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T.H. v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 9, 2017

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

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ELLEN SEGAL HUVELLE United States District Judge.

         T.H. is a 16-year-old student who attends Woodrow Wilson High School in the District of Columbia. T.H.'s parents (“plaintiffs”) filed this lawsuit against the District on behalf of T.H., alleging discrimination under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”), 29 U.S.C. § 794, and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act of 1977 (“DCHRA”), D.C. Code § 2-1401.01 et seq., and claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress. (Compl., ECF No. 21-2, at 7-9.)

         The District now moves pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that (1) plaintiffs' claims are subject to the administrative-exhaustion requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(1), even though plaintiffs did not file suit under IDEA, and (2) plaintiffs' failure to exhaust those administrative remedies deprives this Court of jurisdiction. (Def.'s Mot. for J. on the Pleadings (“Def.'s Mot.”), April 26, 2017, ECF No. 17, at 5-10.) Plaintiffs respond that their claims are not subject to IDEA's administrative-exhaustion requirement. (Pls.' Mem. in Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. (“Pls.' Opp'n”), May 3, 2017, ECF No. 21, at 6-8.)

         Even assuming arguendo that IDEA's administrative-exhaustion requirement applies to plaintiffs' claims, the District's motion will be denied. The Court concludes that administrative exhaustion under IDEA is not a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit. Rather, the failure to exhaust IDEA's administrative remedies is an affirmative defense that the District must plead and prove. The District has failed to carry its burden on its affirmative defense, given that plaintiffs' failure to exhaust IDEA's administrative remedies is not clear on the face of the complaint.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court on December 12, 2016. (Compl. at 1.) On January 31, 2017, the District removed the matter to federal district court. (Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1.) As the specific factual allegations of the District's acts and omissions are not relevant to resolving the present motion, the Court provides only a brief overview of plaintiffs' claims.

         Plaintiffs allege that T.H. is entitled to reasonable accommodations at her public high school pursuant to Section 504 because she suffers from an anxiety disorder. (Compl. at 3-4.) Accommodations provided to students with disabilities under Section 504 are generally memorialized in a “504 plan.” According to plaintiffs, T.H.'s 504 plan was inadequate because the District failed to pursue appropriate psychological testing, and the school failed to properly implement T.H.'s 504 plan. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiffs further contend that T.H.'s Geometry teacher discriminated against her, in violation of DCHRA, by excluding T.H. from class for wearing too much perfume. (Id. at 4.) On the basis of the school's conduct, plaintiffs also claim intentional infliction of emotional distress. (Id. at 9.) T.H. and her parents seek declaratory relief, injunctive relief, and damages. (Id. at 9-10.)

         The District filed its answer to the complaint on February 3, 2017, asserting among its “affirmative defense[s], ” that plaintiffs “fail[ed] to exhaust administrative remedies.” (Answer, ECF No. 5, at 5.) On April 26, 2017, the District filed the present motion, arguing that the lawsuit should be dismissed for plaintiffs' failure to exhaust the administrative remedies available under IDEA. Importantly, plaintiffs make no allegations in their complaint with respect to pursuing or exhausting administrative remedies under IDEA or otherwise. (See Compl. at 1-10.)

         ANALYSIS

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         Moving under Rule 12(c), the District raises a jurisdictional challenge on the basis of plaintiffs' failure to administratively exhaust their claims. Typically, a 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction is the appropriate vehicle to lodge jurisdictional challenges. However, because the Court concludes that administrative exhaustion under IDEA is a non-jurisdictional affirmative defense, it will not construe the present motion as one having properly been brought under Rule 12(b)(1).

         Under Rule 12(c), “[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Courts review a motion for judgment on the pleadings under the same standard that they would review a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). Maniaci v. Georgetown Univ., 510 F.Supp.2d 50, 58 (D.D.C. 2007) (citations omitted). “To survive a motion to dismiss [for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6)], a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Courts may grant a defendant's motion to dismiss on the basis of an affirmative defense “when the facts that give rise to the defense are clear from the face of the complaint.” Smith-Haynie v. Dist. of Columbia, 155 F.3d 575, 578 (D.C. Cir. 1998).

         II. ANALYSIS

         In its motion for judgment on the pleadings, the District argues that this Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, reasoning that plaintiffs' claims are subject to IDEA's administrative exhaustion requirement and that plaintiffs failed to exhaust those administrative procedures. The District's unstated premise in making this argument ...


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