Civil No. 02-991 (RHK/AJB)
November 18, 2002
Sonja D. Kerr, Kerr Law Office, Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, for Plaintiffs.
Martha J. Casserly, Assistant Attorney General, State of Minnesota, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Ryan Adams, by and through his mother and her husband, Plaintiffs Lisa and Keith Kuebelbeck (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), sued Defendant School Board of Anoka-Hennepin Independent School District No. 11 ("the School District") and Defendant Christine Jax, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning ("the Commissioner"), alleging violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiffs subsequently settled their claim against the School District. The Commissioner now moves to dismiss. For the reasons set down below, the Court will grant her motion.
IDEA requires the states to provide disabled children with a "free appropriate public education." 20 U.S.C. § 1401(a)(18). To provide a "free appropriate public education," a school must formulate an individualized education plan ("IEP") tailored to the disabled child's unique needs. Id. § 1412. A school meets its obligation if the disabled student's IEP is "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits." Hendrick Hudson Dist. Bd. of Ed. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 207 (1982). Section 1415(f) allows parents with complaints about their child's IEP to request an impartial due process hearing. Minnesota has a two-tier administrative hearing process. An Independent Hearing Officer ("IHO") holds an impartial due process hearing and issues a decision. See Minn. Stat. § 125A.09, subds. 6-7. If a party appeals the IHO's decision, a Hearing Review Officer ("HRO") next reviews the entire administrative record. Id. § 125A.09, subd. 9. The HRO is authorized to seek additional evidence and provide the parties an opportunity for written or oral argument. Id. The HRO then issues "a final independent decision based on an impartial review of the [IHO's] decision and the entire record." Id.
Plaintiff Ryan Adams is a seventeen-year-old Anoka High School student with dyslexia. (Compl. ¶ 4.) On March 14, 2001, Plaintiffs requested a special education due process hearing to resolve their complaints over Adams's educational progress. (Id. ¶ 7.) Ordinarily, the due process hearing would have to occur within thirty days, see Minn. R. 3525.3900, and a decision would have to be rendered within forty-five days, see 34 C.F.R. § 300.511. The mediation process, however, slowed this schedule substantially. (Compl. ¶ 8.) When the hearing occurred more than ten months later, Plaintiffs alleged that the School District both failed to provide Adams with an IEP calculated to provide meaningful educational progress and delayed his due process hearing improperly. (Kerr Aff. Ex. A.) The IHO concluded that the hearing was improperly delayed but that Plaintiffs were not disadvantaged. (Id.) The IHO also ruled that Adams was entitled to ninety-five hours of additional education to compensate for deficiencies in his reading program. (Id.)
Both parties appealed. (Compl. ¶ 13.) After reviewing the prior decision, the HRO affirmed the IHO in large measure, but ordered the School District to provide Adams with additional educational benefits, including help with math, and to update Adams's educational and vocational profiles. (Kerr Aff. Ex. B.) Plaintiffs appealed the HRO's decision to this Court, naming the Commissioner as a co-defendant. Plaintiffs' subsequently settled their suit against the School District. (Stip. of Rule 41 Dismissal.)
Standard of Review
Under Rule 12(b)(6), all factual allegations must be accepted as true and every reasonable inference must be granted in favor of the complainant. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6); see also Midwestern Mach., Inc. v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 167 F.3d 439, 441 (8th Cir. 1999); Carney v. Houston, 33 F.3d 893, 894 (8th Cir. 1994). Viewing the complaint in this manner, the Court may dismiss a case under 12(b)(6) only if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proven consistent with the allegations. Force v. ITT Hartford Life and Annuity Ins. Co., 4 F. Supp.2d 843, 850 (D.Minn. 1998) (citations omitted). Put another way, "a dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) should be granted only in the unusual case in which a plaintiff includes allegations that show, on the face of the complaint, that there is some insuperable bar to relief." Schmedding v. Tnemec Co., Inc., 187 F.3d 862, 864 (8th Cir. 1999).
When a parent brings an action on behalf of her child challenging the provision of a free and appropriate public education as required under the IDEA, the independent school district within which the child's school is located is generally considered to be the real party in interest to the action. See Reinholdson v. State of Minnesota, 2002 WL 31026580 *6 (D.Minn. Sept. 9, 2002) (Montomery, J.) ("Reinholdson II"); Guthrie v. Circle of Life, 176 F. Supp.2d 919, 922 (D.Minn. 2001) (Frank, J.). Under the IDEA, an independent school district qualifies as a "local educational agency" ("LEA"), and it is the LEA, given its administrative and financial control over the individual school, that may be held legally accountable under the Act for the provision of the child's education. 20 U.S.C. § 1401(15)(A) (defining LEA as "a public board of education or other public authority legally constituted within a State for either administrative control or direction of, or to perform a service function for, public . . . schools . . .").
A state education agency is only a proper party if an action involves claims of "systemic" violations of the IDEA. Reinholdson II, 2002 WL 31026580 at *6. A claim is "systemic" if it "implicates the integrity or reliability of the IDEA dispute resolution procedures," or "requires restructuring the education system itself." Doe v. Arizona Dep't of Educ., 111 F.3d 678, 682 (9th Cir. 1997). A claim is not "systemic" if it "involves only a substantive claim having to do with limited components of a program, and if the administrative process is capable of correcting the problem." Id.
Plaintiffs do not assert a systemic violation of the IDEA. Instead, Plaintiffs recast their appeal of the hearing officers' decision that the harm from the hearing's delay was de minimus as a claim that the officers were poorly trained. As the Complaint asserts:
[The Commissioner] acting under color of state law and as a result of its acts or omissions, practices or failure to enforce procedures has denied Plaintiff Ryan Adams his enforceable substantive due process rights by failing to ensure a full, fair, timely hearing as required by the IDEA and its implementing regulations and state law by its failure to adequately train hearing officers that mediation cannot be used to deny or delay a due process hearing. That as a result of the acts or omissions or practices or failure to enforce procedures, Plaintiff Ryan has suffered loss of educational benefit and harm due to defendants' misconduct.
(Compl. ¶ 30.) This grab bag of legal concepts-a procedural violation of substantive due process here, an IDEA and § 1983 action there-brings to mind this Court's earlier comment that "[j]udges are not like pigs, hunting for truffles buried in briefs [or Complaints]." Reinholdson v. State of Minnesota, No 01-1650, slip op. (D.Minn. Feb 21, 2001) (Kyle J., adopting the Report and Recommendation of Mason, M.J.) ("Reinholdson I") (quoting United States v. Dunkel, 927 F.2d 955, 956 (7th Cir. 1991). Although Plaintiffs' moving papers provide ample citations from federal regulations, the mere existence of a federal regulation does not give rise to a private right to enforce it, cf. Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001), and Plaintiffs fail to advance a plausible statutory basis for their lack-of-training claim.
While Plaintiffs assert their claim under the IDEA and § 1983, neither of these statutes provides an appropriate basis for this suit. Plaintiffs' allegation, in essence, is that the Commissioner's failure to train hearing officers so as to ensure a timely due process hearing violated Ryan's rights under the IDEA. A private cause of action under the IDEA, however, is only available when a party is aggrieved "by the findings and decision" of an administrative hearing process, not by a hearing officer's training. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A) (emphasis added). While this Court has indicated that a state defendant may be a proper party when an action involves "systemic" violations of the IDEA, Reinholdson II, 2002 WL 31026580 at *6, Plaintiffs do not allege a system-wide failure or indicate that ordinary administrative and judicial review is unable to resolve these problems when they occur. Thus, Plaintiffs have failed to allege a viable claim against the Commissioner under the IDEA.
This claim is no more plausible when dressed-up as a § 1983 action. Plaintiffs allege that the Commissioner, "under color of state law," failed to properly train hearing officers and therefore "denied Plaintiff Ryan Adams his enforceable substantive due process rights." (Complaint ¶ 30.) While this is not the time or the place to explain the difference between procedural and substantive due process, see Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997); Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992); Collins v. Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115 (1992); Michael H. v. Gerald D., 491 U.S. 110 (1989), for present purposes it suffices to state that a § 1983 claim based on violations of the IDEA has no greater sweep than an IDEA action itself. See Heidemann v. Rother, 84 F.3d 1021, 1033 (8th Cir. 1996). "Section 1983 merely secures the federally protected rights a plaintiff already holds. It does not expand those rights. . . . Section 1983 did not provide a right to damages where none existed before." Bradley v. Arkansas Dept. of Educ., 301 F.3d 952, 968 (8th Cir. 2002) (quoting Crocker v. Tenn. Secondary Sch. Athletic Ass'n, 980 F.2d 382, 387 (6th Cir. 1992). Without an established right to have the Commissioner train hearing officers in a particular fashion, this action fares no better under § 1983 than it did under the IDEA. Plaintiffs are merely putting new feathers on an old hat.
Based on the foregoing, and all of the files, records, and proceedings herein, IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 7) is GRANTED. The Complaint (Doc. No. 1) is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.