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Marie Elliott, et al v. Amador County Unified School District

July 6, 2012

MARIE ELLIOTT, ET AL.,
PLAINTIFFS,
v.
AMADOR COUNTY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Morrison C. England, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiffs Marie Elliott ("Elliott"), Andrea Kruse ("Kruse"), Patricia Roots ("Roots") and Randi Wilson ("Wilson") (collectively, "Plaintiffs") initiated this action against Defendants Amador County Unified School District ("ACUSD" or the "District"), Amador County Office of Education ("ACOE") and Theresa Hawk ("Hawk") (collectively, "Defendants") alleging violations of both state and federal law arising primarily out of Plaintiffs' claims that they were retaliated against for complaining to their employers about deficient special education programs and facilities being offered or provided to students.

Presently before the Court are Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' state claims and Plaintiffs' prayer for punitive damages as well as Defendants' Motion to Strike a particular allegation repeated throughout Plaintiffs' Complaint. For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part, and Defendants' Motion to Strike is GRANTED.*fn1

BACKGROUND*fn2

At the time of the events alleged in the Complaint, Plaintiff Elliott was a special education teacher employed within the ACUSD. Elliott served as a program instructor in a structured day class for special needs students who are autistic or display autistic-like behaviors. The remaining Plaintiffs were employed within the ACUSD as Elliott's teacher's aides. Plaintiffs all had excellent working relationships, and thus allege that Defendants knew any retaliation against one Plaintiff would be perceived by all Plaintiffs to be directed at each of them individually.

Defendant Hawk served the entity Defendants as the Executive Director of Special Education and thus was Elliott's supervisor. According to Plaintiffs, at all relevant times Defendant Hawk was acting under color of law and her conduct was undertaken in the performance of her official duties for the entity Defendants.

Very generally, as is relevant to the instant Motions, Plaintiffs aver that Defendants coerced them to violate the law and to refrain from exercising their statutory rights and duties regarding the needs of their students. In addition, Plaintiffs contend that when they refused to succumb to Defendants demands, they were repeatedly subjected to various forms of retaliation. While it is unnecessary for purposes of the instant Motions to repeat all of the facts set forth in the Complaint, a few particularly important retaliation-related averments follow.

First, Plaintiffs contend that Defendant Hawk asked Elliott to attend a "strategy meeting" at which Hawk advised Elliott the District was terminating services with a provider whose services were mandated by various student Individualized Education Programs ("IEP"). IEPs are education plans mandated by state and federal law, as well as by District policies and procedures, to meet unique educational needs of special needs students. These plans cannot be unilaterally created or modified, but instead may only be created and modified pursuant to IEP procedures. Hawk informed Elliott that the ACUSD was making its provider change outside of the IEP procedural process, but nonetheless proceeded to direct Elliott to support the District's decision, regardless of whether Elliott actually believed the change to be in any particular student's best interests.

In addition, Elliott was later advised she would be labeled "insubordinate" if she failed to support the District's IEP offer to one student, and a district psychologist also demanded that Elliott complete IEP forms in advance of meetings rather than during meetings, as was required by the law and district policies and procedures. That same psychologist advised Elliott she needed "to get on board with Hawk."

As a consequence, Elliott filed a complaint with the ACOE against the psychologist and Hawk. Plaintiffs believe all Defendants were aware of this complaint, and, despite being named in that charge, Hawk was assigned to conduct the relevant investigation.

Subsequently, Defendants began to exclude Elliott from participating in the assessment of preschoolers for placement in her class. Defendants also discouraged third-party assessors from placing students with Elliott. Defendants then started refusing to provide Elliott with substitute teachers, substitutes she needed so she could attend meetings or training sessions. Defendants also refused to provide substitutes for Elliott's aides, which left Elliott's classroom understaffed.

Eventually, Hawk informed Elliott that she and a number of her students were being transferred from the Jackson Structured Autistic Program to the Severely Handicapped Special Day Class in Plymouth, California. This transfer was from one side of the county to the other and increased Elliott's commute twenty-five minutes each way. More importantly, Hawk purportedly ordered Elliott to falsely inform parents that the move did not constitute a change to student IEPs.

When Elliott's class was subsequently moved to the Plymouth location, she was given inadequate time to prepare, which resulted in a number of classroom items being left behind. Moreover, the classroom to which Elliott was re-assigned was known to be the worst room in the District. It had not been used for instruction in over six years, and prior occupants had become sick after spending too much time in the space. The space itself was oddly shaped, dark and cramped, making it difficult for staff to see and monitor students from most vantage points in the room. The toilets were duct taped together, and unfit for use, and the room was connected via a ventilation system to containers the District used to store volatile materials. The room had a sickening odor and it was soon discovered through a hole in the ceiling that it was inhabited by rodents and filled with rodent feces. The room had also been subject to water and mold damage.

Elliott consequently filed a complaint with the California Office of Civil Rights, and Plaintiffs Kruse and Wilson spoke out at a school board meeting against Defendants' transfer of Elliott's students to Plymouth, after which the District refused to provide basic sanitary supplies, such as sanitizing spray, covered garbage cans, or a broom and dustpan, for Elliott's classroom. One of the toilets remained broken, and all highchairs were removed from the room. Plaintiffs and a number of students suffered injuries and illness as a result of the conditions at the Plymouth site.

Plaintiffs thus continued to complain about the above conditions, but Defendants never took any adequate measures to rectify the situation. Instead, Defendants continued to retaliate against Plaintiffs by, for example, requiring Elliott to pre-authorize her opinions with the ACUSD prior to meeting with any parents, denying Kruse's son, a student in the district, proper placement and assistance, informing Wilson she would no longer be able to ride the student van to and from work, and, ultimately, transferring Elliott's aides out of her class. Defendants then provided Elliott with two new aides who were not ...


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