Central District Dismisses Statewide Class Action Lawsuit (Martinez v. Newsom et al.)
On November 25, 2020, Judge Stephen Wilson, U.S. District Judge of the Central District of California, granted a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ Complaint in Danielle Howard Martinez et al. v. Gavin Newsom et al. largely based on Plaintiffs’ failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).
On August 31, 2020, three parents and four students with special needs (“Plaintiffs”) filed a complaint against numerous state officials, agencies, and every school district in the state, alleging widespread violations of the IDEA, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when California schools transitioned to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plaintiffs’ sought to represent a class of approximately 800,000 students with disabilities throughout California.
In an effort to avoid the exhaustion requirement, Plaintiffs alleged that both statewide policies and school districts failure to implement IEP’s resulted in the denial of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) and required systemic relief. In ruling against Plaintiffs’ systemic relief arguments, the court found that “OAH may order a school district to provide in-person services under an IEP – as it has done in a case alleging IDEA violations during online learning in the COVID-19 pandemic…The OAH likewise may order a school district to provide compensatory services – as it has done in a case alleging IDEA violations during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Next, Plaintiffs argued that the administrative process is inadequate to provide relief to the 800,000 students with special needs who purportedly require IDEA remedies. In response, the court cited Hoeft v. Tucson Unified Sch. Dist., 967 F.2d at 1309 (9th Cir. 1992), for the principal that “[a]dministrative remedies are not inadequate simply because a large class of plaintiffs is involved.” Moreover, the court explained that even if “the named plaintiffs’ cases are representative of the policies at issue in this case, individual administrative determinations would alert the state to local compliance problems and further correction of any problems on a state-local level.”
Separately, the court found that Plaintiffs provided no authority for the proposition that the amount of time it would take to conduct a due process hearing is relevant to the determination of the adequacy of administrative procedures. While Plaintiffs were concerned about the amount of time it would take to conduct the estimated 800,0000 due process hearings, Plaintiffs’ filed their Complaint on August 31, 2020 and had still not filed for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction, contradicting their argument regarding the immediate need for relief.
As for Plaintiffs’ argument that the “questions of law” exception should excuse exhaustion, the court explained that this exception applies “where only questions of law are involved in determining the validity of a policy,” citing Hoeft, 967 F.2d at 1305. It ruled as follows: “By contrast, Plaintiffs here allege individual denial of a FAPE and that state policies and their implementation by school districts resulted in an inadequate evaluation process for their online learning accommodations. Consequently, their claims require an individualized assessment of Plaintiffs’ online learning program and how that program was devised – which are precisely the inquiries envisioned for a due process hearing.”
Finally, Plaintiffs argued they were excused from the exhaustion requirement because one of the Plaintiffs, P.C., had a settlement agreement with her school district. The Ninth Circuit has held that a hearing officer lacks jurisdiction to enforce settlement agreements. Wyner v. Manhattan Beach Unified Sch. Dist., 223 F.3d 1026, 1030 (9th Cir. 2000). As a result, the court stated: “However, Plaintiffs have not alleged that P.C. entered into a judicially enforceable settlement agreement under the IDEA. Without alleging the requirements for an enforceable agreement under the IDEA, this Court lacks jurisdiction to enforce the agreement. More fundamentally, even if P.C. had an enforceable agreement under the IDEA, exhaustion would still be required on the grounds that exhaustion is required when the alleged breach of a settlement agreement requires a FAPE determination.”
Significantly, the Court recognized the drastic differences between each of the estimated 800,000 students with disabilities, who attend hundreds of different school districts. The court concluded, “[a]n individualized hearing would better develop the evidence about student experiences with online learning, student needs, and the feasibility of various accommodations for a particular student and school district.”
In addition to the IDEA claims, Plaintiffs’ ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims were dismissed as those claims sought relief for a denial of FAPE. “Plaintiffs’ framing the relief as accommodations rather than relief for denial of a FAPE, reassessment, or violation of an IEP does not suffice to circumvent the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement.” Plaintiffs’ claims regarding purported violations of their rights under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment were also dismissed as the Supreme Court has not recognized public education as a fundamental right.
While Plaintiffs may appeal Judge Wilson’s decision, it will be an uphill battle as Judge Wilson’s decision was carefully crafted, well-reasoned and legally sound.