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Cameron D. v. Arab City Board of Education

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

September 26, 2018

CAMERON D., individually and as father and next friend of J.D., a minor, Plaintiffs,
v.
ARAB CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ANNEMARIE CARNEY AXON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the court on Defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 45).

         Plaintiffs in this case are a minor, J.D., who is developmentally delayed, and his father, Cameron D. Based on events that took place during J.D.'s second year of kindergarten at the Arab Primary School, Plaintiffs filed suit against the Arab City Board of Education, Dr. Leah Keith, Patrick Crowder, Callie Cranford, Tracey Putman, and Margaret Eddie. Dr. Keith was the principal of the Arab Primary School; Mr. Crowder was the school's special education coordinator; Ms. Cranford was J.D.'s kindergarten teacher during at least part of the 2015-2016 school year; Ms. Putman was J.D.'s paraprofessional aide during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years; and Ms. Eddie was the school's head custodian. (Doc. 47-20 at 2; Doc. 47-22 at 2; Doc. 47-23 at 2; Doc. 49-39 at 63-64; Doc. 47-21 at 1).

         After Plaintiffs filed against the Board of Education an administrative complaint under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., they moved to Mississippi, where J.D. now attends school. A hearing officer denied Plaintiffs' administrative complaint against the Board, and Plaintiffs appeal that decision, while also raising claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12132; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794; and Alabama law.

         Specifically, in addition to their IDEA appeal, Plaintiffs assert that:

(1) the Board of Education violated the ADA and Section 504[1];
(2) the Board of Education is liable for negligence, false imprisonment, harassment, assault, and battery;
(3) Ms. Cranford and Ms. Putman, in their individual capacities, are liable for false imprisonment, harassment, assault, and battery;
(4) Ms. Eddie, in her individual capacity, is liable for assault and battery; and
(5) Dr. Keith and Mr. Crowder, in their individual capacities, are liable for negligence.

         After the parties briefed the motion and the court held a motion hearing, the court took the motion under submission. The court WILL GRANT the motion for summary judgment. The court WILL DISMISS AS MOOT Plaintiffs' appeal of the IDEA complaint because J.D. is no longer a student at the Arab Primary School. The court WILL DISMISS WITHOUT PREJUDICE the state law claims against the Board of Education because sovereign immunity bars those claims. The court WILL DISMISS WITHOUT PREJUDICE the state law claims against Ms. Cranford, Ms. Putman, Ms. Eddie, Dr. Keith, and Mr. Crowder because those defendants are entitled to state agent immunity. The court WILL GRANT SUMMARY JUDGMENT in favor of the Board of Education and against Plaintiffs on the ADA and Section 504 claims because Plaintiffs have presented no evidence creating a genuine dispute of material fact about whether Defendants intentionally discriminated against J.D.

         I. STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

         Plaintiffs allege the Board of Education violated the IDEA. The IDEA has many purposes, but relevant to this case, it was enacted “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living, ” and “to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected.” 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A)-(B). To accomplish that purpose, the school and the parents of a disabled child develop what is known as an individualized education program that describes, among other information, the child's current levels of academic achievement and functional performance and “an explanation of the extent, if any, to which the child will not participate with nondisabled children in the regular class.” 20 U.S.C. §§ 1414(d)(1)(A)(i), 1414(d)(1)(B); see also Ortega v. Bibb Cty. Sch. Dist., 397 F.3d 1321, 1324 (11th Cir. 2005).

         A parent may file an administrative complaint about “any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6). Once a parent has filed an administrative complaint, “the parents or the local educational agency involved in such complaint shall have an opportunity for an impartial due process hearing, which shall be conducted by the State educational agency or by the local educational agency, as determined by State law or by the State educational agency.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(A). In Alabama, the State Superintendent of Education appoints a hearing officer to conduct the due process hearing. Ala. Admin. Code R. 290-8-9-.08(9)(c)4. Parents may appeal the decision of the administrative hearing office to the district court, where the court will review de novo the complaint and may hear additional evidence if necessary. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A).

         The other federal statutes that Plaintiffs say Defendants violated are Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Title II of the ADA provides that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reasons of such disability, be excluded from participation in, or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12132. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act provides in relevant part that “[n]o 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). “Discrimination claims under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act are governed by the same standards, and the two claims are generally discussed together.” J.S., III by & through J.S. Jr. v. Houston Cty. Bd. of Educ., 877 F.3d 979, 985 (11th Cir. 2017).

         The distinction between an IDEA claim and an ADA/Section 504 claim is that “[t]he IDEA guarantees individually tailored educational services, whereas Title II and § 504 promise non-discriminatory access to public institutions- specifically aiming to root out disability-based discrimination, enabling each covered person to participate equally to all others in public facilities and federally funded programs.” Id. at 987 (quotation marks and alteration omitted).

         II. BACKGROUND

         In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must first determine if the parties genuinely dispute any material facts, and if they do not, whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[2] Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Under Rule 56, the court “draw[s] all inferences and review[s] all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Hamilton v. Southland Christian Sch., Inc., 680 F.3d 1316, 1318 (11th Cir. 2012) (quotation marks omitted).

         Both parties submitted evidence in relation to this motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs' brief in opposition to summary judgment, however, also relies on materials that the court cannot consider in deciding the motion. Most notably, Plaintiffs argue that the court should conclude that disputes of material fact exist because one witness, Melanie Collier, made statements to plaintiffs' counsel that contradict her sworn deposition testimony. (Doc. 50 at 12-13). But Plaintiffs present nothing other than allegations in their brief that Ms. Collier made those contradictory statements, and the court cannot consider allegations in a brief as evidence at the summary judgment stage. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1) (“A party asserting that a fact . . . is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by . . . citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . . .”); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). The court has drawn its description of the facts from the evidence submitted in support of and opposition to Defendants' motion for summary judgment. Taken in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, those facts are as follows.

         At the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, J.D., then a four-year-old who lived with his grandmother, Janet Thompson, began kindergarten at the Arab Primary School. (Doc. 46 at 10; see Doc. 47-26 at 11). The Arab City Board of Education (“Board”) soon determined that J.D. was eligible for special education and related services because he was developmentally delayed, and assigned Abby Brown to be J.D.'s special education teacher.[3] (Doc. 49-17 at 14; Doc. 49-38 at 37, 40; Doc. 49-39 at 35). Near the end of the school year, J.D.'s IEP team decided that J.D. would repeat kindergarten during the 2015-2016 school year because he had not mastered the standards required to be promoted to first grade. (Doc. 49-38 at 37, 49-50; Doc. 49-39 at 35-37; Doc. 49-53 at 37).

         At the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, Defendant Callie Cranford was assigned as J.D.'s special education teacher; Angela Hill was assigned as his general education teacher; and Defendant Tracey Putman was assigned as his aide. (Doc. 49-39 at 61, 63-64; Doc. 49-48 at 21, 22-23; Doc. 47-22 at 2). From October 2015 through March 2016, teachers and staff at Arab Primary School documented disciplinary problems with J.D., such as him hitting, punching, kicking, head-butting, pulling hair of teachers and students; spitting at people; throwing rocks and chairs; rolling on the ground; screaming; and on one occasion, exposing himself. (Doc. 49-18 at 14-16, 23-35; Doc. 49-19 at 1-31).

         This case concerns what happened during the 2015-2016 school year- J.D.'s second year of kindergarten-and primarily involves Ms. Cranford's method of putting J.D. in timeout, the school reassigning J.D. from Ms. Cranford's classroom to Ms. Brown's, the school's use of “transport restraint” to move J.D. from one place to another, and one particular incident which eventually led J.D.'s family to take him out of school and place him on homebound services for the rest of the school year.

         A. Timeouts in the Rifton Chair

         Ms. Cranford testified that she occasionally had J.D. sit in a child-sized Rifton chair for a two-minute timeout when he was misbehaving. (Doc. 49-47 at 45-46). A Rifton chair is a wooden adaptive chair meant to be used by people with certain physical disabilities. It has a cloth strap with a three-prong buckle at the waist. (Id. at 46; Doc. 47-19 at 7). Although J.D. had no physical need for a Rifton chair, Ms. Cranford would have him sit in it because when he sat in a normal chair, he would “slump out of the sides, ” and he had a tendency to “rock the chairs and flip them over.” (Doc. 49-47 at 45-47).

         The Arab Primary School had two Rifton chairs, one that had been modified to be more stable and one that was unmodified. (Doc. 47-19 at 3). The parties dispute several facts relating to these Rifton chairs, including: (1) which teachers used a Rifton chair for timeouts; (2) which of the two chairs stored at the school were used for J.D.'s timeouts, (3) how many times J.D. was made to sit in a Rifton chair for a timeout, and (4) whether J.D. could unbuckle himself or get out of the chair on his own. (See Doc. 46 at 1; Doc. 50 at 12).

         Plaintiffs allege that Ms. Brown and Ms. Crawford used the modified Rifton chair for J.D.'s timeouts. (See Doc. 50 at 11-13). But they present no evidence that Ms. Brown ever put J.D. in a timeout at all; that anyone other than Ms. Cranford put J.D. in timeouts; or that when Ms. Cranford and Ms. Putman put J.D. in a timeout, they used the modified Rifton chair. Even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the court cannot find that a genuine dispute exists about who put J.D. in a Rifton chair or which chair was used. See Hamilton, 680 F.3d at 1318. Instead, all of the evidence indicates that Ms. Cranford and Ms. Putman used the unmodified chair for J.D.'s timeouts. (See Doc. 47-19 at 3; Doc. 49-18 at 1, 10; Doc. 50-1 at 20-21; Doc. 50-3 at 12-13).

         Next, Plaintiffs allege that J.D. was put in the Rifton chair ten to twenty times; but again, they present no evidence in support of that allegation, relying instead on statements made in their brief. (See Doc. 50 at 12). The court cannot consider those statements in determining whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). Instead, the undisputed evidence shows that Ms. Cranford and Ms. Putman had J.D. sit in the Rifton chair for a timeout on three occasions. (Doc. 49-46 at 75; Doc. 49-47 at 1, 45-46; Doc. 50-1 at 22).

         The first two times Ms. Cranford used the Rifton chair were in October or November 2015, and the last time was in January 2016. (Doc. 49-47 at 45-46.). Ms. Cranford testified that on the first occasion, she buckled J.D. into the chair; on the second occasion, he buckled himself in; and on the third occasion, the strap was not buckled. (Doc. 49-47 at 47; Doc. 48-48 at 4). In addition, Ms. Putman, J.D.'s paraprofessional aide, testified that she assisted in strapping J.D. into the Rifton chair three times. (Doc. 49-47 at 2). Accordingly, Plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden of establishing a genuine dispute of material fact about the number of times J.D. was put in the Rifton chair for a timeout.

         Finally, Plaintiffs allege that J.D. could not unbuckle the chair or remove himself from it without help. (Doc. 50 at 11-12). Ms. Putman testified that J.D. was “easily” able to unbuckle the chair, and both Ms. Cranford and Ms. Putman testified that J.D. could “freely” get himself out of the chair. (Doc. 49-47 at 4, 14; Doc. 49-48 at 8). But another paraprofessional aide, Ms. Collier, testified that although J.D. “might could unbuckle himself, . . . that chair was too small for him. . . . So he-he would have turned it over or he had to have help to get out of that. Now, I'm sure he could unbuckle it. . . . But getting out was a different- was altogether different.” (Doc. 50-1 at 22). Because a conflict exists about whether J.D. could get out of the chair by himself, the court accepts as true the evidence that although J.D. could unbuckle the strap, he could not extricate himself from the chair without help.

         According to a letter prepared by Dr. Keith, Ms. Thompson contacted Dr. Keith on February 6, 2016, and stated that “she did not want [J.D.] to have access to or be placed in the [Rifton] chair . . for any reason.” (Doc. 49-59 at 40). As a result, Dr. Keith had the chair removed from J.D.'s special education classroom and she instructed the teachers that “the chair at issue (or any such chair orthopedic or medical support chair [sic]) could under no circumstances be utilized to address behavioral issues with a student.” (Id.).

         B. Reassignment to Ms. Brown's “Self-Contained” Classroom

         Although he had some disciplinary problems beginning in October 2015, Ms. Cranford-J.D.'s special education teacher at the time-testified that his behavioral issues began escalating in February 2016. (Doc. 49-47 at 27-28). On March 8, 2015, Dr. Keith sent a number of school employees an email stating:

I spoke with Janet [Thompson] [J.D.'s grandmother] this afternoon. We discussed having [J.D.] moved to Abby Brown's self-contained classroom instead of the regular education classroom to manage his behavior since we experienced success with the approach last year. She was agreeable; therefore, we will try it. If we are successful, we will change his case manager to Abby. He will need to complete the same classwork as Ms. Hill's other students.

(Doc. 49-19 at 29). Several teachers testified that a “self-contained classroom” is one in which the students remain all day. (Doc. 49-48 at 20; see also Doc. 49-40 at 14-15). Ms. Brown testified that, despite the reference to her classroom being self-contained, it was not actually self-contained because the students come and go between their special education classes and their general education classes. (Doc. 49-38 at 46-48).

         The day after Dr. Keith sent that email, the school assigned Ms. Brown as J.D.'s special education teacher, and she remained his teacher ...


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