Friday, June 23, 2017
The D.C. Circuit ruled today that a class-action against the D.C. school system for failing to identify pre-school children with disabilities in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was not moot just because the children were no longer toddlers with a personal stake in the requested relief. The court went on to affirm the district court's class certification and its comprehensive injunction designed to bring the District into compliance with the IDEA.
The case arose when the parents of six children, then ages three to six, sued D.C., arguing that the District failed to identify children with disabilities in violation of the IDEA. The district court granted class certification to a broad class of "[a]ll children [between three and five] who are or may be eligible for special education and related services" in D.C. and whom the District failed or would fail to "identify, locate, evaluate or offer special education and related services." The D.C. Circuit, however, vacated the class certification in light of Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Supreme Court case rejecting "one of the most expansive class[es] ever," and which came down during the district court trial. The district court then certified four subclasses, all including three-to-five year-olds alleging different IDEA violations. The court then issued a comprehensive injunction to bring the District in line with the IDEA.
On appeal, the district argued that the case was moot, because all of the plaintiffs had moved beyond preschool.
The D.C. Circuit rejected that argument. The court held that the relation-back exception to the mootness doctrine in United States Parole Commission v. Geraghty applied, because the district court erroneously granted class certification, causing the litigation delay that resulted in the children aging out of their relief. The court explained: "Like the plaintiffs in Geraghty, the parents had live claims when they sought certification, and but for the district court's error, could have obtained proper class certification before their individual claims became moot."
The court noted that in Geraghty the district court erroneously denied class certification, whereas here the district court erroneously granted it. But the court said it didn't make a difference:
The point in Geraghty was that claims relate back when a trial court's error prevents a class from gaining independent status under Rule 23. Whether that error is the erroneous denial of class certification (as in Geraghty) or the erroneous certification of an excessively broad class (as here) makes no difference. What matters it that the named plaintiffs' claim became moot--and their class therefore never 'acquired . . . independent legal status'--due to the district court's mistake. In other words, but for the district court's error--certifying an overly broad class--the parents' claims would not have become moot. There is no legally relevant difference between this case and Geraghty.