Sauers v. Winston-Salem/Forsyth Cnty. Bd. of Educ.

Decision Date31 March 2016
Docket Number1:15CV427
Citation179 F.Supp.3d 544
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of North Carolina
Parties Laurence Charles Sauers, III, “Trey”, Laurence Charles Sauers, II, and Carol Jones Sauers, Plaintiffs, v. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education, Julia Edmonds, individually and in her official capacity, Kaye Hunter, individually and in Her official capacity, Brad Royal, individually and in his official capacity, Ellen Weston, individually and in her official capacity, Kara Richardson, individually and in her official capacity, Mary Todd Allen, individually and in her official capacity, Tina Ramsey, individually and in her official capacity, Sam Dempsey, individually and in his official capacity, Gretchen Troutman, individually and in her official capacity, Jonathan L. Garwood, individually and in his official capacity, Morgan C. Theterow, individually and in her official capacity, Martha C. Tedrow, individually and in her official capacity, and Dr. Kenneth Simington, individually and in his official capacity, Defendants.

Karen L. Vaughn, Kelli L. Espaillat, K. Legal Services, Mooresville, NC, Cynthia E. Everson, Everson Law Firm, PLLC, Concord, NC, for Plaintiffs.

Benita Nicole Jones, Deborah R. Stagner, Tharrington Smith, LLP, Raleigh, NC, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

OSTEEN, JR., District Judge

Presently before this court is a Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendants Julia Edmonds, Kaye Hunter, Brad Royal, Ellen Weston, Kara Richardson, Mary Todd Allen, Tina Ramsey, Sam Dempsey, Gretchen Troutman, Jonathan L. Garwood, Martha C. Tedrow, and Dr. Kenneth Simington (the School Defendants)1 (Doc. 20), and a Partial Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendant Winston Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education (the School Board)(collectively Defendants). (Doc. 22.) Plaintiffs Laurence Charles Sauers, III, Laurence Charles Sauers, II, and Carol Jones Sauers (collectively, Plaintiffs) have responded, (Docs. 27, 29), and Defendants have replied. (Docs. 29, 30.) This matter is now ripe for resolution, and for the reasons stated herein, Defendants' motions will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Laurence Charles Sauers, III (Trey) is currently a 19-year-old high school graduate who was diagnosed with dyslexia, and identified as a child with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). (See First Amended Complaint (“First Am. Compl.”) (Doc. 4) ¶ 9.) Trey was enrolled in the Winston Salem/Forsyth County School system (“WC/FCS”) until 2011, when he was withdrawn after completing the eighth grade. (Id.¶ 40.) After withdrawing, Trey attended high school at the Kildonan School (“Kildonan”), a private school located in New York that specializes in educating students with dyslexia. (Id.¶ 41.) The First Amended Complaint alleges that in middle school Trey was diagnosed with anxiety due to “bullying” incidents that were perpetrated by both students and teachers, and the school was aware of this diagnosis and the basis for it. (Id.¶¶ 59-60.) According to Plaintiffs, despite this knowledge none of Trey's Individualized Education Programs (“IEPs”) ever addressed his anxiety or provided ways to deal with it. (Id.¶ 59)

The First Amended Complaint alleges that, while enrolled in WS/FCS, Trey was “personally bullied” by teachers and fellow students. (Id.¶ 60.) These allegations include: (1) being told by teachers [y]ou can read, you are just being lazy”; (2) being told in front of school personnel and other students that he was simply not trying hard enough; (3) a failure by the teachers to stop bullying by other students; and (4) an incident where Trey “felt cornered” by Defendant Ramsey. (Id.¶¶ 60-62, 66.) Further, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants made no effort to provide Trey with tutoring, withheld or failed to implement required accommodations, altered curriculum requirements or simply inflated grades, and failed to communicate with Plaintiffs. (Id.¶¶ 65, 67-68, 70.) Plaintiffs allege that Trey's anxiety and mood improvement was “drastic” after he enrolled at Kildonan, which allowed him to improve academically and graduate high school. (Id.¶ 73.)

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The relevant procedural history in this case extends back to 2011. After withdrawing Trey from WC/FCS, Plaintiffs initiated a Due Process Petition alleging that the school had failed to provide Trey with a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”). (First Am. Compl. (Doc. 4) ¶ 40.) That petition was voluntarily dismissed without prejudice. (Id.) In July of 2012, Plaintiffs filed a second Due Process Petition against the School Board that sought reimbursement for tuition expenses at Kildonan. (Id.¶ 41.) Plaintiffs dismissed that petition with prejudice on October 15, 2012, after reaching a settlement with the School Board that reimbursed educational expenses and attorney's fees related to the 2011 and 2012 petitions. (See Id.¶ 42, Ex. 3, Settlement Agreement (Doc. 4-3).)2 Finally, Plaintiffs filed a third Due Process Petition, alleging that the School Board's proposed IEP program for the 2013-2014 year failed to provide a FAPE, and as a result, sought reimbursement for tuition for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years. (See First Am. Compl., Ex. 1, Final Decision of Administrative Law Judge (Doc. 4-1) at 5.) On February 27, 2015, the petition was denied by the Administrative Law Judge, who found that the IEP developed by the School Board offered Trey a FAPE. (Id. at 24.) Plaintiffs appealed, and their appeal was denied by the State Hearing Review Officer for the State Board of Education on May 1, 2015, which exhausted Plaintiffs' administrative remedies as was required to bring their IDEA claims in this court. (See First Am. Compl., Ex. 2, Decision of State Hearing Review Officer (Doc. 4-2) at 15.)

III. LEGAL STANDARD

“To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’ Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) ). A claim is facially plausible provided the plaintiff provides enough factual content to enable the court to reasonably infer that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id. The pleading setting forth the claim must be “liberally construed” in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and allegations made therein are taken as true. Jenkins v. McKeithen, 395 U.S. 411, 421, 89 S.Ct. 1843, 23 L.Ed.2d 404 (1969). However, “the requirement of liberal construction does not mean that the court can ignore a clear failure in the pleadings to allege any facts [that] set forth a claim.” Estate of Williams – Moore v. Alliance One Receivables Mgmt., Inc., 335 F.Supp.2d 636, 646 (M.D.N.C.2004).

Rule 12(b)(6) protects against meritless litigation by requiring sufficient factual allegations “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level” so as to “nudge[ ] the[ ] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955 ; see Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 680, 129 S.Ct. 1937. Under Iqbal, the court performs a two-step analysis. First, the court separates factual allegations from allegations not entitled to the assumption of truth (i.e., conclusory allegations, bare assertions amounting to nothing more than a “formulaic recitation of the elements”). Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 681, 129 S.Ct. 1937. Second, the court determines whether the factual allegations, which are accepted as true, “plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief.” Id.“At this stage of the litigation, a plaintiff's well-pleaded allegations are taken as true and the complaint, including all reasonable inferences therefrom, are liberally construed in the plaintiff's favor.” Estate of Williams – Moore, 335 F.Supp.2d at 646.

IV. ANALYSIS

In the instant case, Plaintiffs assert a broad range of claims, differing as to each set of Defendants. As to the School Board, Plaintiffs appeal an adverse administrative decision pursuant to the IDEA arising out of the alleged failure to provide a FAPE, asserting the following claims: (1) negligent infliction of emotional distress; (2) breach of contract; (3) negligent supervision and training; (4) an equal protection claim based on Trey's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights; and (5) a due process claim based on the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights of Trey's parents. (See First Am. Compl. (Doc. 4) ¶¶ 86-1443 .)

As to the School Defendants, Plaintiffs bring claims for: (1) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (2) negligent infliction of emotional distress; (3) negligent supervision and training;4 and (4) violations of Plaintiffs' various equal protection and due process rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.5 (Id.)

This court first notes that the motion filed by the School Board is only a partial motion to dismiss, and that the School Board is not moving to dismiss Plaintiffs' first or eighth causes of action, which are failure to provide a FAPE under the IDEA and related attorneys' fees and costs, because those claims are subject to a modified de novo review of the administrative proceedings. (See Def. School Board's Mem. in Supp. of Partial Mot. to Dismiss (“School Board Br.”) (Doc. 23) at 2 n.1.) As such, the court will not address those claims in this opinion.

A. The Settlement Agreement

As an initial matter, the School Board and the School Defendants contend that the Settlement Agreement entered into with Plaintiffs on October 15, 2012, bars all claims asserted in the current action except for Plaintiffs' first and eighth claims. (See id. at 5–8.) That Settlement Agreement states in relevant part:

L.S. and C.S., their heirs, successors, guardians and assigns, hereby forever discharge and release [the School] Board, its members, officers, employees, successors, and assigns from any and all
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