Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Affirms Dismissal of Class Action Seeking Overbroad Relief for Remote Learning During Pandemic While Confirming Need To Exhaust Administrative Remedies
On August 24, 2022, the Ninth Circuit issued its long awaited decision in Martinez, et al. v. Newsom, et al. (“Martinez”) (Appeal Case No. 20-56404), affirming the trial court’s dismissal of a class action lawsuit and forcefully confirming the need to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) before filing a civil lawsuit to address alleged deprivations of the free and appropriate public education (“FAPE”) guarantee.
In Martinez, seven Plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit in federal court seeking to represent approximately 800,000 students with disabilities throughout California, naming hundreds of school districts, various state agencies, and Governor Gavin Newsom as Defendants. Through their complaint, plaintiffs alleged that remote learning (which had been implemented to help prevent the spread of COVID-19) violated the Fourteenth Amendment and the IDEA, because it deprived every special needs student in the state of a FAPE. Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief as follows: (1) a declaration that the IDEA had been violated, (2) mandatory reassessment of all special education students and/or a return to in-person instruction, and (3) certain special education services, including compensatory education, for every special needs student in the state.
On November 24, 2020, all Defendants except Gavin Newsom were dismissed. Ultimately Governor Newsom was voluntarily dismissed on December 22, 2020. Plaintiffs filed their appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on December 23, 2020.
The Ninth Circuit’s 29 page decision carefully addressed three important legal principles, all of which have potential future application for school districts: 1) standing; 2) mootness; and most notably 3) exhaustion of administrative remedies.
Initially, the Court determined that the “named plaintiffs generally lack standing to sue defendants that have not injured them personally, even if they allege that those defendants injured absent class members.” With this in mind, the Court explained that named Plaintiffs failed to allege any facts suggesting the districts they did not attend injured them personally and therefore, they lacked standing to sue them. This ultimately resulted in the dismissal of all school districts not attended by the named Plaintiffs, along with all State Special Schools, leaving only Chaffey Joint Union High School District (“Chaffey”) and Etiwanda School District (“Etiwanda”), along with the Governor’s office, California Department of Education, and Superintendent Thurmond.
Thereafter, the Court determined that certain of the claims for relief were moot. In coming to this conclusion, the Court cited its recent decision in Brach v. Newsom, 38 F.4th 6 (9th Cir. 2022), which found that schools “have remained open for more than a year, despite ‘the surge of the Omicron COVID-19 variant’ ” and California has “ ‘unequivocally renounced[d]’ the use of school closure orders in the future.” Based on these points, the Court determined that all remaining claims were moot, except those for compensatory education, declaratory relief, and attorneys’ fees against Etiwanda and Chaffey.
Following the two jurisdictional findings (lack of standing and mootness), the Court addressed the remaining issue, which was exhaustion of administrative remedies for the claims against Etiwanda and Chaffey. The Court started its analysis by stating, “[a] plaintiff seeking relief for the denial of a FAPE ordinarily must exhaust the administrative process before filing a lawsuit, even if the plaintiff asserts claims arising under the Constitution or a federal statute other than the IDEA.” Plaintiffs admittedly did not exhaust the administrative process and instead argued that all three exceptions to that requirement applied.
The Court confirmed that three exceptions to the administrative requirement remain viable: “(1) when they seek systemic or structural relief, (2) when ‘it is improbable that adequate relief can be obtained by pursuing administrative remedies (e.g., the hearing officer lacks the authority to grant the relief sought),’ and (3) when exhaustion would be futile.” However, it rejected Plaintiffs’ arguments and found that none applied.
First, the Court stated that although the systemic or structural relief was first recognized 30 years ago, it “is something of an enigma” and no case in the Ninth Circuit has excused a plaintiff from exhaustion on that basis. The Court explained, “plaintiff must, at a minimum, identify an ‘agency decision, regulation, or other binding policy’ that caused his or her injury.” Furthermore, the Court made clear that Plaintiffs cannot avoid exhaustion by “describing problems as broad and far reaching,” arguing that a policy applies to all students, or merely reframing an act of negligence as a policy or practice of violating the IDEA. Ultimately, the Court found this exception was inapplicable.
Next, Plaintiffs failed to satisfy the second exception – inadequacy of relief. The Court determined that because Plaintiffs sought relief for denial of a FAPE, they are required to exhaust even if seeking relief pursuant to the Constitution, Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or any other federal statute meant to protect the rights of students with disabilities. Moreover, they cannot assert that the administrative remedies are inadequate simply because they file a lawsuit as a class action. As a result, this exception was inapplicable.
Finally, the Court could not express an opinion on whether the futility exception applied because Plaintiffs only alleged evidence in support was submitted for the first time on appeal and could not be considered.
Given the Ninth Circuit’s clarification of these important issues, we are hopeful that Martinez will prevent future class actions of this type from being filed, thereby conserving valuable public resources and funds, and ensure students seek and obtain individualized relief, which is the very purpose of the IDEA and FAPE requirements, rather than pursue overgeneralized demands on behalf of countless unknown and unnamed parties.
If you have any questions regarding this alert, please contact the authors or your usual counsel at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo.