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Adaikkappan v. West Chester Area School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 9, 2020

VIJAY MURUGESH ADAIKKAPPAN, on his own behalf, and on behalf of his two minor children, Plaintiff
v.
WEST CHESTER AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM

          GENE E.K. PRATTER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Vijay Murugesh Adaikkappan approached the Court seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction enjoining West Chester Area School District ("the District") from transferring his two disabled daughters to a new elementary school. At the conclusion of a hearing and oral argument, the Court denied Mr. Adaikkappan's requested relief, a decision formalized by Order dated December 23, 2019. This Memorandum details the precedent and reasoning underlying the Court's decision.[1]

         Background

         Mr. Adaikkappan has two daughters who he describes as suffering from Mast Cell Activation Disorder and a host of secondary health issues.[2] According to Mr. Adaikkappan, incidents of stress and anxiety can cause "flare-ups" of the children's conditions, impacting their physical, mental, and psychological wellbeing.

         Because of these health problems, Mr. Adaikkappan and his wife chose to homeschool their older daughter until 2018 when the younger daughter became eligible for kindergarten. At that time, the family approached the District to discuss enrolling both children. The District permitted Mr. Adaikkappan and his wife to enroll their children in the school of their choice for the 2018-2019 school year. The family selected Exton Elementary School, which the District allowed the children to attend even though they did not live in that school's catchment area.

         According to Mr. Adaikkappan, one benefit of Exton Elementary is that the physical education classes take place primarily indoors. This enables both children to more fully participate despite the severe environmental allergies secondary to Mast Cell Activation Disorder, which the father states require that the girls spend as much time as possible indoors away from outdoors environmental allergens. The District does not dispute that the children are disabled and maintains active Section 504 Service Agreements for both children under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

         The District's policy only permits one-year-at-a-time student transfers. Therefore, the District required Mr. Adaikkappan to submit a new transfer request for the current 2019-2020 school year if the children were to continue attending Exton Elementary. When he reapplied, the District denied his request and informed him that his children could only remain enrolled at Exton Elementary if he provided the District with proof of residency in that school's catchment area.[3]To meet this requirement, Mr. Adaikkappan and his wife entered into a lease with Exton Crossing Apartments until they were able to secure a lease at Whiteland West Apartments, their preferred community. The District accepted the lease as proof of residency in the catchment area and permitted the children to return to Exton Elementary for the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

         Mr. Adaikkappan, believing the underlying denial of his transfer request and the resulting requirement that he provide proof of residency was improper, obtained counsel to assist him in discussions with the school. Following outreach from Mr. Adaikkappan's counsel, on October 21, 2019, counsel for the District allegedly "stated unequivocally that [the District] would grant the sought-after school transfer request" and prepare paperwork confirming the transfer. Compl. ¶ 56 (Doc. No. 1). Based on this representation, Mr. Adaikkappan canceled the Exton Crossing apartment lease. The Whiteland West lease was also terminated for unrelated reasons, and the family then had no active arrangement to reside in the Exton Elementary catchment area.

         On November 13, 2019, the District's Director of Elementary Education allegedly informed Mr. Adaikkappan that the District had changed its mind, that it would not grant an attendance exception, and that his children would need to leave Exton Elementary immediately after the 2019 Thanksgiving break to attend East Bradford Elementary School.[4] At East Bradford Elementary, Mr. Adaikkappan believes the children, in deference to their disabilities, would participate in an ill-defined alternate physical education class separate from the rest of their classmates. Mr. Adaikkappan claims that the District did not consult the children's Section 504 teams before deciding that his daughters would be designated in this alternate physical education class.

         Procedural History

         A week later, Mr. Adaikkappan filed a verified complaint for injunctive relief to prevent the District from removing his children from Exton Elementary, asserting that the District's actions violate Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and regulation 34 C.F.R. § 104.34(a), as well as the District's own policy on school transfers for students covered by Section 504. He also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order, arguing that emergency relief was necessary because the District intended to remove his children from Exton Elementary on December 2, 2019, immediately following the Thanksgiving holiday.

         The Court heard argument on Mr. Adaikkappan's motion for a temporary restraining order with all parties present. At the Court's urging, the parties agreed to postpone the children's removal from Exton Elementary until December 9, 2019. During this newly extended timeframe, the parties were to meet at East Bradford Elementary with the children's Section 504 teams to discuss the transition in detail and attempt to resolve their dispute.

         The efforts to reach a resolution were unsuccessful and the Court received an update from Mr. Adaikkappan asking the Court to grant his original requests for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent the District from transferring his daughters to East Bradford Elementary. According to the update, the District still intended to transfer his children but had again pushed back the date of transfer to January 2, 2020. The Court then held a second hearing and oral argument on December 19, 2019, notifying the parties that the hearing would be "to resume resolution of the Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and address any issues that may remain relating to a preliminary injunction." Am. Notice of Hr'g (Doc. No. 8).

         At the December 19, 2019 hearing, the primary piece of evidence presented by Mr. Adaikkappan to support the argument that his children were at risk of suffering irreparable harm if transferred to East Bradford Elementary was a doctor's note on a prescription pad form dated December 17, 2019—two days before the hearing—diagnosing both children with generalized anxiety disorder and strongly recommending that the children continue at their current school. No. doctors or other healthcare or educational professionals were present at the hearing. Following questions from the Court, Mr. Adaikkappan disclosed that the person who wrote the note was a family friend who, although he had known the children since 2014, had never examined or treated the children (or reviewed their medical files ...


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