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Morgan Hill Concerned Parents Association v. California Department of Education

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 14, 2017

MORGAN HILL CONCERNED PARENTS ASSOCIATION, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

          ORDER

         Two associations of concerned parents allege in this lawsuit that the California Department of Education (CDE) does not ensure children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education. They claim this failure violates federal and state law and ask the court to enjoin CDE from any future violations. CDE disagrees and moves for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). Mot. J. on the Pleadings (MJOP), ECF No. 172. CDE's current motion parallels its previous motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), which the court denied in March 2013. Order March 29, 2013, ECF No. 25. CDE explains its renewed challenge by citing two intervening decisions: Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, Inc., 135 S.Ct. 1378 (2015), and M.M. v. Lafayette School District, 767 F.3d 842 (9th Cir. 2014). It also raises a new defense under the Tenth Amendment.

         Plaintiffs separately move for sanctions. Mot. Sanctions, ECF No. 206. The magistrate judge declined to resolve this question and referred plaintiffs' motion to this court because the motion is based on CDE's conduct before this court. Order August 17, 2016, ECF No. 229. This court accepts the referral.

         The court held a hearing on October 7, 2016, to address both motions. Rony Sagy appeared for the plaintiffs; Grant Lien appeared for CDE. As explained below, the court DENIES CDE's motion for judgment on the pleadings and DENIES plaintiffs' motion for sanctions.

         Below, the court addresses each motion in turn.

         I. JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS

         A. Background

         1. The IDEA Both CDE's motion and plaintiffs' complaint concern primarily the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA has its roots in the more awkwardly named Education for All Handicapped Act, originally passed in 1970. Schaffer ex rel. Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 51-52 (2005); Timothy O. v. Paso Robles Unified Sch. Dist., 822 F.3d 1105, 1109 (9th Cir. 2016). At that time, many public schools had neglected the needs of American schoolchildren with disabilities. Schaffer, 546 U.S. at 52. Millions of children either were excluded entirely or left to suffer in class with undiagnosed and unaddressed disabilities. Timothy, 822 F.3d at 1110. Congress intended the IDEA to reverse this history. Schaffer, 546 U.S. at 52.

         Congress passed the IDEA exercising its power under the Spending Clause.[1]Arlington Cent. Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Murphy, 548 U.S. 291, 295 (2006). States receive federal funds on the condition they comply with Congress's goals and procedures when providing an education to children with disabilities. Id.; Timothy, 822 F.3d at 1110. One of these goals is the provision of a free appropriate public education, known as a “FAPE, ” to all children who have disabilities and are between the ages of three and twenty-one. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A); Timothy, 822 F.3d at 1110. Other provisions require states to set scheduled goals for the education of children with disabilities, 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(2); to identify and evaluate students with disabilities, id. §§ 1412(a)(3), (a)(7); to develop individualized plans for each child's education, id. § 1412(a)(4); to avoid the separate education of children with disabilities, if possible, id. § 1412(a)(5); and to monitor local agencies' efforts, see generally Id . § 1416.

         Cooperation between parents and schools is at the IDEA's center. Shaffer, 546 U.S. at 53. Schools must work with the parents of each disabled child to create a program for the child's individualized education. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(a)-(c); Schaffer, 546 U.S. at 53. The IDEA allows schools flexibility in creating this program, but it guards parents' collaborative role by ensuring their access to information. Timothy, 822 F.3d at 1112. For example, schools must thoroughly document the data used in evaluating students' disabilities and must allow parents to examine their children's records. Id. (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1414(b)(1) and (4) and 34 C.F.R. § 300.306(c)(1)).

         The IDEA also prescribes methods for resolving disputes. Fairfield-Suisun Unified Sch. Dist. v. Cal. Dep't of Educ., 780 F.3d 968, 969 (9th Cir. 2015). As a condition of receiving federal funds, states must provide “an opportunity for any party to present a complaint . . . with respect to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child . . . .” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6)(A). If a state receives a complaint under this provision, the parents or the school district must be allowed “an impartial due process hearing” before a state or local agency. Id. § 1415(f)(1)(A). In California, the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) conducts these hearings. Fairfield-Suisun, 780 F.3d at 969; Lafayette, 681 F.3d at 1085 & n.3. The OAH is a state agency within the Department of General Services and is independent of the CDE. Fairfield-Suisun, 780 F.3d at 969; Lafayette, 681 F.3d at 1085 & n.3. Anyone aggrieved by the result of an impartial hearing may bring a civil action in a state court or in a federal district court, regardless of the amount in controversy. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A).

         States that receive IDEA funding must adopt a second procedure to address complaints, as detailed in 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.151-.153. See also Fairfield-Suisun, 780 F.3d at 969. Under federal regulations, a state educational agency must accept complaints submitted under this second procedure, review all relevant information, and render an independent written determination of the complaint's merits. 34 C.F.R. § 300.152(a). The IDEA and its regulations do not specify whether a party who is dissatisfied with the state's decision in this respect may obtain further review in federal court. Fairfield-Suisun, 780 F.3d at 969. The Ninth Circuit recently reaffirmed that a local agency cannot sue the state in federal court if it is dissatisfied with the state's decision or procedure. Id. at 970-71 (citing Lake Wash. Sch. Dist. No. 414 v. Office of Superintendent of Pub. Instruction, 634 F.3d 1065, 1067-68 (9th Cir. 2011)). By contrast, the Circuit has not decided whether parents can sue the state in this context. See Id . It has concluded that parents may exhaust their administrative remedies, a separate prerequisite to review in federal court, by completing this second complaint proceeding. See Christopher S. ex rel. Rita S. v. Stanislaus Cty. Office of Educ., 384 F.3d 1205, 1209-14 (9th Cir. 2004). The Circuit therefore has recognized a parent's private right of action implicitly, as this court previously summarized. See Order Mar. 29, 2013 (2013 Order) 10, ECF No. 25. California receives federal funds under the IDEA. Id. at 2.

         2. Plaintiffs' Claims

         The plaintiffs in this case, Morgan Hill Concerned Parents Association and Concerned Parents Association, are unincorporated associations of parents of children with disabilities in California public schools. First Am. Compl. ¶ 4, ECF No. 6. They claim California systemically denies children with disabilities a free appropriate public education and so falls short of its obligations under the IDEA. They filed a complaint in this court in 2011 and an amended complaint a few months later. 2013 Order 3. Their amended complaint alleges three broad categories of systemic IDEA violations, which are summarized as follows:

(1) The CDE monitors local school districts' efforts to comply with the IDEA only superficially. It does not ask for meaningful data or verify the accuracy of data it receives. It analyzes data selectively and turns a blind eye to negative trends. First Am. Compl. 13-28.
(2) The CDE does not truly investigate the complaints it receives. In its investigations, it relies on unverified reports prepared by allegedly deficient school districts. Id. at 28-31.
(3) The CDE takes no action to meaningfully enforce school districts' obligations under the IDEA. It requires only that school districts adopt policies, not implement those policies, and it is satisfied with shallow promises of future effort. It does not verify compliance, and when it does, it does so by sampling student data after advanced warning. School districts can therefore sanitize their records. Id. at 31-32.

         Plaintiffs assert six claims on the basis of these allegations. Their first four claims allege violations of the IDEA, federal regulations adopted under the IDEA, and accompanying sections of the California Education Code. See Id . ¶¶ 82, 84, 86, 88. These four claims are based on CDE's alleged failures to ensure school districts provide a free appropriate public education, to monitor local school districts, to investigate problems, and to enforce the law.

         Plaintiffs' fifth claim asserts a violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability “under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . .” 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). In regulations adopted under section 504, states must ensure students with disabilities are provided with a free appropriate public education, regardless of the nature or severity of their disability. See 34 C.F.R. § 104.33.

         Plaintiffs' sixth claim asserts violations of the California Education Code, beginning with section 56000, and Title 5 of the California Code of Regulations, again based on CDE's alleged failure to provide students with a free appropriate public education.

         3. Procedural History

         Approximately five years ago, in June 2012, CDE moved to dismiss this case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6). ECF No. 13. Among other arguments, CDE asserted Congress had not allowed private plaintiffs to enforce the IDEA as the plaintiffs here sought to do, see Mem. P. & A. Mot. Dismiss 5-6, ECF No. 13-1, and it argued in any event that the plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies, see Id . at 16-17. The court disagreed on both points. 2013 Order 8-14. It found that the IDEA allows parents to pursue relief in federal court after filing a complaint under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f). 2013 Order at 9-10 (citing, inter alia, Beth V. v. Carroll, 87 F.3d 80, 86 (3d Cir. 1996)). Similarly, the court read Ninth Circuit precedent to recognize a private right of action to challenge the results of a complaint resolution proceeding under 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.151-.153. 2013 Order 10 (citing Christopher S., 384 F.3d at 1211). The court also found the plaintiffs were not required to have first sought relief in one of the two administrative proceedings summarized above. Id. at 13-14. That effort would have proven futile, and the alleged violations are so severe that, if they are true, the IDEA's basic goals are under threat. Id. In these circumstances the Ninth Circuit allows an exception to the ordinary rules of exhaustion. Id. (citing, inter alia, Hoeft v. Tucson Unified Sch. Dist., 967 F.2d 1298, 1303-04 (9th Cir. 1992)).

         After the court filed its order in March 2013, the case stalled in a miasma of discovery conflicts. The court ultimately appointed a special master to break the logjams and facilitate the production of CDE's electronic records. CDE's current motion was filed in April 2016, in the midst of a round of discovery disputes. See Mot. J. on the Pleadings, ECF No. 172; Mem. P. & A., ECF No. 172-1. CDE argues, as before, that plaintiffs' complaint rests on IDEA provisions for which Congress intended no private enforcement. As noted, CDE relies primarily on two appellate decisions issued in the years since the court's 2013 order: the Ninth Circuit's opinion in M.M. v. Lafayette School District, 767 F.3d 842, and the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, Inc., 135 S.Ct. 1378. CDE also argues plaintiffs' Rehabilitation Act claim is barred by the Tenth Amendment. It asks the court to dismiss these federal claims and decline supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining claims under California law.[2] Plaintiffs opposed the motion, ECF No. 208, and CDE replied, ECF No. 224.

         The court first reviews the legal standard that applies to a motion for judgment on the pleadings, then turns to CDE's arguments.

         B. Legal Standard

         “After the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). A motion under this Rule may argue the complaint does not state a claim on which relief can be granted or that the court lacks jurisdiction. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(2)(B), (h)(3). The same legal standard applies to motions under Rule 12(b)(6) and 12(c), and much of the process described by the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), applies to Rule 12(c) motions; the Ninth Circuit describes the legal standards under these motions as “substantially identical.” Pit River Tribe v. Bureau of Land Mgmt., 793 F.3d 1147, 1155 (9th Cir. 2015); Cafasso, U.S. ex rel. v. Gen. Dynamics C4 Sys., Inc., 637 F.3d 1047, 1054 n.4 (9th Cir. 2011). In short, the court must consider whether the plaintiffs' factual allegations state a plausible claim for relief when allowed the benefit of reasonable inferences. Cafasso, 637 F.3d at 1054; Fang Lin Ai v. United States, 809 F.3d 503, 506 (9th Cir. 2015). The motion can be granted only if CDE shows that despite the plaintiffs' allegations, CDE is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See United States v. Teng Jiao Zhou, 815 F.3d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 2016).[3]

         C. Discussion

         1. Lafayette-Private Rights of Action and 20 U.S.C. § 1415

         A plaintiff in federal court must establish both that the court has jurisdiction to hear her complaint and that she has a right to sue the defendant identified-a “right of action.” See Fairfield-Suisun, 780 F.3d at 970. When, as in this case, a plaintiff's claims rest on alleged violations of a statute, the case can go forward only if that statute contemplates her claims. See Lake Wash., 634 F.3d at 1067.

         A statute can confer a right of action expressly or by implication. See Fairfield- Suisun, 780 F.3d at 971. The IDEA defines at least one right of action expressly. As summarized above, under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6), states must provide “an opportunity for any party to present a complaint . . . with respect to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child . . . .” A state or local agency must then conduct “an impartial due process hearing, ” id. § 1415(f)(1)(A), and after this hearing,

Any party aggrieved by the findings and decision . . . shall have the right to bring a civil action with respect to the complaint presented pursuant to this section, which action may be brought . . . in a district court of the United States, without regard to the amount in controversy,

Id. § 1415(i)(2)(A).

         This court previously interpreted these provisions to allow associations of parents to sue a state agency for alleged systemic failures under 20 U.S.C. §§ 1412, 1415 and 1416. See 2013 Order 8-12. The court's decision was informed by a 1996 opinion of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Beth V. v. Carroll, supra, 87 F.3d 80. A few details about that case will help explain CDE's current arguments and the court's reasoning.

         The plaintiffs in Beth V. were two children with learning disabilities, their parents, and a non-profit advocacy organization. Id. at 81. They alleged that the Pennsylvania Department of Education's systemic unresponsiveness to complaints deprived them and many other children of a means of challenging failures in local schools. Id. at 83. They asked the district court to declare the state's noncompliance, to order the state into action, and to award damages for the private educational services parents had obtained to substitute for the education Pennsylvania had deprived their children. Id. at 83-84. The Office of Special Education Enforcement in the United States Department of Education had identified similar problems and had recently ordered the state to develop a plan for fuller compliance. Id. at 84.

         On its own motion, the skeptical district court asked the parties whether the IDEA conferred on private plaintiffs a right of action against the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Id. at 84-85. After receiving responses, the court granted summary judgment to the state, finding the plaintiffs had no right of action under the IDEA. Id. at 85. The court could find no provision in the IDEA expressly creating a right of action and declined to infer one. See876 F.Supp. 1415, 1426-32 (D. Pa. 1995), rev'd, 87 F.3d 80. The court explained that the plaintiffs' requested remedy would entangle the court in “the quintessentially executive tasks of recruiting and training personnel, of ...


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