715 F.3d 775 (10th Cir. 2013), 11-6194, Muskrat v. Deer Creek Public Schools

Docket Nº:11-6194
Citation:715 F.3d 775
Opinion Judge:TYMKOVICH, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:Paul MUSKRAT, and Melinda Muskrat, as Parents and next friends of Minor Child, J.M., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. DEER CREEK PUBLIC SCHOOLS; Kay Rogers, individually and in her official capacity as an employee of Deer Creek Public Schools; Debbie Straughn, individually and in her official capacity as an employee of Deer Creek Public Schools; Jessica R
Attorney:Jon E. Brightmire, Doerner, Saunders, Daniel & Anderson, L.L.P., Tulsa, OK (Andrew D. Schwartz, Rodney C. Ramsey, and Michael D. Gray, Ramsey and Gray, P.C., Oklahoma City, OK, with him on the briefs) for Appellants. Jerry A. Richardson (Kent B. Rainey and Staci L. Roberds with him on the brief) ...
Judge Panel:Before TYMKOVICH, BALDOCK, and GORSUCH, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:April 23, 2013
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
 
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715 F.3d 775 (10th Cir. 2013)

Paul MUSKRAT, and Melinda Muskrat, as Parents and next friends of Minor Child, J.M., Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

DEER CREEK PUBLIC SCHOOLS; Kay Rogers, individually and in her official capacity as an employee of Deer Creek Public Schools; Debbie Straughn, individually and in her official capacity as an employee of Deer Creek Public Schools; Jessica Renaker, individually and in her official capacity as an employee of Deer Creek Public Schools, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 11-6194

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit.

April 23, 2013

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Jon E. Brightmire, Doerner, Saunders, Daniel & Anderson, L.L.P., Tulsa, OK (Andrew D. Schwartz, Rodney C. Ramsey, and Michael D. Gray, Ramsey and Gray, P.C., Oklahoma City, OK, with him on the briefs) for Appellants.

Jerry A. Richardson (Kent B. Rainey and Staci L. Roberds with him on the brief) Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold, Tulsa, OK, for Appellees Deer Creek Public Schools, Kay Rogers and Debbie Straughn, and Mark S. Rains, Mark Rains Attorney at Law PLLC, Jenks, OK, for Appellee Jessica Renaker.

Before TYMKOVICH, BALDOCK, and GORSUCH, Circuit Judges.

TYMKOVICH, Circuit Judge.

Paul and Melinda Muskrat brought a civil rights action on behalf of their disabled son against the school district where he attended school for several years and against certain school district employees. The Muskrats alleged that the defendants unconstitutionally subjected their son to timeouts and physical abuse.

The school district moved to dismiss, arguing that the Muskrats had not exhausted

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their claims through administrative procedures established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1491 o . The district court denied this motion, ruling that the Muskrats had no obligation to exhaust their claims. The case then proceeded to discovery and the defendants eventually moved for summary judgment, arguing that no constitutional violation occurred. The district court agreed and granted defendants' motions.

We affirm in all respects. First, plaintiffs' claims do not fail for lack of exhaustion. Second, reaching the merits, the district court did not err in concluding the defendants' conduct did not shock the conscience, nor did it have an obligation to evaluate the claims under the reasonableness standard of the Fourth Amendment.

I. Background

In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we view the facts presented in the light most favorable to the nonmoving parties, the Muskrats. See Dodds v. Richardson, 614 F.3d 1185, 1191-92 (10th Cir.2010).

A. Factual Background

1. J.M.'s Disability

Paul and Melinda Muskrat's son, J.M., is a developmentally disabled child. During the time period relevant to this lawsuit, J.M. was between five and ten years old but had the mental age of a two- or three-year-old. In addition to his mental disabilities, J.M. had impaired gross and fine motor skills, as well as balance problems and a pattern of seizures.

J.M. attended Deer Creek Elementary School in Edmond, Oklahoma, from 2002 to 2007. Given his disabilities, he was a special education student with an individualized education program (IEP) under the IDEA.

2. J.M.'s Timeouts

Deer Creek Elementary had a special " timeout room" attached to J.M.'s classroom. The timeout room was small, although big enough for both a student and teacher to fit inside. It had a light fixture and a door without a lock. The door had a small window that was too high for children to see out of.

At school, J.M. was known to occasionally yell, throw, kick, hit, spit, throw tantrums, and otherwise exhibit disruptive behavior. As a result, teachers sometimes placed him in the timeout room.

The duration of these timeouts is not clear. The school had a policy of multiplying the student's mental age by two to set the maximum number of minutes a student could be in timeout on a single occasion, but the school did not always keep track of whether its employees followed this policy. As far as the record goes, the longest timeout J.M. endured was about four minutes. See Part II.B.2.a, infra.

It is also unclear whether students would be left alone in the timeout room, or whether a teacher or other staff member would remain present. In any event, the Muskrats eventually became concerned about the use of the timeout room and told school officials beginning in 2004 that J.M. should not be placed there. The Muskrats said J.M. did not have the mental maturity to understand the timeout room's purpose and it therefore only frightened him.

In November 2005, the school modified J.M.'s IEP to prohibit placing J.M. in a timeout room.1 Deer Creek Elementary's

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principal, Debbie Straughn, nonetheless instructed at least one staff member (not a party here) to place J.M. in the timeout room if needed. Deer Creek Elementary's logs show that J.M. was placed in timeout at least 30 times over the course of the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years.

J.M. began to show increasing signs of stress during the 2005-06 school year, including sleeplessness, vomiting, and a frequent urge to urinate. His medical professionals also documented declining cognitive and physical functions. His medical professionals, however, never opined at the time that J.M.'s timeouts caused these symptoms. Nor did the Muskrats tell anyone at school that they believed J.M.'s timeouts caused these symptoms.

Just before the start of the 2006-07 school year, J.M.'s IEP was amended to state that school staff would neither subject J.M. to the timeout room nor place him in a classroom with a timeout room. The school initially honored this agreement, moving J.M. to a classroom without a timeout room. The school also decommissioned its timeout rooms generally for the 2006-07 school year.

A couple of months into the school year, however, school officials moved J.M. to yet another classroom. This new classroom featured a no-longer-in-use timeout room. The Muskrats claim that simple proximity to this timeout room caused J.M. additional anxiety.

3. Alleged Physical Abuse

The Muskrats claim that J.M. also suffered three instances of physical abuse at the hands of school staff.

The first instance occurred when J.M. was sitting in the cafeteria next to a special education teacher named Jessica Renaker. According to a nearby cafeteria worker, Renaker had a hand on J.M.'s shoulder and was attempting to calm him down for some reason. Renaker then quickly moved that hand and struck a quick open-handed " pop" (as the parties refer to it) on J.M.'s cheek. There was no wind-up or notable use of force, but the cafeteria worker believed that the " pop" was unprovoked. The record contains no evidence of continuing harm to J.M. from this incident.

The second instance of alleged physical abuse occurred when J.M.'s full-time aide, Kay Rogers, slapped J.M. on the arm hard enough to leave a red mark. The record again contains no evidence of continuing harm to J.M. from this incident.

The third instance of alleged abuse involved both Rogers and Renaker. On one occasion, they restrained J.M. in his desk for about two minutes by standing on either side of him, each one holding one of his shoulders so that he could not stand up. As with the previous two incidents, the record contains no evidence of continuing harm to J.M. from this incident.

B. Litigation History

The Muskrats took J.M. out of Deer Creek Elementary after the 2006-07 school year, and eventually out of the Deer Creek schools altogether. In October 2008, they filed suit on their own and J.M.'s behalf. They named as defendants Deer Creek Public Schools, Principal Straughn, Rogers, and Renaker. The complaint primarily alleged state-law torts but also asserted a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim, accusing the defendants of violating J.M.'s constitutional rights. The Muskrats' allegations relating to injury and damages largely focused on continuing emotional trauma and related medical expenses resulting from the timeouts.

The defendants moved to dismiss arguing that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the Muskrats

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had failed to exhaust their claims through an administrative process established under the IDEA. The defendants also asserted that the Muskrats' state-law torts failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted.

The district court rejected the defendants' IDEA exhaustion argument but agreed that the Muskrats state-law torts were deficient as pleaded. The district court gave the Muskrats leave to amend. The Muskrats satisfactorily amended and the case proceeded to discovery.

All defendants eventually moved for summary judgment, arguing that their behavior stated no constitutional violation under a Fourteenth Amendment " shocks the conscience" analysis. The district court agreed, entered judgment against the Muskrats on their § 1983 claim, and declined to retain jurisdiction over the remaining state-law causes of action.

The Muskrats then moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), arguing that the district court had improperly dismissed the whole case because they could still proceed under a Fourth Amendment " reasonableness" theory in the alternative to a Fourteenth Amendment " shocks the conscience" theory. The district court denied this motion, finding that the Muskrats had never before asserted a Fourth Amendment theory, and it was too late to do so after the fact.

II. Analysis

The Muskrats contend the district court erred in granting...

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