Reinoehl v. St. Joseph Cnty. Health Dep't, Dr. Robert M. Einterz, Dr. Mark D. Fox, & Penn-Harris-Madison Sch. Corp.

Decision Date03 December 2021
Docket NumberCourt of Appeals Case No. 21A-CT-433
Citation181 N.E.3d 341
Parties Jennifer REINOEHL and Jason Reinoehl, Appellants-Plaintiffs, v. ST. JOSEPH COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT, Dr. Robert M. Einterz, Dr. Mark D. Fox, and Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation, Appellees-Defendants.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court

Appellants Pro Se: Jennifer Reinoehl, Jason Reinoehl, Granger, Indiana

Attorneys for Appellees: Amy M. Steketee, Church Church Hittle & Antrim, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Alexander P. Pinegar, Kevin S. Smith, Church Church Hittle & Antrim, Noblesville, Indiana

Baker, Senior Judge.

Introduction

[1] Parents across Indiana and the United States faced enormous challenges during the uncertainty and fluid state of affairs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly at its onset. Not only were the safety, health and employment of loved ones a concern as the country and our state entered lockdown conditions, but the educational needs of their children was a concern as well. The dynamics of family life, school life, and work life converged in family households during this unique time in our history, with parents taking on multiple roles at home—parent/employee/teacher's assistant—while educators used their creativity in providing instruction to the state's children through the use of technology. Government and business leaders, health care workers, and educators also scrambled to address the enormous disruptions presented by the pandemic. Some of those disruptions to normalcy remain today.

[2] Jennifer and Jason Reinoehl (the Reinoehls) are the parents of S.R. and L.R., two high-school aged children with diagnoses that require adjustments to their educational instruction even during "normal" times. The Reinoehls’ experiences during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely similar to those of other parents of children with disabilities. Today we discuss their disagreement with how their state and local governments, as well as their children's school system, responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact those decisions had on their children, and the trial court's thoughtful and patient approach to hearing out the Reinoehls’ frustrations, expressing genuine compassion for them, while tasked with informing them that they had no legal remedy for their troubles.

Statement of the Case

[3] The Reinoehls appeal from the trial court's order granting a motion to dismiss pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(6) filed by the St. Joseph County Health Department (Health Department), Dr. Robert M. Einterz, Dr. Mark D. Fox, and Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation (the School Corporation). The Reinoehls seek review of the court's order and their issue statement is threefold. First, they contend the court abused its discretion by failing to consider case law they submitted. Next, they claim the court abused its discretion by preventing them from obtaining discovery and denying them a jury trial on the merits. Last, they contend the court erred by granting the motion to dismiss without first allowing them the opportunity to further amend their complaint. Finding that the trial court's thoroughly written order, which greatly aided appellate review of the issues, properly decided the matter before it, we affirm.

Issues

[4] The following restated issues arise from the Reinoehls’ claims:

I. Did the Reinoehls’ Amended Complaint state an actionable claim of "failure to accommodate" under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act1 (Section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act2 (ADA), challenging the School Corporation's response to the COVID-19 pandemic as respects their daughters’ educational needs?
II. Did the holding in Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch. , ––– U.S. ––––, 137 S. Ct. 743, 197 L.Ed.2d 46 (2017) require the Reinoehls to exhaust their administrative remedies required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act3 (IDEA) before filing their claim under Section 504 and Title II because their claim alleged a denial of a "free and appropriate public education"(FAPE)?
III. Does a private cause of action exist such that private citizens can sue county health departments alleging a violation of Governor Holcomb's Executive Order 20-02, and if so, did the Health Department violate Executive Order 20-02 by recommending that schools be closed to in-person instruction due to the pandemic?
IV. Did the Health Department's and School Corporation's respective actions–recommending and closing schools to in-person instruction–violate the Indiana Home Rule Act, by preventing the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) from fulfilling its statutory duty?
V. Did the Reinoehls’ Amended Complaint state legally cognizable claims of "procedural due process," "substantive due process," and "equal protection" violations based on the Health Department's recommendations and the School Corporation's decision to follow those recommendations regarding in-person instruction?
VI. Did the Indiana Tort Claims Act (ITCA) bar the Reinoehls’ negligence claims against Dr. Einterz and Dr. Fox because their recommendations against in-person instruction were made within the scope and course or their employment?
VII. Did Governor Holcomb's Executive Order 20-02 require Dr. Einterz and Dr. Fox to follow CDC guidelines, and, if so: did the Reinoehls’ Amended Complaint plead facts showing that they failed to do so, and, if so, did that failure create a legally cognizable duty owed to the Reinoehls such that it could support a common-law negligence claim?
VIII. Did the court abuse its discretion by dismissing the Reinoehls’ Amended Complaint without giving them the opportunity to engage in discovery?
IX. Did the court abuse its discretion by dismissing the Reinoehls’ Amended Complaint without offering them the opportunity to file a Second Amended Complaint, where such opportunity had not been requested and further amendment would not have cured the legal deficiencies of their claims?

Facts4 and Procedural History

[5] In January 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. Two months later, the President of the United States declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency. That year, Indiana residents including those in St. Joseph County observed increases in COVID-19 infections, with a spike in cases in the last quarter of the year. See CDC COVID Data Tracker, https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases totaldeaths (last accessed November 23, 2021); Indiana COVID-19 Data Report, https://www.coronavirus.in.gov/2393.htm (last accessed November 23, 2021); see also Appellants’ App. Vol. 2, p. 216.

[6] Governor Holcomb responded to this crisis by issuing executive orders to help Hoosiers navigate the crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. He began by first issuing Executive Order 20-02 on March 6, 2020, declaring a public health emergency. Next followed a series of executive orders which addressed, in part, public instruction in Indiana. Two orders directed all schools offering instruction from kindergarten through high school to close and cease in-person instruction, cancelled all state-mandated assessments for the 2019-2020 academic year, and directed that schools provide instruction via remote learning, and keep the school buildings closed for the remainder of that school year.5

[7] On May 1, 2020, the Governor issued Executive Order 20-26 providing a roadmap for reopening businesses, government, and other aspects of the Indiana economy. In that order, Governor Holcomb established that,

3. Current Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 for the Reopening of Indiana
* * * *
e. As set forth in ¶¶ 35 & 36, unless otherwise specified, nothing in this Executive Order prohibits a county from imposing more stringent requirements than this Executive Order requires.
* * * *
35. No Limitation on Authority
Nothing in this Executive Order shall, in any way, alter or modify any existing legal authority allowing the State, any local health department, or any other proper entity from ordering: (a) any quarantine or isolation that may require an individual to remain inside a particular residential property or medical facility for a limited period of time, including the duration of this public health emergency; or (b) any closure of a specific location for a limited period of time, including the duration of this public health emergency.
36. Local Declarations of Emergency
a. Pursuant to the Emergency Disaster Law, no local ordinance, directive, or order of any county, political subdivision, or other local government entity pertaining to this public health emergency, may contradict or impose less restrictive requirements than those set forth in this Executive Order, or else that ordinance, directive, or order will be void and of no force or effect. However, unless prohibited by an Executive Order, local ordinances, directives, and orders may be more restrictive.
* * * *

Executive Order 20-26, https://www.in.gov/gov/files/Executive-Order-20-26-Roadmap-to-Reopen-Indiana.pdf (last accessed November 18, 2021) (emphasis added).

[8] Further Executive Orders issued by the governor contained similar language, not prohibiting local governmental entities from imposing more stringent requirements than those of the executive orders.6

[9] After St. Joseph County had its first confirmed case of COVID-19 and in response to the statewide declaration of a public health emergency, Penn High School (PHS) began providing extended eLearning to its students on March 17, 2020. COVID-19 Extended eLearning Update (3.17.20), https://www.phmschools.org/parents/mar-2020/covid-19-extended-elearning-update-31720 (last accessed November 18, 2021). PHS teachers used Mondays to plan eLearning lessons for the week and then taught students through video-conferenced classes on Tuesday through Friday. Id. The School Corporation closed its buildings through the end of the 2019-2020 school year, in compliance with Executive Order 20-16. PHM School Year...

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