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Swift v. SSD of St. Louis County

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

September 25, 2017

MONICA SWIFT, individually and in the interest of R.M., a minor, Plaintiff,
v.
SSD of ST. LOUIS COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          AUDREY G. FLEISSIG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This action is brought by Plaintiff Monica Swift on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor child R.M. Plaintiff's claims arise out of the denial of special education services and disability accommodation for R.M. for approximately three and one half years. The matter is before the Court on the motions to dismiss Plaintiff's amended complaint, filed by each of the four Defendants in the case: Hazelwood School District (“Hazelwood”) (ECF No. 57); Special School District of St. Louis County (“SSD”) (ECF No. 64); Riverview Gardens School District (“Riverview Gardens”) (ECF No. 66); and the Missouri Administrative Hearing Commission (“AHC”) (ECF No. 61). The three school districts argue that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the action due to Plaintiff's failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1414(1), and that Plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The AHC argues that as a state agency, it is not a proper party to the action. For the reasons set forth below all four motions to dismiss will be granted.

         BACKGROUND

         The amended complaint alleges the following. R.M. was born in May 2007. In 2008, she was diagnosed with schizencephaly, a congenital brain malformation, a condition that has impaired her daily functions and development; she was also diagnosed with left side cerebral palsy. Plaintiff Monica Swift (Manning) is R.M.'s mother. In May 2010, SSD developed an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”) for R.M., under the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i). The IEP called for such services as physical therapy and occupational therapy, and R.M received these services through pre-kindergarten.

         In the summer of 2012, Plaintiff and R.M. moved to Riverview Gardens and Plaintiff enrolled R.M. in kindergarten in that district. Riverview Gardens was aware that R.M. had been receiving special education services pursuant to an IEP, but without notice to Plaintiff, SSD and the Riverview Gardens placed R.M. in a regular classroom where she did not receive special education services or therapies. In September or October 2012, SSD conducted a re-evaluation of R.M.'s development, without providing notice to Plaintiff. SSD determined that R.M. would not qualify for special education services after kindergarten. R.M. was kept in a regular classroom through kindergarten and first grade, without special education services.

         In the beginning of second grade, R.M. was bullied at school, and after unsuccessful attempts to get Riverview Gardens to address Plaintiff's concerns for R.M.'s safety, and Plaintiff's “abusive” encounters with school officials, Plaintiff transferred R.M. to a different school in the district on November 20, 2014. At about this time Plaintiff learned that R.M. had been removed from special education services. Plaintiff asked SSD and the Riverview Gardens to evaluate R.M. for an IEP and for services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794, but her request was denied.

         In the summer of 2015, Plaintiff and R.M. moved to the Hazelwood School District and Plaintiff enrolled R.M. in third grade in that district. After R.M. attended school for one day, Hazelwood denied her access to the school on the ground that she did not satisfy Hazelwood's residency requirements. Approximately three months later, Hazelwood reversed its position and re-admitted R.M. to school. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff requested that SSD and Hazelwood evaluate R.M. for special services, but the request was denied.

         On November 4, 2015, Plaintiff filed a “due process complaint” against SSD with the Missouri State Board of Education and requested a hearing, as provided for under the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(1), (2) and (f). The matter was referred to the AHC, pursuant to state law. Following a pre-hearing conference call in December 2015, SSD and Hazelwood evaluated R.M. in February 2016 and determined that she was eligible for special education services (not including occupational or physical therapy). SSD moved to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint before the AHC, asserting that Plaintiff's claims were mooted by SSD's February 2016 evaluation and determination. The AHC granted SSD's motion and dismissed Plaintiff's due process complaint as moot on March 4, 2016.

         Plaintiff alleges that the AHC “colluded with representatives of SSD and/or their attorneys in an effort to give Hazelwood and SSD time to cover up their improper denial of [Plaintiff's] requests for an IEP and 504 evaluations for R.M, ” and that “AHC staff and/or their representatives altered the transcript of the pre-hearing conference call to give the appearance that [Plaintiff] had agreed to the actions taken by the [AHC], Hazelwood and SSD following the pre-hearing conference call.” ECF No. 48 at 11.

         Plaintiff did not appeal the dismissal of her due process complaint, as provided for by the IDEA, § 1415(g), but rather initiated this action pro se on March 8, 2016. In her three-count amended complaint prepared with the assistance of appointed counsel, Plaintiff asserts claims on her own behalf and on behalf of R.M. She asserts that by failing to provide R.M. with a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) as mandated by the IDEA, from September 2012 until March 2015, and failing to provide Plaintiff with required notice of various decisions affecting R.M.'s education, Riverview Gardens, Hazelwood, and SSD violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Count I) and the IDEA (Count II). Plaintiff alleges that the three school districts “intentionally failed to provide R.M. a FAPE in bad faith due to their personal dislike of [Plaintiff].” ECF No. 23 at 13. Plaintiff asserts that as a result, R.M. has suffered delayed educational, physical, and mental development, and emotional distress; and that Plaintiff herself suffered emotional distress, medical expenses, and lost wages.

         Count III asserts a claim against SSD and the AHC under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, based on SSD and the AHC's alleged violations of Plaintiff's and R.M.'s due process rights in connection with the adjudication of Plaintiff's due process complaint, resulting in the same harms set out in Counts I and II, including R.M.'s delayed development and Plaintiff's lost wages and emotional distress. Plaintiff asks for essentially the same relief in each count, as follows:

(1) Ordering SSD and Hazelwood to properly evaluate R.M. and immediately implement an IEP designed to provide R.M. a FAPE as required by law;
(2) Awarding R.M. reimbursement of the expenses Riverview Gardens, Hazelwood, and SSD should have paid all along and would have borne in the first instance had they not illegally denied R.M. and Plaintiff their rights;
(3) Awarding R.M. compensatory damages for the FAPE she would have received had Defendants ...

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