failure to provide programs and services designed to develop each disabled child to their maximum potential. The individual facts pertaining to the representative Plaintiffs are found in the complaint at ¶¶ 90-348.

         Plaintiffs' claims are all focused around requirements established by the IDEA. The IDEA provides federal money to help states educate children with disabilities. To qualify for this assistance, a state education agency (SEA) must demonstrate that it has policies and procedures in place that assure all children with disabilities in the state have access to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE), tailored to the unique needs of each child through an individualized education program (IEP). See 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1), (2), (4). The LRE is defined as follows: “[t]o the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5)(A).

         The IDEA also provides that “[a] State funding mechanism shall not result in placements that violate the [LRE requirements], and a State shall not use a funding mechanism by which the State distributes funds on the basis of the type of setting in which a child is served that will result in the failure to provide a child with a disability a free appropriate public education according to the unique needs of the child as described in the child's IEP.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5)(B).

         Legal Standard

         Defendants MDE and FCS move to dismiss the complaint under Rules 12(b)(6) and 12(b)(1). On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court must “assume the veracity of [the plaintiff's] well-pleaded factual allegations and determine whether the plaintiff is entitled to legal relief as a matter of law.” McCormick v. Miami Univ., 693 F.3d 654, 658 (6th Cir. 2012) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009); Mayer v. Mylod, 988 F.2d 635, 638 (6th Cir. 1993)). To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim, the complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), in order to provide fair notice to the defendant of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests. The Court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Ohio Police & Fire Pension Fund v. Standard & Poor's Fin. Servs. LLC, 700 F.3d 829, 835 (6th Cir. 2012). The complaint must plead factual content that allows the court to draw a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         It is currently unsettled in the Sixth Circuit whether a failure to exhaust administrative remedies is properly considered under Rule 12(b)(6) or Rule 12(b)(1). Gibson v. Forest Hills Local Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 655 F. App'x 423, 431 (6th Cir. 2016). However, the Sixth Circuit has indicated that the distinction makes no difference in cases where there is no dispute as to the exhaustion-related factual findings. See Id. Since it is undisputed that Plaintiffs did not exhaust, the Court will use the 12(b)(6) standard to resolve the exhaustion claims.

         Rule 12(b)(1) mandates dismissal for “lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter.” Damnjanovic v. United States Dep't of Air Force, 135 F.Supp.3d 601, 603 (E.D. Mich. 2015). Whether Article III's case or controversy requirement is satisfied is a jurisdictional issue to be considered under Rule 12(b)(1).

         Defendant GISD brings its Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(c). “Motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) are analyzed under the same de novo standard as motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).” Sensations, Inc. v. City of Grand Rapids, 526 F.3d 291, 295 (6th Cir. 2008).


         Defendant FCS brings a Motion to Dismiss [22] on the basis of failure to exhaust, asserting there is no case or controversy regarding hearing, vision, or lead blood screenings that are already provided through the public health department; and that there is not a valid claim for universal preschool. Defendant GISD brings a Motion for Judgment [25], based upon a failure to exhaust, and further claims that Plaintiffs' state law cause of action is barred because Michigan does not recognize claims that sound in medical malpractice. Finally, Defendant MDE brings a Motion to Dismiss [23], based upon a failure to exhaust, 11th Amendment immunity for the ADA claim, lack of standing, and a failure to state a claim for which relief may be granted.

         1. Failure to Exhaust [22, 23, 25]

         All Defendants argue that Plaintiffs' claims must be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required under the IDEA. Plaintiffs respond that exhaustion is not required because it would be futile in this case since the alleged systemic violations of IDEA cannot be remedied through the administrative process. As an initial point, these arguments were made prior to the United States Supreme Court's decision in Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., 137 S.Ct. 743, 197 L.Ed.2d 46 (2017), which held that plaintiffs must exhaust in suits brought under statutes other than the IDEA if the remedy sought addresses the denial of a FAPE. While no supplemental briefs have been submitted that address the relevance of this decision on the exhaustion argument, the complaint unequivocally concerns the alleged failure to provide a FAPE, and therefore the exhaustion requirement of § 1415(1) still applies to all claims, as originally argued by Defendants.[1]

         It is clear from the plain language of the IDEA that exhaustion of administrative remedies is required before a party may file a suit under the act in federal court. Covington v. Knox County Sch. Sys., 205 F.3d 912, 915 (6th Cir. 2000). The two principle exceptions to this requirement of exhaustion of administrative remedies are where the administrative procedures “would be futile or inadequate to protect the plaintiff's rights, ” or where “plaintiffs were not given full notice of their procedural rights under the IDEA.” Id. at 917. Courts have applied the futile or inadequate exceptions to exhaustion when plaintiffs seek relief that is not otherwise available through the administrative process, i.e. allegations of “structural or systemic failure.” Jackie S. v. Connelly, 442 F.Supp.2d 503, 518 (S.D. Ohio 2006) (citations omitted).

         It is undisputed that Plaintiffs have not properly exhausted, and that they were given actual notice of the procedural rights. However, Plaintiffs argue that the systemic exception applies to excuse their lack of exhaustion.[2] While the Sixth Circuit has not expressly adopted this exception, nor explicitly defined the futility exception for systemic claims, courts around the country have accepted this excuse with varying parameters. See Doe v. Arizona Dep't of Educ., 111 F.3d 678, 682 (9th Cir. 1997) (systemic claim involves allegations concerning system-wide issues requiring wholesale structural reform); see also J.S. v. Attica Cent. Schs., 386 F.3d 107 (2d Cir. 2004) (plaintiffs alleged system-wide problems when the “framework and procedures for assessing and placing students in appropriate educational programs were at issue, or because the nature and volume of complaints were incapable of correction by the administrative hearing process.”).

         Plaintiffs direct the Court to three cases they believe support the conclusion that they should be excused from exhaustion for alleging systemic violations. In the first case, J.S. ex rel. N.S. v. Attica Cent. Sch., 386 F.3d 107, 114 (2d Cir. 2004), the plaintiffs were found to have alleged systemic violations under the IDEA. In that case, the Court surveyed applicable precedent and concluded that the common element in systemic cases was that:

[T]he plaintiffs' problems could not have been remedied by administrative bodies because the framework and procedures for assessing and placing students in appropriate educational programs were at issue, or because the nature and volume of complaints were incapable of correction by the administrative hearing process.

Id. at 114. Importantly, “[i]f each plaintiff had been forced to take his or her claim before a hearing officer and appeal to another local or state official, there would have been a high probability of inconsistent results, ” and the administrative record would not have been of “substantial benefit” to the Court. Id. Therefore, the Second Circuit panel found that the plaintiffs' challenges to the School District's failures to: prepare and implement IEPs, provide appropriate training to staff, perform timely evaluations and reevaluations, provide parents with procedural safeguards related to identification and evaluation of children with disabilities, and perform legally mandated responsibilities in a timely matter, represented systemic allegation because ...

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