Monday, October 2, 2017
Last year, the Education Law Center and the ACLU of Michigan filed an important special education case on behalf of 30,000 students against the Flint School System and the Michigan Department of Education. They alleged that the defendants had placed students at risk of developing disabilities by exposing them to elevated levels of lead in the water. Rather than wait years for the problems to manifest themselves or ignore those that already have, plaintiffs argued that the school system should be identifying affected students and providing services. They argue the failure to do so violates the IDEA and other disability laws.
The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint under the standard defense in special education class actions: the students did not exhaust their administrative remedies. Plaintiffs concede they did not exhaust remedies, but argued the rule did not apply in this case. They just won on that point.
Last week, the district court wrote:
The two principle exceptions to this requirement of exhaustion of administrative remedies are where the administrative procedures “would be futile or inadequate to protect the plaintiff’s rights,” or where “plaintiffs were not given full notice of their procedural rights under the IDEA.” Id. at 917. Courts have applied the futile or inadequate exceptions to exhaustion when plaintiffs seek relief that is not otherwise available through the administrative process, i.e. allegations of “structural or systemic failure.” Jackie S. v. Connelly, 442 F. Supp. 2d 503, 518 (S.D. Ohio 2006) (citations omitted).
Speaking of the Flint students, the court wrote:
Plaintiffs are seeking systemic relief in the form of injunctive relief on behalf of a large class. The challenge is to the very framework and processes that the school district undertakes for every child, rather than individuals contesting their IEPs. The Court agrees with the logic in J.S. that challenges such as these are incapable of correction in the individual administrative exhaustion procedure, and instead, are of a systemic nature that is properly addressed by the Court.
. . . .
The complaint alleges four systemic violations: failure to develop and implement child find procedures; failure to provide a free appropriate public education that confers a meaningful educational benefit in the least restrictive environment; failure to protect students’ procedural due process protections in the disciplinary process; and discrimination on the basis of disability with accompanying denial of access to educational services.
. . . .
It is clear from Plaintiffs’ complaint that the remedy they are seeking is a systemic change in the very way that Defendants identify, place, and educate all children in the Flint School District. The relief they are seeking is plainly not individual and could not be remedied by individual exhaustion since Plaintiffs are challenging the very efficacy of the system employed within the Flint District. Further, the representative Plaintiffs have emphatically illustrated that the alleged violations are widespread across the Flint schools and repetitive in nature. Thus, these systemic violations cannot be adequately exhausted through the administrative procedure and the systemic violation exception applies.
The case marks a major victory for students in Flint, as exhaustion defenses often derail special education claims, but it also marks another important precedent for allowing these types of cases to proceed.