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D.W. v. Chesterfield County Schools

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

June 5, 2018

D.W., a Minor, by and through MICHELLE WILLIAMS, his Parent, Plaintiff,


          Roderick C. Young, United States Magistrate Judge.

         This case presents an unusual procedural posture where a defendant removes a case filed in state court, invoking federal subject matter jurisdiction, and then challenges that jurisdiction in a motion to dismiss. D.W. ("Plaintiff), a Minor, by and through his parent Michelle Williams ("Williams"), brings this action pro se against Chesterfield County Schools (the "School") and Dr. James Lane, Superintendent, Chesterfield County Public Schools (collectively, "Defendants") alleging that "Defendants have breached duties and responsibilities to D.W. under IDEA and denied him a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and punished him for his disability by expelling him based upon behavior that was a manifestation of his disability." (Compl. ¶ 3, ECF No. 1-2.) The Court liberally construes Plaintiff to request an appeal from an administrative decision under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A) for denial of a FAPE to Plaintiff. This matter comes before the Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) for a Report and Recommendation on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs Complaint ("Motion to Dismiss") (ECF No. 5) under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). (Order, ECF No. 9.) Having considered Plaintiffs Complaint, the Defendants' brief, and for the reasons discussed below, the Court RECOMMENDS remanding the action to Chesterfield County Circuit Court. See Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Environment, 523 U.S. 83, 94 (1998) (citing Ex Parte McCardle, 7 Wall. 506, 514 (U.S. 1868)).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act

         To provide a conceptual framework for understanding the Complaint, the Court reviews the IDEA'S statutory framework and the procedural mechanisms used to effectuate its purpose. Congress passed the IDEA to "ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). States that receive federal education funds are required to provide disabled schoolchildren with a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"). 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). A FAPE "consists of educational instruction specially designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child, supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child to benefit from the instruction." Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 188-89 (1982). A local educational agency ("LEA") meets the IDEA'S FAPE requirement by developing and reviewing an Individual Education Plan ("IEP") for each child with a disability. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(4). "IEPs are written statements for each disabled child designed by a team of school district educators and administrators, education experts [(collectively, the "IEP team")], and the child's parents." S.H. v. Fairfax Bd. of Educ, 875 F.Supp.2d 633, 640 (E.D. Va. 2012) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)-(B); 34 C.F.R. § 300.321(a)). An IEP will include, inter alia, the placement of a disabled child within a particular educational setting.

         When a disabled child violates a code of student conduct at their current placement, school personnel may remove the child to an appropriate interim educational setting, another setting, or suspension, for not more than ten school days. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(k)(1). Within ten school days of the school's decision to remove, a panel comprising the LEA, the child's parents, and relevant members of the IEP team (as determined by the LEA and the parents) will conduct a Manifestation Determination Review ("MDR") to determine if the disabled child's misconduct was a manifestation of his or her disability. Id. § 1415(k)(1)(E).

         If the MDR panel determines that the behavior was not a manifestation of the child's disability, and school personnel seek an order to change the child's placement for more than ten school days (i.e., long-term suspension), then school personnel may apply to the disabled child the same relevant disciplinary procedures that would be applicable to children without disabilities. Id. § 1415(k)(1)(C). Or, the IEP team, with the parent's consent, may change the disabled child's placement to an alternate educational setting. Id. § 1415(j).

         The parent may appeal the MDR determination or any decision regarding the disabled child's placement following the child's removal and will receive a due process hearing before a Hearing Officer. Id. § 1415(k)(3)(A). If after conducting the due process hearing, the Hearing Officer rules for the parent, the Officer may order a change of placement returning the disabled child to the placement from which the child was removed. Id. § 1415(k)(3)(B)(ii). The parent may further appeal adverse findings and the decision from the Hearing Officer to a federal district court. Id. § 1415(i)(2)(A). With this framework in mind, the Court proceeds to the relevant facts.

         B. Relevant Factual Background

         Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure instruct that the Court accept as true the plaintiffs well-pleaded allegations, viewing all facts and drawing all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to him. T. G. Slater & Son, Inc. v. Donald P. & Patricia A. Brennan, LLC, 385 F.3d 836, 841 (4th Cir. 2004) (citing Mylan Labs, Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993)). Where, as here, the moving party to a motion to dismiss attacks the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the Court will "regard the pleadings as mere evidence on the issue, and may consider evidence outside the pleadings without converting the proceeding to one of summary judgment." Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Defendants attach two documents as evidence that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction in this action: (1) the affidavit of Amy Vineyard, Coordinator of Administrative Services at the Department of Special Education for Chesterfield County Public Schools (the "Vineyard Affidavit") (Def.'s Mem. in Supp. Mot. Dismiss, Ex. A, EFC No. 3-1); and (2) the decision from Plaintiffs administrative hearing pursuant to the IDEA (the "Decision") (Def.'s Mem. in Supp. Mot. Dismiss, Ex. B, ECF No. 3-2). The Court shall consider these documents only in its jurisdictional analysis. Applying the aforementioned standards, the facts are construed as follows for the purpose of resolving the Motion to Dismiss.

         Plaintiff is a school-age child, in the ninth grade during the relevant time period, having one or more disabilities as classified by the IDEA for the 2016-2017 academic school year.[1](Compl. ¶ 1; Vineyard Aff. ¶ 4.) To accommodate his learning needs under the IDEA, Plaintiff was assigned to an IEP starting in May 10, 2016. (Vineyard Aff. Ex. 1, at 1.) During the relevant time period, Plaintiffs IEP provided services and accommodations to address his behavior and social development. (Decision, at 7-8.)

         On December 9, 2016, Plaintiff entered his school wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the hood covering his head. (Id. at 2.) For security reasons and to identify students, school policy prohibits students from covering their heads. (Id.) Plaintiff received warnings from multiple school faculty members to remove the hood and eventually his math teacher escorted him to the assistant principal's office. (Id; Compl. ¶ 9(b).) There, the assistant principal stressed the importance of the no-hood rule, that Plaintiff was not in trouble, and that there would be no consequences for Plaintiffs noncompliance. (Decision, at 3.) Plaintiff indicated that he understood. (Id.)

         Before returning Plaintiff to class, the assistant principal called his mother, Williams, and informed her of the hood incident and that no further disciplinary action would be taken. (Id., Compl ¶ 9(c).) Williams asked to speak with Plaintiff. (Compl. ¶ 9(c).) After several minutes speaking with his mother, Plaintiff became agitated and started screaming and cursing about his mother sending him back to his father. (Id; Decision, at 3.) Plaintiff then slammed the telephone down, knocked everything off of the assistant principal's desk, and bolted from the office while vandalizing several pieces of office furniture in his wake. (Decision, at 3.) Faculty and staff followed Plaintiff as he ran through the school. (Id.) Staff members found Plaintiff outside and asked him what happened as he calmed down. (Id.) Plaintiff indicated that his mother's comments "set him off." (Id. at 3-4.) The assistant principal escorted Plaintiff inside and, after a telephone conversation with his mother, brought Plaintiff home. (Id. at 4.)

         The assistant principal determined that Plaintiff ought to bear consequences for his conduct. On December 13, 2016, the assistant principal held a meeting with Williams and Plaintiff and informed them that Plaintiff would be suspended for ten days, with a recommendation for long-term suspension based on his conduct. (Id. at 4.) The assistant principal also informed Williams, inter alia, of her right to appeal the suspension and recommendation for long term suspension. (Id.) That day, Williams noted her appeal by letter with the Office of Student Conduct. (Id.)

         After the suspension, the School notified Williams of its intention to conduct a Manifestation Determination Review ("MDR") on December 16, 2016 to determine whether Plaintiffs conduct warranting the suspension was a manifestation of his disability. (Id. at 5.) The notice also included the invitees to the meeting and informed Williams that she may invite persons with expertise or knowledge about Plaintiff.[2] (Id.) The School apprised Williams of the meeting multiple times by phone, e-mail, and in-person. (Id.) Ultimately, Williams did not attend the MDR meeting, nor did she contact the School to reschedule. (Id.) The MDR meeting occurred on December 16, 2016, and the panel determined that Plaintiffs conduct was not a manifestation of his disability.[3] (Id.)

         The day that the MDR panel rendered its decision, the School made services available to Plaintiff. He could access his classwork on Google classrooms, and additional accommodations were made available. (Id. at 24.) The School also contacted Williams on multiple occasions attempting to schedule an IEP meeting with her. (Id.) Williams failed to respond with her availability. (Id.) The School scheduled an IEP meeting for January 17, 2017 and provided her with advance notice of the meeting. (Id.)

         On January 17, 2017, Williams was notified that Plaintiff would be suspended for the remainder of the 2016-2017 academic school year. (Vineyard Aff. ¶ 8.) Plaintiffs IEP team held their scheduled meeting the same day; Williams elected not to attend. (Decision, at 11, 24.) At the meeting, the IEP team proposed changing Plaintiffs IEP to include home-based services during the suspension period. (Id.) ...

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