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Smith v. Tobinworld

United States District Court, N.D. California

June 28, 2016

MICHELE SMITH, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
TOBINWORLD, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION TO DISMISS

          RICHARD SEEBORG United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         In 2013, plaintiff MM was an eight-year-old boy ready to embark on the first grade of school. Due to his severe disabilities, the Antioch Unified School District (“AUSD”) paid for MM to attend a private school for disabled children known as Tobinworld 2. Tobinworld promised Michele Smith, MM’s mother, she would be advised of MM’s progress, and promptly informed of any problems or issues that might arise throughout the school year. Keen to start learning, MM reported for duty, and two uneventful weeks ensued. After that fortnight, however, everything allegedly started to change.

         According to plaintiffs, Tobinworld personnel began restraining MM improperly and without justification for excessive periods of time. Outraged, Smith and MM brought a dozen claims against Tobinworld, Sarah Forghani (its principal), and Andrew Altes (an administrator). Forghani and Tobinworld now move to dismiss six of plaintiffs’ twelve claims, on the ground they fail to state facts sufficient to warrant relief. In the event defendants successfully dislodge plaintiffs’ federal jurisdictional hook-a Rehabilitation Act claim-they urge the dismissal of the remaining state law claims in lieu of asserting supplemental jurisdiction. The federal claim, however, adequately has been pleaded, and thus the state law claims must be considered. The motion to dismiss will be granted with leave to amend as to MM’s UCL and Education Code claims, and his IIED claim directed against Tobinworld. The motion is denied as to all other claims.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         MM is a minor child residing in Antioch, California. He was born on August 23, 2006, and lives with Michele Smith, his mother. MM has been diagnosed with autism, asthma, seizures, bipolar disorder, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, mood disorder, chromosome six deletion, and four other gene deletions. In light of these disabilities, MM receives special education services that were selected by, paid for, and coordinated through AUSD.

         In May 2013, AUSD assigned MM to first grade at Tobinworld 2, a school that enrolls students classified as severely emotionally disabled, autistic, or developmentally disabled. Tobinworld claims to have expertise in providing behavioral education for children. It advertises a philosophy that integrates special education with behavioral psychology. Tobinworld touts its state of the art behavior modification system, and insists its goal is to return students to public school or a competitive or sheltered work opportunity.

         About two weeks into his tenure at Tobinworld, MM’s trouble began. Though MM had never been found a danger to himself or others in any educational setting, Tobinworld personnel began restraining MM improperly for excessive periods of time. School personnel used a “basket hold” technique known to be a danger to children, and intentionally put strain on the pressure points of MM’s body. This practice continued on dozens of occasions over the next year, sometimes for periods of time lasting as long as thirty minutes. Tobinworld told Smith it would advise her promptly if any such problems occurred, but it failed repeatedly to inform her MM was restrained without justification during school. Worse, MM avers Tobinworld concealed his abuse from law enforcement and others, and failed to report incidents of abuse as required by California laws and regulations.

         A particularly grim episode took place on April 29, 2014. Altes, an administrator, slammed MM’s head on his desk and rubbed his cheek back and forth until he was hurt. Altes also refused to release MM’s head despite his cries to be let go. MM left the incident with an abrasion on his cheek, in addition to psychological injury. Altes was physically rough with MM and other children of the school on other occasions, too. According to MM, Altes punched him in the chest during a subsequent interaction. MM also witnessed Altes slam a girl’s head onto her desk in such a way that she suffered a nose bleed. Even though the Antioch Police Department reported to Tobinworld in response to MM’s incident, Altes was observed exhibiting violent behavior toward children as soon as the next day.

         Alongside this conduct, Forghani, a supervisor, coached the school’s personnel to restrain students for minor rule infractions, even when less restrictive means of redirecting behavior were available. To create documentation justifying the use of physical force, Tobinworld also told personnel to complete false incident reports stating the student was “a danger to himself and others.” Compl. ¶ 38. Employees were further told to record they “prompted” or “redirected” the students to their seats, even when students were slammed down, pinned forcefully to their desks, and restrained improperly without justification.

         In May 2014, following the above incidents, Smith requested AUSD change MM’s placement. Her request was denied despite the district’s alleged knowledge of the abusive environment. Smith further avers Tobinworld failed to supervise its employees, provide training on the least restrictive means to restrain students, and employ certified behavior specialists with proper accreditations. This ultimately created a hostile environment for the school’s special needs students. MM, for his part, suffered severe social, emotional, and academic setbacks. While attending Tobinworld, he started having nightmares, became fearful and agitated easily, and began wetting and defacating himself.

         Smith, for herself and as MM’s guardian ad litem, commenced this action on April 5, 2016. She asserts twelve claims against Tobinworld, Forghani, Altes, and AUSD, including: (1) violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794; (2) violation of the Rehabilitation Act by AUSD; (3) violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12132; (4) violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act (“Unruh Act”), Cal. Civ. Code § 51 et seq.; (5) violation of the Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200 et seq.; (6) battery; (7) false imprisonment; (8) intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”); (9) negligence; (10) negligent hiring, supervision, or retention; (11) violation of California Education Code § 220; and (12) violation of the mandatory duty to report suspected or actual child abuse.

         AUSD answered the complaint on May 13, 2016. Tobinworld and Forghani took a different course and filed this motion to dismiss.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         A complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). While “detailed factual allegations are not required, ” a complaint must have sufficient factual allegations to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible “when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. This standard asks for “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant acted unlawfully.” Id. The determination is a context-specific task requiring the court “to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679.

         A motion to dismiss a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure tests the legal sufficiency of the claims alleged in the complaint. See Parks Sch. of Bus., Inc. v. Symington, 51 F.3d 1480, 1484 (9th Cir. 1995). Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) may be based either on the “lack of a cognizable legal theory” or on “the absence of sufficient facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory.” Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep’t, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990). When evaluating such a motion, the court must accept all material allegations in the complaint as true, even if doubtful, and construe them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “[C]onclusory allegations of law and unwarranted inferences, ” however, “are insufficient to defeat a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.” Epstein v. Wash. Energy Co., 83 F.3d 1136, 1140 (9th Cir. 1996); see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (“threadbare recitals of the elements of the claim for relief, supported by mere conclusory statements, ” are not taken as true).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Defendants seek to halve the complaint by moving to dismiss six claims, under the Rehabilitation Act, Unruh Act, UCL, IIED, Education Code, and child abuse reporting statutes. In the event defendants successfully dislodge plaintiffs’ federal jurisdictional hook-the Rehabilitation Act-they urge the dismissal of the remaining state law claims in lieu of asserting supplemental jurisdiction. The federal claim, however, adequately has been pleaded, and thus the state law claims must be considered. The motion to dismiss will be granted with leave to amend as to MM’s UCL and Education Code claims, and his IIED claim directed against the institution of Tobinworld.

         A. Federal Rehabilitation Act Claim

         MM’s first claim asserts Tobinworld violated section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. That section provides “[n]o otherwise qualified individual with a disability . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 29 U.S.C. § 794. To establish a violation, a plaintiff must show “(1) she is handicapped within the meaning of the RA; (2) she is otherwise qualified for the benefit or services sought; (3) she was denied the benefit or services solely by reason of her handicap; and (4) the program providing the benefit or services receives federal financial assistance.” Lovell v. Chandler, 303 F.3d 1039, 1052 (9th Cir. 2002). Tobinworld contests only elements three and four, and the complaint contains allegations reflecting the first two elements adequately have been pleaded.

         1. Denied Benefits or Services Solely ...


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