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S.S. v. City of Springfield

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 19, 2018

S.S., a minor, by his mother, S.Y., on behalf of himself and other similarly situated students; the PARENT/PROFESSIONAL ADVOCACY LEAGUE; and the DISABILITY LAW CENTER, Plaintiffs,
CITY OF SPRINGFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS; DOMENIC SARNO, in his official capacity as Mayor of City of Springfield; SPRINGFIELD PUBLIC SCHOOLS; DANIEL J. WARWICK, in his official capacity as Superintendent of Springfield Public Schools, Defendants.



         I. Introduction

         Following this court's rulings denying Defendants' motion to dismiss and denying Plaintiffs' motion for class certification, Defendants filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Defendants assert in their motion, that each of the association plaintiffs, the Parent/Professional Advocacy League (“PPAL”) and the Disability Law Center (“DLC”), lack standing in this case. For the reasons set forth below, the court finds the allegations in the Amended Complaint, previously detailed in the court's order denying Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, are sufficient to establish that PPAL and DLC have associational standing in this case. Upon concluding PPAL and DLC have associational standing, the court analyzes whether concerns regarding exhaustion warrant entry of judgment on the pleadings in favor of Defendants as to these association plaintiffs. The issue of exhaustion was first raised by Defendants in the context of the standing argument and later briefed separately in response to a request by this court. For the reasons explained below the court will enter judgment for Defendants.

         II. Procedural History

         On June 27, 2014, PPAL and S.S., by his mother S.Y., as an individual and representative of a proposed class of students with mental health disabilities who attend or in the future could attend the Public Day School, [1] filed this action against the City of Springfield, Springfield Public Schools (“SPS”), and the mayor of Springfield and superintendent of SPS, each in their official capacity. (Compl., Dkt. No. 1.) The one-count complaint alleged Defendants violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq., with respect to S.S. and members of the proposed class by failing to provide the educational programs and services that would have allowed them equal access to the educational resources offered students attending neighborhood schools.[2] Instead, the complaint alleged, SPS places members of the proposed class at the Public Day School, a school operated by SPS and attended only by students with mental health disabilities. The plaintiffs sought preliminary and permanent injunctions requiring Defendants to provide the proposed class with “the school-based behavior services they need to enjoy equal educational opportunity and receive educational programs and services in the most integrated setting, as required by Title II of the ADA.”[3] (Compl. Dkt. No. 1, 20.) In addition to allegations related to the experiences of S.S., the complaint included allegations related to various deficiencies at the Public Day School that had been identified in reports made by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (“DESE”).

         Defendants responded by collectively filing a motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 34) asserting that the plaintiffs had failed to “state a claim on which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Their central arguments were (1) the deficiencies identified in the DESE reports were not a sufficient basis for the ADA claim and (2) the ADA claim was not properly brought because (a) S.S. had failed to first exhaust administrative remedies and/or (b) the private right of action established under the ADA was not applicable to the plaintiffs' claim. Additionally, Defendants argued the claims against the individual defendants should be dismissed because individuals are not subject to suit under the ADA. At that time, Defendants did not raise any concerns about the standing of PPAL.

         After the plaintiffs opposed the motion, but before the court issued its ruling, the plaintiffs sought leave to file an amended complaint including DLC as an additional plaintiff; adding allegations about a second student and member of the proposed class, N.D.; adding factual allegations related to events occurring after the suit was filed; and adjusting the definition of the proposed class. (Dkt. No. 48.) The Amended Complaint also removed allegations related to violations allegedly identified in DESE reports. (Dkt. No. 49-2). Defendants opposed the motion on various grounds. However, rather than challenging the standing of DLC at that time, Defendants explicitly “reserved the right” to challenge standing at a later stage. (Dkt. No. 50.)

         This court allowed the filing of the Amended Complaint. (Dkt. No. 53.) Plaintiffs subsequently filed a sur-reply to the motion to dismiss, but neither party asked to otherwise supplement the briefing on the motion to dismiss following the filing of the Amended Complaint. After holding a hearing on the matter, the court denied the motion to dismiss, except as to the claims asserted against individual defendants. Consistent with the arguments made by Defendants, the court focused its analysis on the legal sufficiency of the specific claims made by S.S., including legal questions regarding the limits the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (“IDEA”) imposes on efforts to bring an ADA claim related to the provision of educational services in a public school setting. The IDEA requires states to provide “[a] free appropriate public education [(“FAPE”)] to all children with disabilities” and also requires that, “[t]o the maximum extent appropriate” children with disabilities receive FAPE in the least restrictive environment (“LRE”).[4]20 U.S.C. § 1412(a). The IDEA also includes language specifically stating the rights it provides do not supersede rights that might otherwise be available pursuant to other statutes. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(1). However, before a litigant can file suit under another statute in order to seek a remedy available under the IDEA, they must first exhaust the IDEA administrative process. Id.

         Central to the parties' arguments was whether Plaintiffs' ADA claims were simply disguised IDEA claims. Defendants argued this was the case and, therefore, IDEA exhaustion was not only required, but proper exhaustion necessarily included an appeal of the administrative ruling finding no IDEA violation. Plaintiffs countered they sought relief for conduct that violated only the ADA and since they were not alleging any violation of the IDEA, administrative exhaustion did not require them to appeal the administrative ruling applying the IDEA. Though the statutory language is easily recited, its application in this case was not self-evident. Relying on the First Circuit's decision in Frazier v. Fairhaven School Committee, 276 F.3d 52 (1st Cir. 2002), this court concluded that since exhaustion is required “though a party might seek relief that ‘is not available in the administrative venue, '” Plaintiffs were required to exhaust the IDEA administrative procedures, even if the specific relief sought could not be provided through that process. S.S. v. City of Springfield (“S.S. I”), 146 F.Supp.3d 414, 418 (D. Mass. 2015). This court went on to conclude that S.S. had fulfilled the exhaustion requirement by proceeding through a hearing before the Massachusetts Board of Special Education Appeals (“BSEA”) and was not required to also bring an IDEA claim appealing the BSEA's decision in order to proceed with the ADA claim.

         Following this court's ruling denying Defendants' motion to dismiss as to the Springfield defendants, Plaintiffs filed a motion for certification of the proposed class. In deciding that motion, this court once again considered the question of exhaustion in light of the First Circuit's decision in Frazier and determined that because the claims of the putative class members “concern[ed] the delivery of services to students whose educational programs are governed by [individualized education programs (“IEPs”)], ”[5] the exhaustion requirement applied to each member of the putative class. Springfield (S.S. II), 318 F.R.D. 210, 222 (D. Mass. 2016). As Plaintiffs conceded that putative class members, other than S.S., had not exhausted the remedies available under the IDEA, the court found exhaustion was one basis for denying the motion to certify the class. Id. at 223-24. Following the court's denial of the motion for class certification, Defendants filed the instant Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Defendants seek entry of judgment against PPAL and DLC, on the grounds that they lack standing to participate in this action.

         Since the motion was filed, S.S. has been voluntarily dismissed from this case, leaving PPAL and DLC as the only plaintiffs. In the course of arguing that Plaintiffs lack standing, Defendants raised concerns about IDEA exhaustion. As the court had not previously considered how the IDEA exhaustion requirement applied to PPAL and DLC, the court requested the parties submit supplemental briefing as to whether IDEA exhaustion is required before the ADA claim advanced by PPAL and DLC can be brought.

         III. Standing

         “Article III of the Constitution confines the judicial power of federal courts to deciding actual ‘Cases' or ‘Controversies.'” Hollingsworth v. Perry, 570 U.S. 693, 704 (2013). As a result, “any person invoking the power of a federal court must demonstrate standing to do so.” Id. “[B]ecause standing is a prerequisite to a federal court's subject matter jurisdiction, the absence of standing may be raised at any stage of a case.” Hochendoner v. Genzyme Corp., 823 F.3d 724, 730 (1st Cir. 2016); see also Pollard v. Law Office of Mandy L. Spaulding, 766 F.3d 98, 101 (1st Cir. 2014) (“[W]hether a plaintiff has Article III standing implicates a federal court's subject-matter jurisdiction and, thus, must be resolved no matter how tardily the question is raised.”). As there has already been a motion to dismiss, Defendants have labeled their filing as a motion for judgment on the pleadings and invoke Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), rather than 12(b)(1).

         Generally, “‘[a] motion for judgment on the pleadings [under Rule 12(c)] is treated much like a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss,' with the court viewing ‘the facts contained in the pleadings in the light most favorable to the nonmovant and draw[ing] all reasonable inferences therefrom.'” In re Loestrin 24 Fe Antitrust Litig., 814 F.3d 538, 549 (1st Cir. 2016) (alterations in original) (quoting Pérez-Acevedo v. Rivero-Cubano,520 F.3d 26, 29 (1st Cir. 2008)). At the pleading stage, the same “plausibility standard applicable under Rule 12(b)(6)” applies to standing determinations. Hochendoner, 823 F.3d at 730. As a result, “the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing sufficient factual matter to plausibly demonstrate . . . standing to bring the action.” Id. Because “[t]he standing inquiry is both ...

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