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Blunt v. Lower Merion School Dist.

August 19, 2009

AMBER BLUNT, ET AL.
v.
LOWER MERION SCHOOL DISTRICT, ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bartle, C.J.

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiffs Lydia Johnson, Carol Durrell and her daughters Saleema Hall and Chantae Hall, Christine Dudley and her son Walter Whiteman, June Coleman and her son Richard Coleman, Lynda Muse and her daughter Quiana Griffin, as well as two advocacy organizations, the Mainline Branch of the NAACP ("NAACP") and the Concerned Black Parents of Mainline, Inc. ("Concerned Black Parents") bring this putative class action against the Lower Merion School District, its Board (collectively the "School District") and the Pennsylvania Department of Education ("PDE").*fn1 Before the court is the motion of the named plaintiffs for class certification pursuant to Rules 23(a) and (b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Defendants oppose the motion and move to dismiss the claims of Concerned Black Parents and the NAACP for lack of standing. In addition, the PDE argues that all plaintiffs' claims against it are barred as part of a settlement in Gaskin v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, No. 09-4048 (E.D. Pa.).*fn2

Plaintiffs assert intentional and systematic racial discrimination against African American students with learning disabilities in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq., and 34 C.F.R. § 300.600, the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12132, et seq., § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a), Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, and § 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They also claim the PDE has failed in its responsibility to oversee the provision of special education services by the School District for children with disabilities in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in violation of the IDEA.

Plaintiffs seek injunctive relief "to ensure that the District properly educate[s] all African American students with disabilities so that they can become literate, valuable, and contributing members of their classroom communities." They also request compensatory education for those students who were deprived of an adequate education as well as an order requiring the PDE to monitor whether the School District is correctly identifying African American students with disabilities for placement in special education classes and complying with the IDEA.

The plaintiffs describe the class which they seek to represent, pursuant to Rules 23(a) and (b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as:

All present and future African American students in the Lower Merion School District who are denied access to the general education curriculum; are placed in below grade level classes; receive a modified curriculum; and/or are sent to separate, segregated schools that provide them with an education inferior to the education provided their Caucasian peers with and without disabilities.

I.

As noted above, the named plaintiffs are: (1) several current and former African American students in the School District who have been identified as having a learning disability; (2) the parents of such students; and (3) two advocacy organizations.

In their third amended complaint, plaintiffs assert the School District discriminates against African American students with learning disabilities by making educational placement decisions on the basis of race. They contend the School District removes African American students from the general education curriculum and places them in separate, lower level classes that are predominantly African American. They highlight that while 8.1% of students in the School District are African American, African American students make up 90% to 100% of the students in "modified" or lower level education classes. They further contend that African American students with disabilities are segregated in greater proportion from the regular curriculum for at least 21% of their day than are their Caucasian peers with disabilities. Once in the lower level classes, these students with disabilities have no opportunities to re-enter the general curriculum or an educational track that would prepare them for college. The problem, according to plaintiffs, is compounded by the fact that these students do not receive an appropriate education in the lower level classes. Instead, they are given passing grades and are graduated, despite the fact that they cannot, in many instances, read or do basic math.

Plaintiffs maintain that the PDE is essentially complicit in the School District's alleged systematic and intentional racial discrimination. They submit that the PDE has failed in its responsibility under the IDEA to supervise and monitor the School District to ensure that students with learning disabilities within the Commonwealth are provided, among other things, with a free, appropriate public education.

II.

We begin by addressing the School District's argument that neither the NAACP nor Concerned Black Parents has standing to pursue their claims or serve as representatives of the proposed class. Plaintiffs no longer press to have the NAACP certified as a class representative, and the NAACP does not appear to contest that it lacks standing to pursue claims in its own right or on behalf of its members.

According to the third amended complaint, Concerned Black Parents is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation whose purpose includes the promotion of "equity and excellence in the response of school districts to the needs of diverse student populations; to address issues related to education for populations identified as minority and/or African American; and to identify, monitor, and inform parents about educational issues impacting disadvantaged students, their families and the community at large." The organization's bylaws specifically state "The Corporation shall have no members."

It is well-settled that the "irreducible constitutional minimum of standing" requires that the plaintiff has suffered an "injury in fact," which our Supreme Court has described as "an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized" and "(b) actual or imminent[.]" Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992). Thus, in order to have "independent standing" to sue in its own right, Concerned Black Parents will need to demonstrate it suffered an "injury in fact." Hill v. Park, No. 03-4677, 2004 WL 180044 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 27, 2004).

The School District maintains that the interests of Concerned Black Parents in the litigation are limited to an ideological or social interest and, therefore, it lacks a "personal stake in the outcome." It essentially argues that Concerned Black Parents cannot demonstrate the invasion of a legally protected interest or "injury in fact" necessary to confer standing.

In response, plaintiffs counter that the organization has suffered its own injury in that it has expended its own resources to remedy the harms allegedly caused by the defendants. Plaintiffs cite to the deposition testimony of Loraine Carter, the president of the organization, who testified that members of the board attend meetings on behalf of students who are potential members of the proposed class. These included "Individualized Education Program" ("IEP") meetings,*fn3 § 504 meetings,*fn4 disciplinary meetings, court hearings, and parent-teacher conferences on behalf of students and parents of students enrolled in the School District. She further explained that the board coordinates public forums for parents in the community, invites experts to speak, publishes a newsletter on education issues, and meets with community organizations and the School District. Ms. Carter testified that Concerned Black Parents has met with representatives of the Lower Merion School District to address the underachievement of African American students in the District. Citing to the budget for the organization, the plaintiffs argue that some of these activities cost money.

Concerned Black Parents, an organization, is not, of course, a student with disabilities in the School District and has not, therefore, suffered the type of injury the named plaintiffs are alleged to have suffered. Its injuries are more akin to an abstract, ideological interest in the litigation as opposed to the necessary "personal stake in the outcome" of the controversy necessary to confer standing. Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 735 (1972). The Supreme Court has held that such interests do not meet the "injury in fact" requirement. In Sierra Club, the plaintiff, a well-known organization dedicated to protecting the environment, sought to enjoin development in the pristine Mineral King Valley in California. Id. at 730. It sued as "a membership corporation with 'a special interest in the conservation and the sound maintenance of the national parks, game refuges and forests of the country[.]'" Id. The Supreme Court held that it did not have standing since it failed to allege that it would be affected in any of its activities by the development. Id. at 735. The Court explained that "a mere 'interest in a problem,' no matter how longstanding the interest and no matter how qualified the organization is in evaluating the problem, is not sufficient by itself to render the organization 'adversely affected' or 'aggrieved' within the meaning of the APA," the statute under which it sought review. Id. at 739. While it acknowledged the Sierra Club's historic interest in the protection of the environment, it reasoned that "if a 'special interest' in this subject were enough to entitle the Sierra Club to commence this litigation, there would appear to be no objective basis upon which to disallow a suit by any other bona fide 'special interest' organization[.]" Id. Thus, the "injury in fact" standard "requires that the party seeking review be himself among the injured." Id. at 735. Concerned Black Parents, like the Sierra Club, simply has not demonstrated it has suffered an "injury in fact" sufficient to confer standing upon it in its own right.

Alternatively, Concerned Black Parents may have standing to bring a lawsuit on behalf of its members if it can demonstrate: (1) its members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right; (2) the interests it seeks to protect are germane to the organization's purpose; and (3) neither the claim asserted nor the relief requested requires the participation of individual members in the lawsuit. Addiction Specialists, Inc. v. The Twp. of Hampton, 411 F.3d 399, 405 (3d Cir. 2005).

The School District maintains that the organization lacks standing to bring a lawsuit on behalf of its members because, according to the corporation's bylaws and the testimony of Loraine Carter, the organization has no members. Plaintiffs counter that the organization has an informal membership of people in the community who consider themselves members.

As noted above, the corporation's bylaws specifically state "The Corporation shall have no members." In light of this express statement in a formal document governing the conduct of the corporation, we find that it does not have standing to bring suit on behalf of its members because it has none. Accordingly, we will enter ...


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