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U.S. District Court Dismisses Disability Case As Untimely

B.B., by and through his Parents, Catherine B. and Jimmy B. v. Delaware College Preparatory Academy, et al.
Civil Action No. 16-806-SLR (United States District Court for the District of Delaware)

by Richard J. Medoff, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.ded.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/slr/2017/may/16-806.pdf

Plaintiff B.B. (“Plaintiff” or “B.B.”), by and through his parents, Catherine B. and Jimmy B. (the “Parents”), filed a lawsuit against Defendants, Delaware College Preparatory Academy (“DCPA”) and the Delaware Department of Education (“DDOE”), pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., for allegedly failing to provide B.B. with required services under the IDEA. DDOE subsequently filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), on the basis that Plaintiff’s claims were barred by the IDEA’s two (2)-year statute of limitations. The U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware (the “Court”) found that Plaintiff’s claims were untimely because Parents had filed and voluntarily dismissed a similar complaint on B.B.’s behalf, more than two (2) years before filing the complaint at issue, for the same alleged educational injuries. Thus, the Court granted DDOE’s motion to dismiss.

The Court began its analysis by noting that the IDEA requires states receiving federal education funding to provide a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) to disabled children, which “consists of educational instruction specially designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child, supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child to benefit from the instruction.” See 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(a); Ridley Sch. Dist. v. M.R., 680 F.3d 260, 268-69 (3d Cir. 2012). The Court explained that an individualized education program (“IEP”) is “a written plan created by a team that includes the child's parents and teachers,” which sets forth “the package of special educational and related services that are to be provided to the disabled child.” See 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(B); Carlisle Area Sch. Dist. v. Scott P., 62 F.3d 520, 526 (3d Cir. 1995). The Court further explained that “the team must review the IEP not less than annually and make revisions as appropriate to ensure that the child is still receiving a FAPE that meets his or her unique needs.” See 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(4)(A).

The Court noted that the IDEA establishes “several procedural safeguards for the parents of a disabled child, including the right to present a complaint with respect to any matter relating to the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child.” See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6). The Court explained that if the school district does not resolve the complaint to the parents' satisfaction, the parents have the right to request an impartial due process hearing held before a panel (the “hearing panel”) appointed by the Secretary of the DDOE. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1). The Court noted, however, that the parents must request a hearing “within 2 years of the date the parents knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint.” See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(C). The Court further explained that “any party aggrieved by the findings and decision of the hearing panel may appeal the decision to a United States District Court,” and that the “district court applies a modified de novo standard of review to the hearing panel's decision,” which requires the court to give “due weight to the factual findings of the administrative panel, meaning they are considered prima facie correct.” See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i); S.H. v. State-Operated Sch. Dist. of City of Newark, 336 F.3d 260, 270 (3d Cir. 2003).

By way of factual background, B.B. attended preschool in the Red Clay Consolidated School District (“Red Clay”) during the 2012-2013 school year. Red Clay identified B.B. as a student “eligible for and in need of special education services.” On November 30, 2012, a team with Red Clay developed an IEP for B.B. that included speech and language therapy. In August 2013, B.B. entered the kindergarten class at DCPA, a public charter school. By November 30, 2013, DCPA had not evaluated B.B. for special education services, provided any special education services to him, or ensured that the IEP team conducted its required annual review of the IEP.

On February 20, 2014, B.B.’s mother, Catherine B., sent a letter to DCPA noting that the IEP was over a year old and requesting that DCPA evaluate B.B. On February 21, 2014, Parents’ counsel, on behalf of B.B., filed a due process complaint (the “first complaint”) alleging that DCPA had denied B.B. a FAPE by failing to update the IEP and failing to provide B.B. with special education services for the 2013-2014 school year. The first complaint requested that DCPA “fund an outside evaluation of B.B. to determine his academic levels and speech and language therapy needs.” In May 2014, Parents voluntarily withdrew the first complaint in order to seek the assistance of new legal counsel.

In August 2014, parents filed a second due process complaint (the “second complaint”) against DCPA. No new IDEA violation was alleged and the second complaint asked DCPA to fund an independent educational evaluation of B.B. In September 2014, Parents withdrew the second complaint, because B.B. had transferred to a new school.  

In December 2015, the Red Clay school board voted to revoke DCPA’s charter, and DCPA ceased operations. On April 1, 2016, Parents filed a third due process complaint (the “third complaint”) against DCPA and DDOE alleging the same educational injuries as those alleged in the prior complaints. Nevertheless, the third complaint alleged that, since DCPA had lost is charter, DDOE had become legally responsible for providing a FAPE to B.B. On June 16, 2016, the hearing panel issued a written opinion and order dismissing the third complaint based on the IDEA’s two (2)-year statute of limitations. Parents appealed the panel’s decision to the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware. DDOE subsequently filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), on the basis that Plaintiff’s claims were time barred.

Turning to the facts of the case, the Court noted that the IDEA’s two (2)-year limitations period “begins to run once a plaintiff did discover or a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have discovered the facts constituting the violation-whichever comes first.” See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(C); G.L. v. Ligonier Valley School Dist. Auth., 802 F.3d 601, 614 (3d Cir. 2015). The Court found that the same injuries formed the basis of “Plaintiff's first complaint, second complaint, and third complaint, i.e., that DCPA denied B.B. a FAPE by failing to update the IEP in November 2013 and by failing to provide B.B. with special education services for the 2013-2014 school year.”

According to the Court, Parents “should have known of the alleged injuries to B.B. by November 30, 2013, when Parents, as part of the IEP team, were not asked to participate in any meetings regarding an update to the IEP.” Nevertheless, the Court noted that Parents “actually knew of the alleged injuries by February 2014 when Catherine B. sent a letter to DCPA asking it to remedy those very same injuries.” Because the third complaint was not filed until April 1, 2016, more than two (2) years later, the Court concluded that the third amended complaint must be dismissed as untimely under the statute of limitations provided in the IDEA. Accordingly, the Court granted DDOE’s motion to dismiss.

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