United States District Court, D. Colorado
C.S., an unemancipated person, through his parents and next friends, Michael and Cynthia Schaffer, Plaintiff,
PLATTE CANYON SCHOOL DISTRICT NO.1, MIKE SCHMIDT, Individually, and MEGGIN STOUT, Individually, Defendants.
ORDER ON DENYING MOTION TO DISMISS AND GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
CHRISTINE M. ARGUELLO, District Judge.
C.S.,  a developmentally disabled former student at Platte Canyon High School, alleges, his teacher, Meggin Stout, engaged in a year-long campaign of abuse that was effectively abetted by his principal, Mike Schmidt, and the school district itself. He concludes that this conduct gives rise to a number of claims under the Constitution, federal statutes, and state tort law. Defendants-Ms. Stout, Mr. Schmidt, and the school district-all disagree, arguing that, because C.S. failed to pursue these claims through an administrative process, he is now precluded from bringing this suit. In the alternative, they argue that this Court can decide many of the claims in their favor as a matter of law.
This Court concludes that Defendants are estopped from asserting the defense of Plaintiffs' failure to exhaust administrative remedies. At the same time, the Court concludes that all of Plaintiff's constitutional and federal claims fail as a matter of law. Having disposed of all the federal claims, this Court does not exercise pendant jurisdiction over the state-law claims that remain.
C.S. has cerebral palsy and functions in the extremely low range of measured intelligence. He needs the assistance of a walker, has difficulty expressing himself, and communicates primarily by pointing and approximated vocalizations. Further, although disputed, C.S. alleges he was a relatively well-behaved student at the beginning of the 2010 school year with no disciplinary problems serious enough to document in written behavioral assessments. C.S.'s impairments qualified him as a "child with a disability" within the meaning of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This means C.S. had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under the IDEA.
Ms. Stout was C.S.'s teacher during the 2010-2011 academic year-the time period relevant here. She was assisted during this time by three paraprofessionals, who worked with C.S. and Ms. Stout during the school year and all have extensive experience (if not expertise) in special education.
A. C.S.'S ALLEGATIONS ABOUT MS. STOUT
C.S. levels serious charges of abuse against Ms. Stout, which he supports in large part through the testimony of the paraprofessionals, all of whom wrote lengthy letters to school administrators alleging that her behavior with C.S. was inappropriate and disturbing. See (Doc. ##49-2, 49-3, 49-4, 49-5.)
In essence, the paraprofessionals and C.S. fault Ms. Stout for four types of behavior. First, they allege Ms. Stout converted a technique normally used to assist C.S. with transitioning from sitting to standing into a means of bullying and demeaning him. The technique involves using a series of prompts to help C.S. stand up. The last of these prompts is the main one at issue here. As it is described by an expert witness relied upon by C.S., this technique requires "slowly tilting [C.S.'s] chair forward in a manner that [would] raise and move [C.S.'s] center of gravity forward over his feet" so he could stand. (Doc. #44-11 at 2.)
Importantly, the parties do not dispute that the tilting technique-which C.S. calls "dumping"-can be an appropriate means of helping C.S. to stand. The parties do dispute how Ms. Stout employed this technique and toward what end. In particular, C.S. alleges that rather than slowly tilting C.S.'s chair after attempting other methods of getting C.S. to stand, Ms. Stout would quickly resort to tilting, do it very abruptly, do it with the goal of making C.S. fall, or simply pull C.S.'s chair out from under him on pretext of doing the tilting. C.S. alleges that when Ms. Stout did the tilting, he would often fall on his knees. Sometimes after he fell, Ms. Stout would make him crawl to his walker and demean him by calling him a baby in front of the rest of the class. See, e.g., (Doc. #44 at ¶¶ 9-10; 49-13 at 4, 49-7 at 14.) Finally, Defendants concede that for purposes of this motion, Ms. Stout "dumped C.S. out of his chair because she became frustrated and lost her patience with C.S. and because she did not like him." (Doc. ##49 at Add'l Fact, ¶ 13; 52 at 4.)
Second, C.S. alleges Ms. Stout punished him by isolating him from the rest of the class. In particular, C.S. alleges she forced him into the hall for long periods of time or forced him to face the wall in a corner of a classroom and then placed a cabinet in front of him. C.S. often remained in the desk behind the cabinet for an hour or more- sometimes multiple times a day-and the punishment occasionally extended from one day to the next. (Doc. #49 at Add'l Facts, ¶¶ 17-19.)
Third, C.S. alleges that on at least one occasion, when Ms. Stout did not like the response she received from him, she took her hand to the back of his head and pushed it with force into his desk. She then held C.S.'s head in this position for one to two minutes while reprimanding him. (Doc. #49 at Add'l Facts, ¶ 21.)
Fourth, C.S. alleges Ms. Stout's attitude toward C.S. was generally laced with ill-will. For example, C.S. alleges Ms. Stout: targeted C.S. without provocation when she was frustrated, (Doc. #49-8 at 16); called him gross, (Doc. #44, ¶ 12); forced him to do tasks he could not quickly complete and then ridiculed him for failure (Doc. #44, ¶ 9); and mocked him for smelling bad, (Doc. #44, ¶ 13).
Ms. Stout offers explanations for many of the above actions: she claims that her tilting technique conformed to the practices even C.S. admits would be appropriate, that the paraprofessionals are both liars and insufficiently expert in her field to know about the techniques she employed, and that her use of these techniques was motivated not by frustrated caprice but by a genuine need to correct C.S.'s behavior. These explanations might be important at trial but are not relevant for purposes of the present motion, and the Court takes as true the thrust of C.S.'s allegations outlined above.
B. PLATTE CANYON'S RESPONSE TO C.S.'S COMPLAINTS
There is no evidence in the record that C.S., through his parents, Cynthia and Michael Schaffer, brought Ms. Stout's behavior to the attention of supervisors until after all of the incidents giving rise to this complaint had occurred. The first meeting between the parties about Ms. Stout's behavior occurred in August 2011 when C.S.'s parents met with Michael Schmidt, the principal of Platte Canyon, and a defendant in this action. At this meeting, one potential avenue to addressing the Schaffers' concerns about Ms. Stout was to modify C.S.'s IEP to explicitly limit the types of actions Ms. Stout could take with C.S. Cf. Muskrat v. Deer Creek Pub. Sch., 715 F.3d 775, 781 (10th Cir. 2013) (noting that parents of a student subjected to allegedly excessive timeouts had their son's IEP amended to state that staff would not place the child in a timeout room).
The Shaffers did not pursue this option, however, because Mr. Schmidt told them "an IEP meeting is not the appropriate forum for complaints regarding... Ms. Stout, " and that instead they should use "a formal district policy regarding filing complaints against employees." (Doc. #34-8 at 2) That complaint policy is referred to by both parties as Platte Canyon School District (PCSD) Policy 703. ( Id. )
On September 13, 2011, Cynthia Schaffer filed a complaint pursuant to PCSD 703, detailing essentially the same complaints about Ms. Stout that the Court has outlined above. Two of the paraprofessionals submitted letters with Ms. Schaffer's complaint. (Doc. #49-16.)
The school district responded to the complaint about a month later, on October 18, 2011. In the response, Superintendent James Walpole, Ph. D., relying on an investigation conducted by Mr. Schmidt, found no evidence of wrongdoing on Ms. Stout's part. He stated that the tilting technique and the use of timeouts were "standard practice" in PCSD, even though they might be viewed as harsh by those not familiar with them. Ms. Schaffer then requested a hearing with the PCSD Board of Education to appeal Dr. Walpole's dismissal of her complaint against Ms. Stout. She submitted additional letters from the paraprofessionals reacting to Dr. Walpole's letter. The board, however, refused to hear the appeal. (Doc. ##49, ¶¶ 29-33; 49-17.)
C.S. alleges that as a result of Ms. Stout's actions, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder but from no physical injuries. (Doc. #49, ¶ 31). In December 2012, C.S. filed the instant lawsuit, alleging that Ms. Stout's behavior and the district's response give rise to a number of violations of the law, which the Court considers in turn below.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates there is "no genuine issue as to any material fact" and that it is "entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In applying this standard, the Court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998).
A. IDEA EXHAUSTION
Before assessing the merits of any of C.S.'s claims, this Court must determine whether it has jurisdiction over them. As Defendants note, C.S.'s parents had the ability to initiate an administrative hearing under the IDEA to challenge "any matter relating to... the provision of a free appropriate public education." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6), (f). A parent who is not satisfied with the result of the administrative hearing may then file suit in state or federal court. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f), (i).
Further, as Defendants note, while a claim under the IDEA is not the exclusive remedy to address Ms. Stout's actions, the IDEA mandates that "before the filing of a civil action under such laws seeking relief that is also available under this subchapter, the [IDEA administrative hearing] procedures... shall be exhausted to the same extent as would be required had the action been brought under this subchapter." 20 U.S.C. § 1415( l ) (emphasis added). In interpreting the meaning of "also available under this subchapter, " the Tenth Circuit has instructed that the "dispositive question generally is whether the C.S. has alleged injuries that could be redressed to any degree by the IDEA's administrative procedures and remedies." Cudjoe v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 12, 297 F.3d 1058, 1066 (10th Cir. 2002) (emphasis in original).
Relying on the Tenth Circuit's "to any degree" language, Defendants conclude that because some of the Schaffers' complaints about Ms. Stout could have been addressed to some degree by a modification to C.S.'s IEP, all of their claims fail for failure to pursue and exhaust the IDEA administrative procedures.
Defendants might have more of an argument here if Mr. Schmidt had not represented to the Shaffers, as noted above, that "an IEP meeting is not the appropriate forum for complaints regarding... Ms. Stout." (Doc. #34-8 at 2.) This representation estops Defendants from asserting the failure to exhaust defense. Defendants cannot invoke exhaustion when they thwarted exhaustion. Mr. Schmidt may have been mistaken to turn the Schaffers away from the administrative procedures created by the IDEA, but that mistake cannot be held against C.S. Rather, when Mr. Schmidt said an IDEA remedy would be inappropriate, he made "relief that is also available under" the IDEA effectively unavailable to C.S.
Magistrate Judge Boland reached essentially the same conclusion in his Report and Recommendation on this matter. (Doc. #60 at 12.) The Court agrees with Judge Boland's position, notwithstanding Defendants' objection. Accordingly, the exhaustion requirement of § 1415( l ) ...