On September 4, 2014, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided F.H. v. Memphis City Schools [i], which serves as instructive concerning the difference between liability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and federal suits under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. The relevant facts of F.H., taken directly from the case, are as follows:
F.H. was born on August 29, 1994. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy syndrome as an infant. F.H. has also been diagnosed with asthma, and sleep apnea. F.H. has auditory and visual limitations and significant learning disorders. F.H. has needed a wheelchair or walker since he was a small child. F.H. also has limited use of his hands, which makes it difficult for him to reach around himself, and to use the bathroom without assistance.
F.H. began attending Appellee MCS schools in 2002. During his enrollment in MCS, Ms. Hall informed the staff of F.H.’s disabilities and specific needs. From 2002 until 2010, F.H. attended four different schools and had eleven different aides assigned to him to render assistance throughout the school day, including to supervise and assist F.H. when using the restroom. Appellant F.H. remained enrolled in MCS until his graduation in May 2013.
Appellants’ Amended Complaint makes a litany of specific allegations of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse of F.H. by MCS aides over the course of F.H.’s enrollment in MCS. Appellants highlight the following allegations:
(1) Being frequently left unattended and unsupervised in the bathroom, distraught and crying, unable to clean himself; And in one case he suffered a seizure;
(2) Verbal and physical abuse, on multiple occasions from different aides and school personnel, allowing him to return from the bathroom, in one case, with bloody underwear;
(3) Being ridiculed about his disability (cerebral palsy) and told that he would, “never amount to anything;” until F.H. screamed and banged his head against the wall in frustration;
(4) Aides and school employees regularly failing to help F.H. clean himself, so that he returned to class with dirty underwear, and on at least one occasion an aide announced to the class that F.H. smelled like “shit;”
(5) Being sexually abused by an aide on more than one occasion while in a private bathroom. [ii]
In April of 2011, Ms. Hall initiated the appeal process on behalf of F.H. required under IDEA.
In August of 2011, Ms. Hall and MCS signed a finalized Settlement Agreement that stated, in part, the following terms:
Student and his Parent, and each of them, on behalf of themselves … hereby fully and forever release and discharge the District … from any and all claims … arising under the IDEA and concomitant provisions of STATE law enacted in compliance therewith, including, but not limited to, any matter or claim which was, or could have been, asserted in the Due Process Proceeding, by reason of any matter, cause or thing whatsoever occurred, done, omitted, or suffered to be done on or before the last day of the Settled Period, which Student and his Parent, or any of them, now owns or holds, or may at any time hereafter own or hold…
The releases set forth above do not apply to any disputes that may arise by reason of acts or omissions occurring after the date of execution of this Agreement. It is understood that no aspect of this Agreement shall release, (or is intended to release or waive any right or remedy against) any Part from liability for any post-Agreement new wrongful acts or omissions, including independent torts, unrelated to the provisions of this Agreement.
This Agreement was reached at a Resolution Session and is enforceable in state or federal court pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(B)(iii). [iii]
In April of 2012, Ms. Hall filed suit under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 in the Western District Court of Tennessee and alleged that MCS violated Fourteenth Amendment, the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as a breach of the Settlement Agreement. The district court dismissed all claims, and Ms. Hall appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court of appeals first examined the Section 1983 claims. The first issue that they considered was whether the Settlement Agreement required dismissal of claims that arose prior to the Agreement. The court considered the relevant language in the Agreement which stated, in part, that the Appellants agreed to release:
all claims “arising under the IDEA and concomitant provisions of STATE law enacted in compliance therewith, including, but not limited to, any matter or claim which was, or could have been, asserted in the Due Process Proceeding.” [iv]
The court then noted that the claims filed under Section 1983 were related to the Fourteenth Amendment regarding MCS’s policy or custom of failing to adequately train or supervise aides and other employees and that the school district knew or should have known of the verbal and physical abuse directed at F.H. The court then stated since this type of claim cannot be addressed by the IDEA; therefore, these Section 1983 claims are not barred by the Settlement Agreement because that type of claim could not be enforced under IDEA.
Next, the court examined whether the Appellants should have exhausted all administrative procedures under IDEA before filing suit. The stated that the relevant portion of the law provides
Nothing in [the IDEA] shall be construed to restrict or limit the rights, procedures, and remedies available under the Constitution … or other Federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities, except that before the filing of a civil action under such laws seeking relief that is also available under [the IDEA], the [IDEA due process] procedures … shall be exhausted to the same extent as would be required had the action been brought under [the IDEA]. 20 U.S.C. § 1415( l ) [v] [emphasis added]
The court then held
We are not persuaded that Appellants’ alleged injuries under the 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims relate to the provision of a FAPE. As we discussed above, Appellants allege that F.H. was verbally, physically, and even sexually abused by his aides. These injuries are non-educational in nature and cannot be remedied through the administrative process. Moreover, requiring exhaustion of Appellants’ 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims would create an additional administrative barrier not present for non-disabled children. See Sagan v. Sumner Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 726 F.Supp.2d 868, 882–83 (M.D.Tenn.2010) …Therefore, Appellants are not required to exhaust their § 1983 claims related to non-educational injuries. Moreover, “[e]xhaustion is not required if it would be futile or inadequate to protect the plaintiff’s rights.” Covington,205 F.3d at 917. [vi]
For the reasons discussed above, the court of appeals held that the district court erred in dismissing the Section 1983 claims.
Lastly, the court considered whether the Appellants were required to exhaust administrative procedures prior to filing suit for the breach of the Settlement Agreement. To answer this issue, the court looked to the Agreement itself. The bargained for terms in the Agreement stated “this Agreement was reached at a Resolution Session and is enforceable in state or federal court pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(B)(iii).” Therefore, the Agreement itself says it is enforceable in the courts, and, as such, the breach of contract claim does not require administrative exhaustion.
Therefore, the decision of the district court was reversed.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] 764 F.3d 638 (6th Cir. 2014)
[ii] Id. at 641
[iii] Id. at 642
[v] Id. at 643
[vi] Id. at 644