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N.A., A Minor, By His Parents, D.A. and L.A., I.T., A Minor v. Gateway School District

May 17, 2011

N.A., A MINOR, BY HIS PARENTS, D.A. AND L.A., I.T., A MINOR, BY HIS PARENTS, C.T. AND J.T., ON THEIR OWN BEHALF, AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED
PLAINTIFFS,
v.
GATEWAY SCHOOL DISTRICT,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Arthur J. Schwab United States District Judge

ELECTRONICALLY FILED

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I.Introduction

Acting on behalf on their autistic children and other similarly situated children, Plaintiffs allege that Gateway School District ("School District") violated the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Improvement Act ("IDEIA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1487, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794. Plaintiffs‟ Amended Complaint asserts that the School District denied their children "free appropriate public education" ("FAPE") as guaranteed by the Act by failing to provide special education services and misrepresenting the students‟ educational progress. Doc. No. 18, ¶¶ 3-4. Plaintiffs seek injunctive, declaratory and equitable relief to remedy these alleged violations of federal law. Doc. No. 18, ¶ 2. The School District now moves to dismiss Plaintiffs‟ Amended Complaint, asserting, inter alia, that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because Plaintiffs have not exhausted their administrative remedies under the IDEIA. The Court agrees with Defendant and finds that because Plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies, it lacks jurisdiction to hear this case.

II. Standard of Review

A. Rule 12(b)(1)

A motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) challenges the court‟s "very power to hear the case." See Judkins v. HT Window Fashions Corp., 514 F. Supp. 2d 753, 759 (W.D. Pa. 2007) (quoting Mortenson v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass‟n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977)). As the party asserting jurisdiction, the plaintiff "bears the burden of showing that its claims are properly before the district court." Dev. Fin. Corp. v. Alpha Housing & Health Care, 54 F.3d 156, 158 (3d Cir. 1995). In reviewing a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), the Court must distinguish between facial attacks and factual attacks. See Petruska v. Gannon Univ., 462 F.3d 294, 302 (3d Cir. 2006).

A facial attack challenges the sufficiency of the pleadings, and the court must accept the plaintiff's allegations as true. Id. A defendant who attacks a complaint on its face "[asserts] that considering the allegations of the complaint as true, and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of [plaintiff], the allegations of the complaint are insufficient to establish a federal cause of action." Mullen v. Thompson, 155 F. Supp. 2d 448, 451 (W.D. Pa. 2001). Dismissal is proper under Rule 12(b)(1) only when "the claim clearly appears to be immaterial and made solely for the purpose of obtaining jurisdiction or . . . is wholly insubstantial and frivolous." Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991) (quoting Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. 678, 682 (1946)).

When, as in this case, a defendant launches a factual attack on subject matter jurisdiction, "no presumptive truthfulness attaches to plaintiff's allegations, and the existence of disputed material facts will not preclude the trial court from evaluating for itself the merits of jurisdictional claims." Petruska, 462 F.3d at 302 (quoting Mortenson, 549 F.2d at 891). In a factual attack, the court must weigh the evidence relating to jurisdiction, with discretion to allow affidavits, documents, and even limited evidentiary hearings. See United States ex rel. Atkinson v. Pa. Shipbuilding Co., 473 F.3d 506, 514 (3d Cir. 2007).

B. Exhaustion Requirement Under IDEIA

It is a ""long-settled rule of judicial administration that no one is entitled to judicial relief for a supposed or threatened injury until the prescribed administrative remedy has been exhausted.‟" PennMont Securities v. Frucher, 586 F.3d 242, 245 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Myers v. Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., 303 U.S. 41, 50-51 (1938)). The IDEIA provides for impartial administrative due process hearings to resolve disputes between parents and schools regarding the special education services schools must offer under the Act. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f). In Pennsylvania, a hearing officer first conducts an initial hearing, and the parties may subsequently appeal the officer‟s findings to the Pennsylvania Special Education Due Process Appeals Review Panel. See Blunt v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 559 F. Supp. 2d 548, 557 (E.D. Pa. 2008) (describing Pennsylvania‟s two-level review process); R.F. & J.F ex. rel. N.F v. Warwick Sch. Dist., No. 06-257, 2006 WL 3814555, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 21, 2006) (same). The IDEIA gives parties aggrieved by a state administrative appeal the right to seek review of such determination in federal court. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2).

According to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, federal courts generally may not hear IDEIA claims unless a party has exhausted all administrative remedies. See Komninos ex. rel. Komninos v. Upper Saddle River Bd. of Educ., 13 F.3d 775, 778 (3d Cir. 1994). A primary purpose of requiring administrative exhaustion prior to filing a civil suit in the IDEIA context is to "develop the factual record and resolve evidentiary disputes concerning, for example, evaluation, classification, and placement." W.B. v. Matula, 67 F.3d 484, 496 (3d Cir. 1995); see also Grieco v. N.J. Dept. of Educ., No. 06-4077, 2007 WL 1876498 (D.N.J. June 27, 2007) (noting "ordinary rule" that education cases are "best resolved with the benefit of agency expertise and a fully developed administrative record") (citation and internal quotations omitted). In addition, use of the administrative process supports "Congress‟ view that the needs of handicapped children are best accommodated by having the parents and the local education agency work together to formulate an individualized plan for each handicapped child‟s education." Komninos, 13 F.3d at 778 (3d Cir. 1994) (citation and internal quotations omitted).

The Court of Appeals in Komninos noted a limited exception to this exhaustion requirement: ""[p]arents may bypass the administrative process where exhaustion would be futile or inadequate.‟" Id. (quoting Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 327 (1988)). Parents seeking to bypass exhaustion bear the burden of proving that exhaustion would be inadequate or futile. See M.M. v. Tredyffrin/Easttown ...


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