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T.C. v. Hempfield Area School District

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 3, 2018

T.C., and MR. J.C. and MRS. K.C., in their own right, Plaintiffs,


          Maureen P. Kelly, Chief Magistrate Judge


         This action was brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (the “IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. by T.C., and his parents, Mr. J.C. and Mrs. K.C. in their own right, against Hempfield Area School District (“School District”). Plaintiffs assert nine causes of actions arising out of allegations that T.C., a student with a disability, was the victim of bullying by peers at a Vocational Center where he received a portion of his education provided by the School District. The School District has filed a Partial Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), 12(b)(7), and 19. ECF No. 9. As more fully explained below, the School District's motion will be denied.


         The relevant facts necessary for resolution of the Partial Motion to Dismiss are as follows. T.C. is a student in the Hempfield Area School District. ECF No. 1 ¶ 6. He was 19 at the time of filing of the Complaint. Id. ¶ 22. T.C. is eligible for special education pursuant to the IDEA based on his disabilities of Autism and Other Health Impairment. Id. ¶ 6. T.C. was deemed eligible for special education since he moved to the School District in 2009. Id. ¶¶ 31-32. Pursuant to the IDEA, T.C. had an Individual Education Plan (“IEP”) that was regularly reviewed and adjusted at IEP meetings by T.C.'s IEP team. See, e.g., Id. ¶¶ 35, 43, 45, 59, 61, 72, 74, 77. In January 2014, T.C was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. Id. ¶ 28.

         An IEP meeting was held in April 2014. During the meeting, the IEP team, which included T.C.'s parents, agreed that T.C. would be enrolled in the Central Westmoreland Career & Technology Center (the “Vocational Center”), a county “Vocational Technical Program, ” for the upcoming school year. Id. ¶¶ 43, 44. T.C. began attending the Vocational Center at the start of the 2014-2015 school year when he was in the 10th grade. Id. ¶ 48. The Vocational Center provided classroom instruction and skills practice instruction in an open area. Id. ¶ 49.

         Plaintiffs allege that because employees of the Vocational Center “provided a portion of the statutorily-mandated educational services guaranteed T.C. by his Individualized Education Program[, the Vocational Center] served as an agent of the [School] District.” Id. ¶ 10. Plaintiffs also allege that in the implementation of T.C.'s IEP the “actions of [Vocational Center] employees . . . are appropriately attributed to [the School District].” Id. ¶ 12. In addition, Plaintiffs allege that the relationship between the Vocational Center include the following items:

• students in ninth grade attend an assembly to learn about programs at the Vocational Center available to students starting in 10th grade;
• the School District contracts with the Vocational Center to provide transition services to students who require special education services;
• Vocational Center students review the Vocational Center's student handbook, which contains the center's bullying policy;
• a School District coordinator is responsible for overseeing students at the Vocational Center; the Vocational Center provides quarterly progress reports to the School District;
• School District and Vocational Center staff communicated regularly about students as needed; and
• the School District staff believed that Vocational Center staff would advise the School District of any concerns.

Id. ¶¶ 137-141.

         At an IEP meeting held in March 2015, with a special education teacher from the vocational program participating in the meeting, T.C.'s parents expressed concerns about T.C.'s safety. Id. ¶ 61. T.C.'s IEP for transitioning to the 2015-2016 school year included continued attendance at the Vocational Center, with an afternoon return to the high school for certain classes. Id. ¶ 62. T.C. attended the Vocational Center at the start of the 2015-2016 school year. Id. ¶ 67. In September 2015, T.C. began to inform his parents about the bullying he was experiencing at the Vocational Center. Id. ¶ 69.

         Mr. J.C. immediately informed the high school special education teacher about the bullying incidents. Id. ¶ 70. The high school special education teacher reached out to the District representative about the incidents. Id. The School District then contacted the Vocational Center to obtain information about the bullying incidents reported by T.C. Id. ¶ 71. An IEP team meeting to address the reported bullying incidents was held on September 29, 2015. Id. ¶ 72. At the meeting, the team learned that while at the Vocational Center T.C. was physically assaulted by peers, he was locked in a room by peers, and peers pounded on the restroom door when T.C. was using the facility. Id. ¶ 73. As a result, the IEP team revised T.C.'s IEP to provide for him to return to the high school full time. Id. ¶ 74.

         T.C.'s IEP was revised again in March 2016, after T.C.'s parents provided input regarding T.C.'s medical and disability-related needs, his difficulty with social interaction, his tendency to smile at inappropriate times, and his dislike of large groups. Id. ¶ 77. In April 2016, due to an increase in anxiety and Crohn's disease symptoms, T.C. was provided homebound instruction. Id. ¶ 79. During therapy, T.C. disclosed that while at the Vocational Center he was sodomized with a broomstick by other students. Id. ¶ 80.

         Eric Westenford, the then-principal of the Vocational Center initiated an investigation into the incidents reported by T.C. Id. ¶ 83. He interviewed students, reviewed available surveillance video, and talked with teachers. Id. ¶ 84. Interviews of students revealed that a student had held a classroom door shut with T.C. inside; students would pound on restroom door when T.C. (and another student) were inside; some students would touch or poke other students on a private body part; a student dared T.C. to pick up food from the floor and eat it; and students would throw other students backpacks down the stairs. Id. ¶¶ 85-88, 90. T.C.'s Vocational Center teacher confirmed that students would pound on the restroom door when T.C. and another student were inside. Id. ¶ 86. The only relevant incident found on videotape during the investigation was a student holding the restroom door open so that T.C. could not close the door. Id. ¶ 89. (Video surveillance equipment retains only two to three weeks of footage before it is recorded over.) The Vocational Center “administrator determined that none of the incidents described through the investigation, as verified by the video surveillance footage, rose to the level of bullying according to its policy.” Id. ¶ 92.

         T.C. transferred to an Intermediate Unit program at the start of the 2016-2017 school year after an IEP team meeting in July 2016. Id. ¶¶ 104, 105, 109. On March 6, 2017, Plaintiffs filed a request for an administrative Due Process hearing with the Office of Dispute Resolution. Id. ¶ 17. Plaintiffs alleged that the School District violated the IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., by failing to provide T.C. with a free, appropriate public education (“FAPE”), and sought declaratory relief, reimbursement of private expenses, and compensatory education. Id. ¶¶ 17-18.

         The Hearing Officer issued a decision dated August 21, 2017, finding that the School District failed in its FAPE obligations during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years; that the School District did not discriminate against T.C. or act with deliberate indifference toward him; and that the School District was not obligated to reimburse T.C.'s parents for counseling and mental health services. Id. ¶ 20. The Hearing Officer ordered the School District to provide 2.25 hours of compensatory education per day for each day T.C. attended during the years the School District failed in its FAPE obligations. Id. ¶ 20.

         The Hearing Officer concluded that “critically, the record evidence is also plain that there was inadequate supervision of [T.C.] and peers at the [Vocational Center], such that [T.C.] was the victim of a number of instances of bullying that were directly related to [T.C.'s] disabilities despite school-wide policies to prevent such occurrences.” ECF No. 1-2 at 24 (Hearing Officer Decision, Aug. 21, 2017). The Hearing Officer noted that the above conclusion was reached under both the Vocational Center and the School District's bullying policy and definition of bullying. Id. at 24 n. 11. The Hearing Officer also stated that “[t]here can be no doubt on this record that the bullying to which [T.C.] was subject[ed] resulted in substantial restriction of [T.C.'s] opportunities for learning . . . and, thus, amounted to a denial of FAPE for which compensatory education will be awarded.” Id. at 25-26.

         On November 17, 2017, Plaintiffs filed the instant Complaint alleging, in part, that the Hearing Officer made an error of law in finding that the School District was not deliberately indifferent to T.C. and thus did not violate Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. ECF No. 1 ¶ 2. Plaintiffs also seek monetary damages for the School District's denial of FAPE in addition to compensatory education alleging that the compensatory education awarded by the Hearing Officer is in error as insufficient to address the School District's violation. Id. ¶ 3.

         Plaintiffs assert nine claims against the School District. Plaintiffs allege that the School District violated T.C.'s rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Count I) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Count II). Mr. J.C. and Mrs. K.C. assert associational discrimination claims under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Count III) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Count IV). Plaintiffs also assert four claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging breach of a special custodial relationship (Count V), state created danger in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count VI), violation of Mr. J.C. and Mrs. K.C.'s liberty interest (Count VII), and failure to train (Count [VIII]). Finally, Plaintiffs assert a claim for Attorneys' Fees and Costs (Count [IX]) due to their prevailing party status in the administrative proceeding against the School District.[1]

         In the pending Partial Motion to Dismiss, the School District seeks dismissal of the Complaint insofar as Plaintiff alleges that the Vocational Center was acting as the School District's agent. The School District argues that Plaintiffs have failed to assert a proper factual basis to sustain a claim of agency. Next, the School District argues that Plaintiff's Section 1983 failure to train claim must be dismissed because it lacks any factual basis. The School District also presents a Rule 12(b)(7) argument that Plaintiffs have failed to join a necessary party under Rule 19; namely, the Central Westmoreland Career & Technology Center. ...

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