Student Not Required To Exhaust Administrative Remedies Under The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act When Arguing School District Discriminated Against Her By Failing To Provide Accommodations And Creating A Hostile Learning Environment

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Nov 19, 2020

L.M., a student with a disability, attended school in the Eugene School District 4J, which developed L.M.’s 504 Plan, a written document describing the regular or special education and related aids and services L.M. needed. The 504 Plan identified limited accommodations for L.M., including extra time on tests and assignments, reduced assignments and projects, preferred seating, and a quiet and separate testing environment. However, when L.M. began high school, teacher Michael Stasack declined to implement L.M.’s 504 Plan accommodations and repeatedly suggested she did not belong in the French Language Program due to her disability.

In May 2014, L.M.’s parents filed a complaint against Stasack. The District ultimately found Stasack violated the District’s anti-discrimination and harassment policies. As a remedy for the violations, the District offered L.M. two options: she could attend college-level French classes through the University of Oregon or complete an “Independent Study” program through the District. Instead, L.M. completed a yearlong study abroad program the following school year. She returned to the high school in fall 2015.

In fall 2015, L.M. was diagnosed with another disability, so the District amended her 504 Plan to include an emergency protocol that required school officials to call 911 if she were seriously injured.

As to L.M.’s language study, after the District discouraged her from taking college courses, L.M. accepted the District’s offer of an independent study program for the 2015–16 school year. The independent study program instructor was a non-language teacher who was not certified to administer the International Baccalaureate exams and was not accredited to teach Advanced Placement courses. Ultimately, L.M. lacked sufficient opportunity to practice French, and she was unprepared for the AP exam in spring 2016.

In the same school year, L.M.’s math teacher repeatedly declined to implement the 504 Plan accommodations. Towards the end of that school year, the District reassigned Stasack to a different school after it investigated another student’s complaint against him. L.M.’s peers organized a walkout in support of Stasack and to protest Stasack’s reassignment. These students also protested the accommodations students with disabilities sought, believing that Stasack was “fired because of the 504 kids.” L.M. felt isolated from her peers and betrayed by her teachers and school administrators who failed to intervene in the protest. Throughout the following year, L.M.’s classmates harassed and bullied her for her perceived role in Stasack’s transfer. School officials never addressed the hostile learning environment L.M. experienced.

In June 2016, L.M. fractured her ankle during a physical education class. Despite the 504 Plan’s emergency protocol requiring school officials to call 911, school officials declined to call for an ambulance.

During her 2016–17 senior year, the District made it difficult for L.M. to apply for college in light of her disability. The District failed to submit documentation for L.M. to receive testing accommodations with the College Board, declined to record proper academic credit for independent study and physical education classes from her junior year, and refused to help L.M. obtain the necessary evaluations and approvals for IB and College Board testing accommodations.

L.M., after turning eighteen, filed a lawsuit against the District in May 2018. L.M. argued the District failed to provide her reasonable accommodations and discriminated against her by failing to provide the reasonable accommodations and creating a hostile learning environment in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The District filed a motion in the trial court to dismiss the lawsuit. The trial court appointed a magistrate judge to assist the trial court judge in hearing the District’s motion. The magistrate judge concluded L.M.’s claims, although raised under the ADA and Section 504, could not proceed because she failed to exhaust her administrative remedies as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Although L.M. never sought services under the IDEA, the magistrate judge concluded L.M.’s claims involved the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE), and therefore the IDEA required exhaustion. The trial court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendation and dismissed L.M.’s lawsuit. L.M. appealed.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals determined it must determine the basis of the complaint in order to determine whether the law required L.M. to exhaust her administrative remedies. It considered two questions: First, could L.M. have brought essentially the same claim if she alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school—say, a public theater or library? Second, could an adult at the school—say, an employee or visitor—have presented essentially the same complaint? If the answer to both questions was yes, the complaint did not likely allege the denial of a FAPE; if the answer is no, then it likely did.

Here, L.M. first complained the District discriminated against her by failing to provide her with specific accommodations, none of which constituted FAPE under the IDEA. L.M.’s complaint alleged the District failed to: (1) provide an alternative, quiet location to take exams, (2) provide extra time to complete exams, and (3) comply with an emergency health protocol. These accommodations were not “special education,” because they did not provide “specially designed instruction.” Additionally, L.M. did not seek or receive special education or an IEP, so these accommodations were not “related services,” which are services a child needs “to benefit from” special education. Thus, because L.M. sought relief for the District’s failure to provide specific accommodations that were neither “special education” nor a “related service”—the constituent parts of the IDEA’s FAPE requirement—she did not seek relief for the denial of FAPE. L.M. also complained the District discriminated against her by creating a hostile learning environment, which is not the same as seeking relief for the denial of FAPE under the IDEA.

The Court of Appeals found L.M. could have brought essentially the same claims against a public facility that was not a school, and an adult at L.M.’s school could assert the same rights as L.M. Although the underlying events in L.M.’s lawsuit occurred in an educational setting, L.M. was not required to exhaust her administrative remedies merely because the underlying events had “some articulable connection to the education of a child with a disability.” The Court would only require exhaustion if L.M. sought relief for the denial of a FAPE, which she did not. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s dismissal of L.M.’s lawsuit for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA. The Court remanded the case to the trial court to reconsider the case and determine any applicable statutes of limitations under Oregon law.

L.M. v. Eugene Sch. Dist. (2020) 976 F.3d 902.