Vlasaty v. Wake Cnty. Pub. Sch. Sys. Bd. of Educ.

Decision Date20 September 2018
Docket NumberNo. 5:17-CV-578-D,5:17-CV-578-D
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of North Carolina

On November 21, 2017, N.V., a minor, Jennine Vlasaty, and Derek Vlasaty, individually and on behalf of N.V. ("plaintiffs") filed a complaint against the Wake County Public School System Board of Education ("WCPSS" or "Board"), Karen Hamilton (Assistant Superintendent of Special Education Services for WCPSS, in her individual capacity) ("Hamilton"), and Robert Bendel (Principal of Jones Dairy Elementary School, in his individual capacity) ("Bendel") (collectively, "school defendants"), and the North Carolina State Board of Education, ("SBE"), Mark Johnson (State Superintendent of Public Instruction, in his individual capacity) ("Johnson"), and William Hussey, (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction Director of Exceptional Children, in his individual capacity) ("Hussey") (collectively, "state defendants"). Plaintiffs allege violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act ("IDEA") and corresponding state law, and discriminatory conduct against plaintiffs based on N.V.'s disability in violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 [D.E. 1]. On January 25, 2018, the school defendants filed a partial motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted [D.E. 15] and filed a memorandum in support [D.E. 16]. On January 26, 2018, the state defendants filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted [D.E. 18] and filed a memorandum in support [D.E. 19]. On February 13, 2018, plaintiffs answered Bendel's counterclaim [D.E. 20]. On February 15, 2018, plaintiffs responded to the school defendants' partial motion to dismiss [D.E. 21], filed a memorandum in support [D.E. 22], responded to the state defendants' motion to dismiss [D.E. 23], and filed a memorandum in support [D.E. 24]. On March 1, 2018, the school defendants replied [D.E. 25]. As explained below, the court grants the school defendants' partial motion to dismiss and grants the state defendants' motion to dismiss.


N.V. is an eleven year old child who lives with his parents in Wake County, North Carolina and attends Wake County public schools. See Compl. [D.E. 1] ¶¶ 36-37, 46-47.

N.V. . . . has been diagnosed with Down syndrome; mild intellectual disability; Hirschprung's disease resulting in a permanent colostomy; receptive, expressive, and pragmatic/social language delays; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); obstructive sleep apnea; and sensorineural hearing loss in his right ear.

Id. ¶ 46. Before attending Wake County public schools, N.V. lived in Tennessee where his Individualized Educational Program ("IEP") permitted him to "enroll in his neighborhood school" and to "take the bus to school . . . every day." Id. ¶ 47. Plaintiffs allege that the WCPSS systematically "exclu[ded] N.V. from the regular education environment and . . . from hisnondisabled peers, solely on the basis of [his] disability," by removing him from a general educational setting and "provid[ing] all of his specially designed instruction in [a] segregated classroom, thereby denying [him] access to his nondisabled peers and to the general curriculum." Id. ¶¶ 48-49. Plaintiffs contend that N.V. does not have access to the general curriculum in his segregated environment and that he "only worked on IEP goals and skills that were not on grade level or even aligned to the general curriculum." Id. ¶¶ 50-51. N.V.'s parents repeatedly asked that the school defendants "allow N.V. to receive his specially designed instruction in the general education classroom." Id. ¶ 52. The school defendants denied their requests and lacked "cogent reasons, evidence-based support, or rational basis for their decision to exclude N.V." Id. ¶¶ 53-54. Plaintiffs also allege that N.V. was segregated from his peers despite N.V. making "the requisite progress under the law to justify remaining in the general education classroom" and "not exhibit[ing] any behavioral challenges" in a general education setting. Id. ¶ 56.

On November 24, 2015, plaintiffs filed a due process hearing petition and alleged several IDEA violations, claiming that WCPSS had denied N.V. access to a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"). See id. ¶ 292; [D.E. 15-3]. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") conducted a hearing over eleven days between February 14, 2017, and March 9, 2017. See Compl. ¶ 301; [D.E. 15-1] 1. On June 26, 2017, the ALJ issued a final decision. [D.E. 15-1]; see Compl. ¶¶ 308-09. The ALJ found that "[plaintiffs] met their burden of proof . . . that [WCPSS] failed to ensure N.V. was placed in the [least restrictive environment ("LRE")] and had access to the general education curriculum during both the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years." Compl. ¶ 309; [D.E. 15-1] 73-74.

On July 26, 2017, plaintiffs and WCPSS cross-appealed the ALJ decision. See Compl. ¶310; [D.E. 15-2]. On August 23, 2017, the State Hearing Review Officer "upheld all issues in which [WCPSS] prevailed, and found against Plaintiffs on all issues in which Plaintiffs prevailed in the ALJ's final decision." Compl. ¶¶ 312-13; see [D.E. 15-2]. On November 21, 2017, plaintiffs filed this action seeking declaratory, injunctive, and monetary relief.


The IDEA creates a federal grant program to assist state and local agencies to educate disabled children. See 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a). Under the IDEA, states must provide disabled children the opportunity to receive a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. See id. § 1412(a)(5)(A); Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., 137 S. Ct. 743, 748-49 (2017). Whenaschool district determines that a child is eligible to receive special education services, the school district must develop an Individualized Education Program ("IEP") for the child. See MM ex rel. DM v. Sch. Dist., 303 F.3d 523, 526 (4th Cir. 2002). The IEP team—which includes the child's teachers, parents, a representative of the local educational agency, and other persons with specialized knowledge concerning the child—formulates the IEP. See id. at 526-27. The IEP must detail the student's current educational performance, include measurable annual goals for the student's education, describe the special educational services that the child will receive, and state the projected date that the services will begin. See id. at 527; E.L. ex rel. Lorsson v. Chapel Hill-Carrboro Bd. of Educ., 773 F.3d 509, 517-18 (4th Cir. 2014); Emery v. Roanoke City Sch. Bd., 432 F.3d 294, 297-98 (4th Cir. 2005); Kirkpatrick v. Lenoir Cty. Bd. of Educ., 216 F.3d 380, 383 (4th Cir. 2000).

Under the IDEA, an aggrieved party can file a civil action in a United States District Court without regard to the amount in controversy. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). In reviewing the complaint, a court must review the records of the administrative proceeding based on thepreponderance of the evidence. See id. § 1415(i)(2)(C).

The standard of review does not invite "courts to substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of school authorities which they review." Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982). Rather, the court must "conduct a modified de novo review, giving 'due weight' to the underlying administrative proceedings." MM ex rel. DM, 303 F.3d at 530-31. "Due weight" means the court must consider the findings of fact made in the state administrative proceedings to be prima facie correct. J.P. ex rel. Peterson v. Cty. Sch. Bd., 516 F.3d 254, 259 (4th Cir. 2008); Doyle v. Arlington Cty. Sch. Bd., 953 F.2d 100, 105 (4th Cir. 1991). If both the ALJ and reviewing officer have reached the same conclusion, a court must afford greater deference to their findings. See MM ex rel. DM, 303 F.3d at 531. A reviewing officer must not depart from the normal process of fact finding in reaching a decision opposed to that of a hearing officer or the "decision may be entitled to little or no deference." See G ex rel. RG v. Fort Bragg Dependent Sch., 343 F.3d 295, 303 (4th Cir. 2003). If the district court does not follow the administrative factual findings, the district court must explain the reason for not doing so. See A.B. ex rel. D.B. v. Lawson, 354 F.3d 315, 325 (4th Cir. 2004).

Here, plaintiffs bear the burden of proof in challenging the state administrative decision. See Barnett ex rel. Barnett v. Fairfax Cty. Sch. Bd., 927 F.2d 146, 152 (4th Cir. 1991). Plaintiffs also bear the burden of proof in establishing that an IEP is deficient. See Schaffer ex rel. Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 62 (2005).


A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the complaint's legal and factual sufficiency. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-80 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 554-63 (2007); Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008). To withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a pleading "must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quotation omitted); see Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570; Giarratano, 521 F.3d at 302. In considering the motion, the court must construe the facts and reasonable inferences "in the light most favorable to the [nonmoving party]." Massey v. Ojaniit, 759 F.3d 343, 352 (4th Cir. 2014) (quotation omitted); see Clatterbuck v. City of Charlottesville, 708 F.3d 549, 557 (4th Cir. 2013), abrogated on other grounds by Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S. Ct. 2218 (2015). A court need not accept as true a complaint's...

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