Legal Action Fact Sheet

Case Name: S.L. ex rel.Mary L. v. Downey Unified School District

Citation: 2014 WL 934942 (CD Cal 2014) [Not Reported in F. Supp.2d.]

Date of Filing:  August 16,  2013

Co-Counsel: Shawna Parks, Steven Wyner, Wyner Law Group, PC

 

Clear Path to Federal Court – A Due Process Hearing Unnecessary

 

On Monday, March 10, 2014 District Court Judge Dean Pregerson rejected the Defendant Downey Unified School District’s (District) argument that Plaintiff S.L. must exhaust her administrative remedies in a due process hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) before instituting a federal lawsuit under § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

 

There can be a district court dismissal of case on grounds of “failure to exhaust administrative remedies,” as required by 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l).  For students with disabilities and their families, as well as attorneys and advocates for those students and families, the possibility that a due process case will not settle, and the case will proceed to an administrative hearing, is a daunting prospect for many reasons. 

 

The court made clear that one can avoid a due process hearing altogether, and instead file a lawsuit directly in district court alleging a denial of FAPE, and discrimination based solely on disability, under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a).  That outcome is possible when an IEP team determines that a student is not eligible for special education under the IDEA, and instead makes the student eligible under Section 504.  S.L. ex rel. Mary L. v. Downey Unified School Dist., 2014 WL 934942 (CD Cal 2014) [Not Reported in F. Supp.2d.]

 

Factual Background

 

S.L. is a 17 year-old female student who suffers from epilepsy.  For years, S.L’s parents notified the District, teachers, counselors, nurses, and other administration officials regarding the student’s seizure condition, even providing various “seizure plans” signed by S.L.’s physician.

 

The District failed to comply with its own epilepsy procedures, as well as the “seizure plans” developed by S.L.’s physicians.  Teachers did not know how to properly respond, and left it to other students to assist S.L. during her seizures.  Eventually, the District recommended that: “parents should just keep her at home,” which was followed by, S.L. should just “come to school two hours late each morning… causing her to miss two hours of instruction each day...”  Apparently, the District was hoping that S.L. would have her seizures during the two hours she stayed home each morning, and then would decide whether to attend school that day.

 

The District finally found S.L. eligible under Section 504 at the end of her 9th grade year.  However, her Section 504 Plan failed to provide necessary accommodations.  For example, the District refused to allow S.L. additional time to complete missed class assignments, homework, and tests.

 

On August 16, 2012, S.L. filed a Due Process Complaint with the California Office of Administrative Hearings, which alleged that the District: (1) failed to timely identify and assess S.L. for special education services under the IDEA; and, (2) discriminated against S.L. solely based on her disability in violation of Section 504 and the ADA.

 

In response to S.L.’s Due Process Complaint, the District finally offered to assess S.L.  At an initial IEP team meeting held to review the District’s assessment, the IEP team concluded that S.L. was not eligible for services under the IDEA.  The IEP team convened again, one month later, and reached the same conclusion.

 

S.L., by and through her Guardian ad Litem, then filed a lawsuit in United States District Court for the Central District of California, where she alleged the following claims:

(1) discrimination under Section 504 for failure to provide access to programs and activities;

(2) discrimination under the ADA for failure to provide access to programs and activities;

(3) discrimination under Section 504 for denial of FAPE; (4) violation of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act based on discrimination; and, (5) discrimination under Cal. Gov. Code § 11135.

 

The District moved to dismiss on the grounds that S.L. failed to exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA and that all of her federal claims failed to state a claim. 

 

Key Holdings

 

With respect to the “exhaustion issue,” U.S. District Court Judge Dean D. Pregerson held that S.L. was not required to exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA once the District determined that S.L. was ineligible for special education and related services under the IDEA.

 

With respect to the District’s contention that S.L. failed to state a claim under Section 504 and the ADA, Judge Pregerson held that:

 

  • S.L. pled sufficient facts to support her claim that she was denied the benefits of a public education because she alleged that she was excluded from class time, not allowed to make up class work or assignments, and precluded from participation in Jazz Choir. 

  • S.L. alleged sufficient facts to support a finding that the District acted with “deliberate indifference” in discriminating against her by alleging that she was denied reasonable accommodations once the District was on notice of her need for accommodations.

  • S.L. pled sufficient facts to support her allegation that the District did not properly act on the “likelihood of harm” to her federally protected right to reasonable accommodations necessary to allow S.L. meaningful access to the benefits of a public education.

 

Significance of the Case

 

Judge Pregerson’s ruling provides a clear path to federal court without requesting a due process hearing for those families, whose children have been found ineligible under the IDEA, but eligible under Section 504.  This may be particularly useful in school districts having a high percentage of students on Section 504 Plans, compared with number of students who have IEPs. 

 

The burden of proving a violation of Section 504 or ADA case is more rigorous than the burden of proof in an IDEA case because students in a Section 504 or ADA case must prove that the District acted with “deliberate indifference.”  However, it may be easier to prove under Section 504 and the ADA that the school district failed to provide reasonable accommodations necessary for the student to have meaningful access to the benefits of a public education, than it is to prove that a student did not make “some educational progress,” which is the standard in IDEA cases.  Moreover, avoiding a due process hearing: should reduce the potential overall cost of the litigation; places the decision in the hands of a jury rather than an Administrative Law Judge; creates more financial risk for school districts because money damages can be recovered in a Section 504 case; and, that increased financial risk may level the playing field when trying to negotiate a settlement.

 

LEGAL ACTION FACT SHEET

S.L. ex rel.Mary L. v. Downey Unified School District. 2014 WL 934942 (CD Cal 2014) [Not Reported in F. Supp.2d.]

 

 

Click here to view the filed complaint

 

 

Learning Rights Law Center

1625 W. Olympic Blvd., Ste. 500

Los Angeles, CA 90015 213-489-4030

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