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Wellman v. Butler Area School District

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

December 12, 2017

BUTLER AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, DR. JOHN WYLLIE, Individually, and in his capacity as principal of the Butler Area High School

          Argued: November 7, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. No. 2-13-cv-00616) District Judge: Hon. Mark R. Hornak

          Edward A. Olds, Esq. [ARGUED] Counsel for Appellants

          Thomas E. Breth, Esq. [ARGUED] Dillon McCandless King Coulter & Graham Counsel for Appellees

          Before: SMITH, Chief Judge, JORDAN and SHWARTZ, Circuit Judges.


          SHWARTZ, Circuit Judge.

         Robert Wellman, Jr., appeals the District Court's order dismissing his complaint without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. He contends that the Court erred because none of his claims seek relief under the IDEA and, in any event, exhaustion would be futile.

         The outcome of this appeal is largely dictated by the Supreme Court's recent opinion in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 137 S.Ct. 743 (2017), which requires that we consider the "crux"-the "gravamen"-of the complaint to determine whether a plaintiff seeks relief for "denial of the IDEA's core guarantee [of] . . . a free and appropriate education [FAPE, ]" id. at 748 (quotation marks omitted); if so, then the plaintiff must exhaust his administrative remedies under the IDEA. Because the gravamen of each count in Wellman's complaint seeks relief for the denial of a FAPE, Wellman would typically be required to exhaust his claims. Wellman concedes, however, that he released all claims seeking relief based on the denial of a FAPE, and thus, he has no claims to exhaust. As a result, we will vacate the District Court's order dismissing the complaint without prejudice and remand with instructions to dismiss the complaint with prejudice.


         Wellman attended high school in the Butler Area School District ("the School District"). He suffered a head injury while playing flag football in his freshman physical education class. After school that day, Wellman attended football practice, where he suffered additional head injuries. The following day, Wellman saw his doctor and later underwent a CT scan, which revealed that he had sustained a concussion. Wellman suffered "pain" and experienced "staring spells, trouble sleeping, and difficulty concentrating." App. 126.

         Wellman returned to school, but his mother asked the school to assist him until his concussion healed. Wellman's mother requested that Wellman be taken out of his German and physical education classes, that he be given extra study halls, and that the football coach not allow him to engage in any unsuitable physical activity. Rather than allow him to rest during his extra study halls, however, the teachers required him to take make-up exams. Wellman alleges that the school's indifference to his need for accommodations increased his stress and aggravated his cognitive problems.

         After performing an EEG test, Wellman's doctor wrote a letter asking the school to provide Wellman with academic accommodations, specifically tutors and more time to complete his assignments. The school ignored these requests.

         A few weeks later, Wellman attended a high school football game. Before the game, Wellman's mother told the football coach that Wellman had a concussion, was not cleared to participate in the game, and should not be exposed to any possibility of physical contact. Despite this conversation, the football coach asked Wellman to hold one of the markers on the sidelines. Wellman was not wearing any protective gear. During the game, a player in full uniform ran into Wellman and knocked him over, causing another head injury.

         After this incident, Wellman's concussion symptoms worsened, and he experienced severe headaches, problems focusing, and exhaustion. A CT scan revealed that he had post-concussive syndrome. Wellman began to miss school because of his symptoms and medical appointments, and when he was able to attend school, his teachers refused to provide accommodations for him. As a result, Wellman suffered significant stress, embarrassment, and anxiety.

         Wellman and his mother met with the principal regarding his teachers' failure to accommodate him, [2] but the principal was dismissive of his problems. Because the School District would not accommodate him, Wellman requested and received homebound instruction but claimed that the teachers who provided the instruction were generally apathetic. Wellman attempted to return to school, but again his teachers denied his requests for accommodations, [3] and he quickly returned to homebound instruction for the remainder of the 2009-10 academic year.

         Wellman attempted to return to school for the 2010-11 academic year but was overwhelmed by severe anxiety. To reduce his anxiety, Wellman and his mother asked that he be allowed to switch his lunch period so that he could eat lunch with his friends, but the request was denied. Wellman had panic attacks at the thought of returning to school, and he returned to homebound instruction.

         In October 2010, Wellman's mother requested that he be evaluated for an Individualized Education Plan ("IEP").[4]The school determined that Wellman was not eligible for an IEP. However, Wellman underwent an independent evaluation, which concluded that he met the criteria for anxiety disorder and cognitive disorder due to a medical condition. Thereafter, Wellman's mother, his therapists, and school officials met. The school proposed a "Chapter 15/504 plan"[5]to help Wellman return to school, but the parties could not reach an agreement on its implementation. App. 134. Four months later, they met again to discuss a Chapter 15/504 plan, but school officials appeared uninterested in giving Wellman "any sort of accommodations." Id. Wellman finished his sophomore year in cyber school. The following year, he enrolled in private school, from which he eventually graduated.

         Wellman and his parents filed a due process complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education against the School District, requesting a hearing, an IEP, compensatory education for two years, and payment of Wellman's private school tuition. Wellman and the School District eventually entered into a Settlement and Release Agreement ("the Settlement Agreement") with respect to the claims in the ...

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