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T.M. v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District Circuit

August 21, 2013

T.M., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant

MEMORANDUM OPINION [Dkt. #11]

RICHARD J. LEON United States District Judge

T.M., a disabled minor, and his foster and surrogate parents ("parents"), [1] bring this suit against the District of Columbia ("defendant" or "the District"), alleging that District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") deprived T.M. of the right to a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as amended by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (collectively, "IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act § 504, 29 U.S.C. § 794. See generally Compl. [Dkt. #1]. Plaintiffs also seek relief under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Id . Before the Court is defendant's Motion to Dismiss [Dkt. #11]. Upon consideration of the parties' pleadings, relevant law, and the entire record therein, the motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs' complaint alleges the following facts, which at this stage, the Court must accept as true. See Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000).

T.M. is a nine year old boy diagnosed with significant emotional trauma and learning disabilities in several academic and developmental areas including math, reading, writing, speech, and fine motor skills. Compl. ¶7. Since April 7, 2011, and at all times relevant to this case, T.M. attended Bruce-Monroe Elementary School ("Bruce-Monroe"), where he was enrolled in a program for emotionally disabled students (an "ED program") per an agreement between DCPS and T.M.'s parent. Id . ¶¶7-9. T.M. also had an individualized education program ("IEP") in place when he entered Bruce-Monroe's ED program. Id . ¶8. The IEP specified certain educational and developmental requirements for T.M.—for instance, full-time placement in a therapeutic setting and weekly counseling and occupational therapy services—and also contained a Behavior Intervention Plan ("BIP"), which set forth target behaviors and approved interventions that the school was to employ in appropriate situations. Id . ¶¶8, 10. The IEP was modified several times throughout the year. Id. ¶¶9-10.

From April through October 2011, T.M. exhibited little (if any) academic or behavioral progress, and his parent at the time became increasingly concerned that the school was not appropriately following the IEP and BIP. Id . ¶¶ 11-17. DCPS and T.M.'s parent met on September 19, 2011 to discuss his IEP, which they agreed to revise to add services of a one-on-one aide, effective October 31. Id. ¶16. At the end of the meeting, DCPS identified a specific aide—a "Mr. D"—who would come available within the next few weeks and who already had a positive relationship with T.M. Id. Sometime between September 20 and October 13, however, Bruce-Monroe fired Mr. D because he wrote an incident report without authorization to do so. Id . ¶¶18, 21.

T.M.'s difficulties persisted in November 2011. Id . ¶19. Another meeting was held on November 15, 2011, at which the school staff indicated that they had requested a new aide to replace Mr. D. Id. f 20. The school's occupational therapist also informed T.M.'s parent that for the past month, she had been either unable to provide services to T.M. or was forced to provide them in the classroom setting because T.M. would not willingly go to her office. Id. DCPS and T.M.'s parent also discussed three incident reports, including the one that resulted in Mr. D's termination. Id.¶ 21. The IEP in effect as of November 2011 indicated that T.M. was to be assigned a dedicated one-on-one aide, 27.5 hours of specialized academic service weekly, and one hour of behavioral service and one hour of occupational therapy each week, all in a full-time therapeutic location. Id . ¶10.

In January and February 2012, T.M.'s parent and other interested parties (including plaintiffs' counsel) tried to observe T.M. while in school. Id . ¶23. DCPS allowed three observations—one each by T.M.'s parent, plaintiffs' counsel, and an expert—before advising that such observations by parents and attorneys were not permitted. Id. Those who observed T.M. saw that he was allowed a great deal of free time and still exhibited behavioral problems, which went effectively unpunished despite the BIP's disciplinary requirements. Id . ¶¶24-26.

Plaintiffs filed a due process complaint on March 7, 2012, wherein they asserted that DCPS was not following the IEP or BIP, not providing all required services in appropriate locations, and not achieving academic or behavioral goals. Id . ¶27. They also alleged that DCPS had misrepresented T.M.'s progress and had deprived his parents of their statutory right to participate in the Multidisciplinary Team ("MDT")/IEP process. Id. DCPS held a resolution meeting on March 22, during which it claimed that T.M.'s parents had been invited to, and failed to attend, a meeting on either February 1 or February 2 concerning T.M.'s Functional Behavioral Assessment and BIP.[2] Id . ¶ 28. T.M.'s parents never received notice of the meeting. Id. At the March 22 meeting, DCPS and T.M.'s teacher also told the parents that T.M. was making significant progress, though questionnaires prepared by T.M.'s teacher indicated the opposite. Id . ¶ 29.

On March 29, 2012, plaintiffs received an invitation to an annual IEP meeting scheduled for April 20. Id . ¶28. That invitation again referenced a February meeting to which plaintiffs had not been invited. Id. At the annual meeting, DCPS again asserted that T.M. was making significant academic and behavioral progress, as evidenced by his work on in-class assessments. Id . ¶32. When T.M.'s parents probed further, however, they discovered that the purported in-class assessments were actually examples of homework completed by T.M. with assistance from his parents. Id. One of T.M.'s parents, plaintiff Ray, was upset by the fact that DCPS was presenting homework as in-class work. Id. He became even more upset, and ultimately ended the meeting, when DCPS counsel later clarified that the disputed February meeting had not actually taken place. Id. On April 27, DCPS provided plaintiffs' counsel with a new IEP, which was revised and finalized following the April 20 annual meeting. Id. ¶ 35.

Shortly thereafter, plaintiffs amended their due process complaint to include an allegation that DCPS falsified documents to make it appear that a February meeting had taken place. Id. ¶ 33. A due process hearing was held before a Hearing Officer on May 29 and 31 and June 1, 2012. Id. ¶36. Plaintiffs offered documentary evidence, as well as fact and expert testimony in support of their claim that T.M. had been denied a FAPE. Id . ¶¶37-38. The hearing officer issued a determination on June 28, 2012, finding for plaintiffs on some issues and defendant on others. Id . ¶ 41. Plaintiffs now contend that the hearing officer's adverse findings were factually and legally erroneous, arbitrary, capricious, and against the weight of the evidence. Id . ¶¶ 42-47. In Count I of their complaint, plaintiffs seek compensatory education and declaratory relief under the IDEA and Rehabilitation Act, and in Count II, they assert a right to damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[3] See id. ¶¶51-58.

Defendant moves to dismiss the entire complaint on the ground that it is not "a short and plain statement" or "simple, concise, and direct" as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(1) and (d)(1). Mot. to Dismiss at 5-6 (citing Unfoldment, Inc. v. District of Columbia, C.A. No. 07-1717(HHK), 2007 WL 3125236 (D.D.C. Oct. 24, 2007), and Brown v. Califano, 75 F.R.D. 497 (D.D.C. 1977)). As to plaintiffs' IDEA claim, defendant relies solely on this Rule 8 argument. Defendant also moves to dismiss plaintiffs' Rehabilitation Act claim on the ground that plaintiff has failed to allege "bad faith or . .. gross misconduct, " and their § 1983 claim for failure to allege that T.M. was denied a FAPE pursuant to any District "custom or practice." Id. at 6-10 (citing Walker v. District of Columbia, 157 F.Supp.2d 11, 30, 35-36 (D.D.C. 2001)).

LEGAL STANDARD

"[Federal Rule of Civil Procedure] 8(a) sets out a minimum standard for the sufficiency of complaints...." Brown, 75 F.R.D. at 498. It requires "a short and plain statement of the claim" and is intended "to give fair notice of the claim being asserted so as to permit the adverse party the opportunity to file a responsive answer, prepare an adequate defense and determine whether the doctrine of res judicata is applicable." Id. It also "serves to sharpen the issues to be litigated and to confine discovery and the presentation of evidence at trial within reasonable bounds." Id. The rule "is by no means exacting, " and it "accords the plaintiff wide latitude in framing his claims for relief." Id. at 499. Still, a complaint that is excessively long, rambling, disjointed, incoherent, or full of irrelevant and confusing material does not meet the Rule's liberal pleading requirement. Id. (collecting cases); see also Unfoldment, Inc., 2007 WL 3125236. The same can be said for a complaint that "contains an untidy assortment of claims that are neither plainly nor concisely stated, nor meaningfully distinguished from bold conclusions, sharp harangues and personal comments." Brown, 75 F.R.D. at 499. The Court has the discretion to dismiss complaints ...


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