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DL v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 18, 2016

DL, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          The Honorable Royce C. Lamberth U.S. District Court Judge

         Currently before the Court is defendants’ motion [510] to dismiss as moot plaintiffs’ Rehabilitation Act claims for the period before March 22, 2010. On June 10, 2015, the Court granted summary judgment for defendants with respect to plaintiffs’ Rehabilitation Act claims for the period after March 22, 2010, finding that even if the District were in violation of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, the city’s actions during this time did not “rise to the level of bad faith or misjudgment.” Mem. Op. 42, ECF No. 444. After this ruling, all that remained for trial under the Rehabilitation Act were plaintiffs’ claims for the period prior to March 22, 2010.

         The defendants now argue that these pre-2010 claims are moot because in light of the defendants’ favorable ruling for March 22, 2010 to the present, it is “impossible for the court to grant any effectual relief whatever to [the] prevailing party.” Defs.’ Mot. to Dismiss the “Second Claim” of the Second Am. Compl. 1, ECF No. 510 (citing City of Erie v. Pap’s A.M., 529 U.S. 277, 287 (2000)). The Court will now reject this argument, finding that the “voluntary cessation” exception to the mootness doctrine applies in this case. Upon consideration of the motion, plaintiffs’ opposition, defendants’ reply, and the entire record herein, the Court will DENY defendants’ motion to dismiss as moot what remains of plaintiffs’ Rehabilitation Act claims.

         I. BACKGROUND

         At the heart of this case is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Plaintiffs are residents of the District of Columbia and former preschool-age children with various disabilities who allege that the District failed to provide them a “free and appropriate public education” (“FAPE”) as is required by law. The IDEA requires, among other things, that states accepting certain federal government funds must provide disabled children with a FAPE. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1); see also Mark H. v. Lemahieu, 513 F.3d 922, 925 (9th Cir. 2008) (describing how the IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act’s implementing regulations each require states to provide a FAPE to all disabled children). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, on the other hand, is not limited solely to educational settings. It provides, more broadly, that “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 29 U.S.C. § 794(a); see also Mem. Op. 3, ECF No. 55. Indeed, in order to prevail on a section 504 claim, “plaintiffs must show that ‘something more than a mere failure to provide the ‘free and appropriate education’ required by the [IDEA]’ has occurred.” Mem. Op. 3–4, ECF No. 55 (quoting Walker v. District of Columbia, 157 F.Supp.2d 11, 35 (D.D.C. 2011)). As this Court has previously ruled, section 504 requires that plaintiffs show that defendants engaged in either “bad faith or gross misjudgment.” Id. at 4 (citing Walker, 157 F.Supp.2d at 38).

         The procedural history of this matter is lengthy and presented in detail in the Court’s Memorandum Opinion dated June 10, 2015. See Mem. Op. 3–8, ECF No. 444. The Court need not rehash it here, but for the purposes of the present motion, it is important to highlight two features of the record. First, after conducting a trial in 2011, the Court found that the District of Columbia had violated both the IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act and issued an array of remedies. Id. at 5– 6. Among them was a declaratory judgment stating:

Defendants violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act for the period January 1, 2008 to April 6, 2011 (the first day of trial) because, in violating the IDEA, defendants failed to exercise professional judgment in such a way as not to depart grossly from accepted standards among educational professionals and thus demonstrated bad faith or gross misjudgment.

Mem. Op. & Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law ¶ 137, ECF No. 294.

         This ruling further extended the Court’s August 10, 2010 summary judgment ruling, which found the defendants had violated the Rehabilitation Act “at least through and including the year 2007.” Mem. Op. 23, ECF No. 198. Ultimately, the opinions and orders that ruled the defendants had violated the Rehabilitation Act were vacated by the D.C. Circuit on class certification grounds. See DL v. District of Columbia, 713 F.3d 120 (D.C. Cir. 2013).

         Later, after the D.C. Circuit vacated the Court’s orders and remanded the case, the plaintiffs submitted a second amended complaint, proposing to separate the plaintiff class into four subclasses and reasserting their claims under the IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act. See Second Am. Compl. ¶¶ 79, 110–114, 115–119. The Court certified the four subclasses on November 8, 2013, see Order, ECF No. 388, and on June 10, 2015, the Court issued a summary judgment order ruling for the defendants on the plaintiffs’ Rehabilitation Act claims for the period after May 22, 2010. See Order 2, ECF No. 445. Essentially, on March 22, 2010, the District issued comprehensive policies to comply with its Child Find and FAPE obligations. Mem. Op. 33, ECF No. 444. In doing so, the Court found that the District was “no longer responding to its failures with indifference and inaction,” and therefore ruled for the defendants on summary judgment for the period after March 22, 2010. Id. at 39. With respect to the Rehabilitation Act, plaintiffs’ claims for the period prior to March 22, 2010 were all that remained for trial. Id. at 40.

         In its current motion, the District argues that the plaintiffs’ Rehabilitation Act claims for the period preceding March 22, 2010 are moot because a “declaratory judgment based on the earlier period would have no operative effect on the parties’ rights and relations.” Defs.’ Mot. 1, ECF No. 510. In response, plaintiffs argue that the voluntary cessation exception to the mootness doctrine applies and that a declaratory judgment for that time period would otherwise provide the plaintiffs with effective relief. See generally Pls.’ Opp’n to Defs.’ Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 516.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A motion to dismiss for mootness is properly brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). See Young v. D.C. Hous. Auth., 31 F. Supp. 3d 90, 94 (D.D.C. 2014) (citing Flores v. District of Columbia, 437 F.Supp.2d 22, 25 n.4 (D.D.C. 2006)). The rule imposes on the Court “an affirmative obligation to ensure that it is acting within the scope of its jurisdictional authority.” Id. at 94–95 (citing Jones v. Ashcroft, 321 F.Supp.2d 1, 5 (D.D.C. 2004)). Indeed, mootness carries jurisdictional significance, as the “case or controversy” requirement of Article III permits courts to adjudicate only “actual, ongoing controversies.” Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 317 (1988). To elaborate, a case becomes moot when “when the issues presented are no longer ‘live’ or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome,” Cnty. of L.A. v. Davis, 440 U.S. 625, 631 (1979) (citation omitted); see also Pharmachemie B.V. v. Barr Labs., Inc., 276 F.3d 627, 631 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (“[A case is moot when] events have so transpired that the decision will neither presently affect the parties’ rights nor have a more than speculative chance of affecting them in the future.” (citation omitted)), or when “intervening events makes it impossible to grant the prevailing party effective relief.” Lemon v. Geren, 514 F.3d 1312, 1315 (D.C. Cir. 2008); see also Spencer v. Kemna, 523 U.S. 1, 18 (1998) (stating that mootness deprives the Court of jurisdiction because “there is nothing for [the court] to remedy, even if [it] were disposed to do so”).

         Although the mootness doctrine generally requires a case to present an “ actual, ongoing controvers[y],” Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 317 (1988), an exception exists where a party has extinguished the controversy by voluntarily changing its allegedly unlawful conduct after the commencement of a lawsuit. See Cnty. of L.A. v. Davis, 440 U.S. 625, 631 (“[V]oluntary cessation of allegedly illegal conduct does not deprive the tribunal of power to hear and determine the case, i.e., does not make the case moot.”). Known as the “voluntary cessation exception,” this rule responds to the imperative that “federal courts [] not leave a wily defendant ‘free to return to his old ways’” after a lawsuit is terminated. Sharp v. Rosa Mexicano, D.C., 496 F.Supp.2d 93, 98– 99 (D.D.C. 2007) (quoting Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs., Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 189 (2000)). That said, a Court may “nonetheless conclude that voluntary cessation has rendered a case moot if (1) there is no reasonable expectation that the alleged violation will recur . . . and (2) interim relief or events have completely and irrevocably eradicated the effects of the alleged violation.” Young v. D.C. Hous. Auth., 31 F. Supp. 3d 90, 96 (D.D.C. 2014) (quoting Cnty. of L.A. v. Davis, 440 U.S. 625, 631 (1979)). Importantly, demonstrating the first prong, that “the challenged conduct cannot reasonably be expected to start up again,” is a “heavy burden.” Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs., Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 189 (2000)); see also Id. at 170 (“Thus, the standard for determining whether a case has been mooted by the defendants’ voluntary conduct is stringent: A case might become moot if subsequent events make it absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.” (emphasis added)).

         As stated, in addition to the requirement that there be an actual ongoing controversy, a case is moot if the Court is not in a position to provide the prevailing party “any effectual relief whatever.” City of Erie v. Pap’s A.M., 529 U.S. 277, 287 (2000). For the purposes of mootness analysis, “‘any effective relief whatever’ is expansively defined.” Ctr. for Food Safety v. Salazar, 900 F.Supp.2d 1, 5 (D.D.C. 2012) (citing City of Erie v. Pap’s A.M., 529 U.S. 277, 287 (2000)).

         Although these two requirements are often discussed separately, they are related. As such, when considering the mootness doctrine’s requirement that a court be in the position to provide effectual relief, it is important to consider that requirement’s relationship to the voluntary cessation exception and to the mootness doctrine more broadly. As the Supreme Court has put it:

The underlying concern is that, when the challenged conduct ceases such that there is no reasonable expectation that the wrong will be repeated, then it becomes impossible for the court to grant any effectual relief whatever to [the] prevailing party. In that case, any opinion as to the legality of the challenged action would be advisory.

City of Erie, 529 U.S. at 287 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         In the Court’s view, the words “when the challenged conduct ceases such that there is no reasonable expectation that the wrong will be repeated” invoke the voluntary cessation exception. See also Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, 136 S. Ct. 663, 683–84 (2016) (Alito, J., dissenting) (discussing how the voluntary cessation exception ties into the requirement for effectual relief, stating: “In the language of our mootness cases, [cases involving voluntary cessation] would not be moot because a court could still grant the plaintiff ‘effectual relief’-namely, the relief sought in the first place” (citing Knox v. Serv. Emps. Int’l Union, Local 1000, 132 S. Ct. 2277, 2287 (2012) (emphasis in original)). Therefore, this Court interprets City of Erie to mean that if a party claims that a court is unable to provide effectual relief because that party has ceased its allegedly unlawful conduct, then the party must show it has satisfied the two necessary conditions that block the application of the voluntary cessation exception. That is, to prevail on such an argument, the defendant must demonstrate “there is no reasonable expectation that the alleged violation will recur . . . and interim relief or events have completely and irrevocably eradicated the effects of the alleged violation.” Cnty. of L.A. v. Davis, 440 U.S. 625, 631 (1979).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The Court finds that because the District voluntary changed its behavior after the commencement of this lawsuit, mootness questions regarding the plaintiffs’ outstanding Rehabilitation Act claims must be analyzed under the voluntary cessation exception. Further, the Court finds these claims are not moot because defendants have not met the first prong of their burden to show that there could be “no reasonable expectation that the alleged violation will recur.” Cnty. of L.A. v. Davis, 440 U.S. 625, 631 (1979).

         Additionally, the Court finds that a declaratory judgment stating the District had violated the Rehabilitation Act for the period preceding March 22, 2010 is an effective remedy because it could be used to provide the basis for future litigation. Indeed, issuing a declaratory judgment that related to pre-2010 conduct today would be just as effective as it was in 2011, when the Court issued its first declaratory judgment. See Mem. Op. & Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law ¶ 137, ECF No. 294. What follows is a summary of the parties’ briefs and the Court’s mootness analysis.

         1. Defendants’ motion to dismiss for mootness and the accompanying brief

         In their motion, the defendants argue the voluntary cessation exception does not apply in this case and that the Rehabilitation claims are moot because “it is impossible for the court to grant any effectual relief whatever to the prevailing party.” Defs.’ Mot. to Dismiss 1, ECF No. 510 (citing City of Erie v. Pap’s A.M., 529 U.S. 277, 287 (2000)). The District focuses on the Court’s ruling to grant summary judgment to the District on the plaintiffs’ Rehabilitation Act claim for the period of March 22, 2010 to the present. See Mem. Op. 39–42, ECF No. 444. Specifically, the District argues that in light of this ...


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