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R.D. v. Souderton Area School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 19, 2015

R.D. et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
SOUDERTON AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

C. DARNELL JONES, II, District Judge.

In his Amended Complaint, (Dkt No. 11, Amen. Compl. [hereinafter AC]), Plaintiffs seek (Count I) injunctive relief and monetary damages based on a denial of E.D.'s substantive due process rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, PL 108-446, 118 STAT. 2647-2808 Dec. 3, 2004), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1401-82 ("the IDEA"), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. ("the Rehabilitation Act"), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("section 1983), (AC ¶ 6); (Count II) monetary damages based on the School District's failure to supervise and/or train staff and employees to guard against a denial of educational benefits to E.D under section 1983, (AC ¶ 7); and (Count III) "to have the entire decision of the Juvenile Court vacated." (AC ¶ 8.)

Defendant moves to dismiss on various grounds including that (1) the relief requested in the Amended Complaint does not relate back to the original Complaint and thus certain claims are time-barred, (2) Counts II and III are related to an underlying state juvenile court proceeding which this Court does not have jurisdiction to address under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, [1] (3) none of the claims state a cognizable claim for relief pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Dkt No. 12-1, Def.'s Brief in Support of Motion to Dismiss [hereinafter MTD].) Plaintiffs filed a Response. (Dkt No. 13, Pls' Resp. to Def.'s MTD [hereinafter Pl. Resp.].)

After review of the Amended Complaint, Defendant's Motion and Brief, and Plaintiffs' Response, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for the reasons set forth herein.

I. Standard of Review

Defendant moves for dismissal under both Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).

a. 12(b)(1)

A complaint must be dismissed if the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the matter alleged therein. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). A plaintiff bears the burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction over the matter. Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991).

A defendant can move to dismiss a claim under Rule 12(b)(1) where the claim would violate the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine requires that a state court judgment can only be reviewed by the United States Supreme Court or where otherwise provided by Congress, including final decisions of lower state courts. E.B. v. Verniero, 119 F.3d 1077, 1090 (3d Cir. 1997). A federal district court is divested of subject matter jurisdiction in two circumstances under Rooker-Feldman: "(1) if the claim asserted in federal court was actually litigated' in state court prior to the filing of the federal action; or (2) if it is inextricably intertwined' with a state court adjudication." Hawkins v. Supreme Court of New Jersey, 2005 WL 2133588, at *5 (D.N.J. 2005) aff'd 174 F.Appx. 683 (3d Cir. 2006); see also Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 283-85 (2005).

Further, a district court may rule on a Rule 12(b)(1) motion when on the face of the pleadings it is clear that administrative remedies have not been exhausted. Robinson v. Dalton, 107 F.3d 1018, 1022 (3d Cir. 1997).

b. 12(b)(6)

In deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), courts must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation and citation omitted). After the Supreme Court's decision in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). This standard, which applies to all civil cases, "asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. at 678; accord Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) ("[A]ll civil complaints must contain more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.") (internal quotation marks omitted).[2]

A statute of limitations may be raised in a motion to dismiss "where the complaint facially shows noncompliance with the limitations period and the affirmative defense clearly appears on the face of the pleading." Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n. 1 (3d Cir. 1994). In this case, Defendant's statute of limitations argument turns on whether or not Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint alleges claims that relate back to their original Complaint. The Court permitted Plaintiffs to file an Amended Complaint to clarify the current state of their claims following roughly three years of suspense. (Dkt No. 9.) Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(1)(B), an amendment to a pleading relates back to the date of the original pleading where "the amendment asserts a claim or defense that arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out-or attempted to be set out-in the original pleading." Application of Rule 15(c)(1)(B) normally entails a "search for a common core of operative facts in the two pleadings." Bensel v. Allied Pilots Ass'n, 387 F.3d 298, 310 (3d Cir. 2004). "[T]he underlying question for a Rule 15(c) analysis is whether the original complaint adequately notified the defendants of the basis for liability the plaintiffs would later advance in the amended complaint.'" Glover v. F.D.I.C., 698 F.3d 139, 146 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Meijer, Inc. v. Biovail Corp., 533 F.3d 857, 866 (D.C.Cir. 2008) (emphasis added)).

Rule 15(c) cannot "save a complaint that obscures the factual predicate and legal theory of the amended claim." Glover, 698 F.3d at 147-48 (citing Bensel, 387 F.3d at 310). "[T]he relation-back rule requires plaintiffs to show that the already commenced action sufficiently embraces the amended claims so that defendants are not unfairly prejudiced by these late-coming plaintiffs and that plaintiffs have not slept on their rights." Nelson v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 60 F.3d 1010, 1014 (3d Cir. 1995). The relation-back rule cannot be used as an "end-run around the statute of limitations." Id. at 1015.

c. The IDEA

The IDEA ensures "that all children with disabilities have available to them free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services that are designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment or independent living." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d). "The goals of IDEA include ensuring that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education and ensuring that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected." Winkelman v. Parma City School Dist., 550 U.S. 516 (2007) (citing 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400(d)(1)(A)-(B)). Under the IDEA, states that receive federal funding must make available free appropriate public education ("FAPE") to children with disabilities. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a). The primary mechanism for delivering a free appropriate education is the development of a detailed instruction plan, known as an Individual Education Program ("IEP"), for each child classified as disabled. Id. § 1401(18).

The state must also implement the IDEA administrative process which allows parents to file a complaint and to participate in an impartial due process hearing. Id. § 1415(b)(6)(A); id. § 1415(f)(1)(A). Following exhaustion of the IDEA administrative process, the IDEA allows any party to challenge the findings and decisions made during the impartial due process hearing. Id. § 1415(i)(2)(A). A district court will only have subject matter jurisdiction over such a challenge when the plaintiffs have exhausted the IDEA administrative process. Komninos v. Upper Saddle River Bd. of Educ., 13 F.3d 775, 778 (3d Cir. 1994).

II. Background

a. Procedural History

On April 4, 2011, R.D. and D.D., individually and on behalf of E.D., a minor, [3] (collectively "Plaintiffs") filed suit against Defendant Souderton Area School District ("Defendant") in the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County under the IDEA. (Dkt No. 1, Ex. A, Complaint [hereinafter Compl.].) Defendant removed to federal court on May 6, 2011 pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441. (Dkt No. 1.)

At the request of the parties, the Court placed this case in suspense on June 15, 2011. (Dkt No. 6.) On September 25, 2014, Defendant moved to lift the stay and dismiss. (Dkt No. 7.) On October 31, 2014, the Court removed the case from suspense, granted Defendant's First Motion to Dismiss, but granted Plaintiffs thirty (30) days to amend their Complaint. (Dkt No. 9.) On November 29, 2014, Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint. (AC.) On December 12, 2014, Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint. (MTD.) Plaintiffs filed a timely response. (Pl. Resp.)

b. Factual Background

For the purposes of this Motion to Dismiss, the Court will construe all facts alleged in the Complaint as true. "To decide a motion to dismiss, courts generally consider only the allegations contained in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint and matters of public record." Pension Ben. Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Industries, Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993) (citing 5A C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1357, at 299 (2d ed.1990)). Courts may also consider an "undisputedly ...


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