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T.D.J. v. School District of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

October 21, 2019

T.D.J., individually and as Parent and Natural Guardian of M.D.J., a Minor, Plaintiff
v.
SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM

          JOSHUA D. WOLSON, J.

         Plaintiff seeks to recover attorneys' fees and costs under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (the “IDEA”) and alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (the “Rehab Act”). The School District of Philadelphia (the “District”) moves to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint, arguing both that Plaintiff has not exhausted her claims and that she has not stated plausible claims. The Court will grant the District's motion with respect to Plaintiff's ADA and Rehab Act claims based on conduct that occurred during the 2017-2018 school year, as Plaintiff did not exhaust those claims. However, the Court will deny the remainder of the District's motion.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff T.D.J. brought this action individually and on behalf of her twelve-year-old son, M.D.J., who suffers from autism, an intellectual disability, and a seizure disorder. M.D.J. and his mother reside within the boundaries of the District, which is responsible for providing public education and related services to M.D.J.

         Plaintiff lodged two complaints against the District related to M.D.J. On January 17, 2018, Plaintiff filed a complaint “due to the District failing to, inter alia, assign [M.D.J.] to an appropriate school; provide necessary one on one assistant; provide necessary information to Parent; denying access to school; and Physical abuse of [M.D.J.] by a one on one aid” (the “January Complaint”). (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 20.) This conduct occurred during the 2017-2018 school year. As a result, M.D.J. “regressed behaviorally, academically, socially, and emotionally ….” (Id. at ¶ 21.) This complaint was settled with the District, though Plaintiff contends there was a specific carve-out provision for claims for damages under the Rehab Act and the ADA.

         Plaintiff filed a second complaint against the District on November 14, 2018 (the “November Complaint”). In the November Complaint, Plaintiff “alleged, inter alia, that the District continued to discriminate against [M.D.J.] and deny him a [free appropriate public education (“FAPE”)] as they had repeatedly failed to offer services, transportation, and accommodations that were necessary for [M.D.J.] to attend school[, ] causing him to continue missing school and regress across all domains.” (Id. at ¶ 24.) According to Plaintiff, the central dispute of the due process complaint was a denial of appropriate aid and nursing for M.D.J. on the bus and throughout the day. A hearing officer presided over the administrative proceeding and issued a decision in Plaintiff's favor, awarding the relief sought by Plaintiff in the due process complaint including full-time nursing services, alternate transportation arrangements, and compensatory education.

         On May 15, 2019, Plaintiff filed the instant lawsuit against the District. In Count I of her Complaint, Plaintiff seeks to recover her attorneys' fees and costs under the IDEA, as the prevailing party in the due process hearing. In Counts II and III, Plaintiff brings claims against the District for denial of FAPE, discrimination, and retaliation, in violation of the ADA and the Rehab Act, respectively. On August 9, 2019, the District moved to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint in full, and the motion is ripe for disposition.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A district court may dismiss a plaintiff's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). The party asserting subject matter jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing its existence. Lincoln Ben. Life Co. v. AEI Life, LLC, 800 F.3d 99, 105 (3d Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). Challenges to subject matter jurisdiction may be facial or factual. Lincoln Ben. Life Co. v. AEI Life, LLC, 800 F.3d 99, 105 (3d Cir. 2015) (quotation omitted). “A facial attack ‘concerns an alleged pleading deficiency whereas a factual attack concerns the actual failure of [a plaintiff's] claims to comport [factually] with the jurisdictional prerequisites.'” Id. (same). When considering a factual attack on jurisdiction, “the court must permit the plaintiff to respond with rebuttal evidence in support of jurisdiction, and the court then decides the jurisdictional issue by weighing the evidence. If there is a dispute of a material fact, the court must conduct a plenary hearing on the contested issues prior to determining jurisdiction.” Id. (same).

         A district court may also dismiss a plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Rather than require detailed pleadings, the “Rules demand only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief[.]” Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 786 (3d Cir. 2016) (quotation omitted). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. (same). A claim has facial plausibility when the complaint contains factual allegations that permit the court “to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (same). In doing so, the court must “draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. (same). Under the governing “pleading regime[, ]” a court confronted with a 12(b)(6) motion must take three steps. First, it must identify the elements needed to set forth a particular claim. Id. at 878 (same). Second, it should identify conclusory allegations, such as legal conclusions, that are not entitled to the presumption of truth. Id. (same). Third, with respect to well-pleaded factual allegations, the court should accept those allegations as true and “determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. (same). The court must “construe those truths in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and then draw all reasonable inferences from them.” Id. at 790 (citations omitted).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Administrative Exhaustion

         Plaintiff must demonstrate that she has exhausted her Rehab Act and ADA claims in addition to her IDEA claim. A State that receives federal funding under the IDEA must make a FAPE available to all children with disabilities. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). “The IDEA's administrative procedures test whether a school has met that obligation-and so center on the Act's FAPE requirement.” Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., 137 S.Ct. 743, 754 (2017). Those procedures “provide parents with an avenue to file a complaint and to participate in an impartial due process hearing with respect to ‘any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the[ir] child, or the provision of a [FAPE] to such child....'” Batchelor v. Rose Tree Media Sch. Dist., 759 F.3d 266, 272 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1412(b)(6)(A)).

         Plaintiffs must exhaust the IDEA's administrative process before filing suit in federal court. Id. Likewise, “a plaintiff bringing suit under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, or similar laws must in certain circumstances-that is, when ‘seeking relief that is also available under' the IDEA-first exhaust the IDEA's administrative procedures.” Fry, 137 S.Ct. at 750; see also 20 U.S.C. § 1412(1) (“[B]efore the filing of a civil action under such laws seeking relief that is also available under this subchapter, the procedures under subsections (f) and (g) shall be exhausted to the same extent as would be required had the action been brought under this subchapter.”). This “exhaustion rule hinges on whether a lawsuit seeks relief for the denial of a [FAPE].” Id. at 754. If so, the plaintiff cannot escape the exhaustion requirements “merely by bringing her suit under a statute other than the IDEA … . But if, in a suit brought under a different statute, the remedy sought is ...


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