Justia Education Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
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After M.L. was dismissed from the cheerleading squad when her coaches discovered her Twitter posts contained profanity and sexual innuendo, her mother filed suit against defendants under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging violation of M.L.'s rights to free speech, due process, and equal protection. The district court held that the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and dismissed M.L.'s complaint for failure to state a claim. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that no clearly established law placed the constitutionality of defendants' conduct beyond debate at the time of M.L.'s dismissal from the team. The court held that nothing in its precedent allows a school to discipline nonthreatening off campus speech simply because an administrator considers it offensive, harassing, or disruptive; it is indisputable that non-threatening student expression is entitled to First Amendment protection, even though the extent of that protection may be diminished if the speech is composed by a student on campus, or purposefully brought onto a school campus; and as a general rule, speech that the speaker does not intend to reach the school community remains outside the reach of school officials. In this case, the court held that no clearly established law placed M.L.'s right's beyond debate at the time of the sanction, particularly given the unique extracurricular context. The court also affirmed the district court's dismissal of the claims for municipal liability, vagueness, and overbreadth, because M.L. failed to plead facts that would entitle her to relief. View "Longoria v. San Benito Independent Consolidated School District" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's Title IX complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Plaintiff's claims stemmed from an incident at school where another student raped her special needs child. Based on the Supreme Court's recent decision in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 137 S. Ct. 743 (2017), the court held that if a disabled person seeks Title IX relief that a non-disabled person could also seek and requests relief that is different from or in addition to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), the IDEA's exhaustion requirement does not apply. In this case, plaintiff's claim involved simple discrimination, irrespective of the IDEA's FAPE obligation. Were all traces of the child's disabilities removed, the court explained that plaintiff's claim would look nearly identical to allegations that the school was deliberately indifferent to the child's sexual abuse. Therefore, the court held that the gravamen of the complaint was not about the denial of a FAPE, and the IDEA's exhaustion requirement does not apply. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Doe v. Dallas Independent School District" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to the university in an action brought by a student, alleging substantive due process and equal protection claims in connection with the university's evaluation of allegations that the student cheated on an exam. The court held that the district court abused its discretion by refusing to consider the student's expert reports solely because they were unsworn, without considering whether the opinions were capable of being presented in a form that would be admissible in evidence. In regard to the substantive due process claim, the court held that the student failed to identify any summary judgment evidence raising a genuine fact issue that defendants did not actually exercise professional judgment in resolving the cheating allegations, or that the result of the process was beyond the pale of reasoned academic decision-making. Likewise, the court held that the student failed to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact as to his equal protection claim. In this case, there was nothing in the record to suggest that the student was intentionally treated in a manner irrationally different from other similarly situated students. View "Patel v. Texas Tech University" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff and his parents filed suit against the school district, seeking damages under the Rehabilitation Act and 42 U.S.C. 1983 after plaintiff was expelled from high school. The Fifth Circuit explained that, because plaintiff did not exhaust the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act's (IDEA) procedures, his suit asserting other federal claims must be dismissed if it seeks relief that is also available under the IDEA. In this case, both the substance and language of plaintiff's complaint reveal that he was challenging the denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) that the IDEA promised him. The court held that plaintiff did not seek awards tied to the cost of providing him with an adequate education. Rather, he sought damages for injuries like emotional distress, and such traditional compensatory damages were not available under the IDEA. Therefore, the IDEA's exhaustion requirement applied to plaintiffs who seek damages for the denial of a FAPE. In this case, because plaintiff did not first seek relief through the IDEA administrative process, his lawsuit was properly dismissed. View "McMillen v. New Caney Independent School District" on Justia Law

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After O.W. was withdrawn from school, the administrative hearing officer found that the school district violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and awarded O.W. two years of private school tuition. The district court affirmed and the school district appealed. The Fifth Circuit held that the IDEA's text and structure, including its implementing regulations, compel a conclusion that the child find and expedited evaluation requirements are separate and independent such that a violation of the latter does not mean a violation of the former. Therefore, the district court erred to the extent it held otherwise. The court also held that the continued use of behavioral interventions was not a proactive step toward compliance with the school district's child find duties, and thus a child find violation occurred. In regard to claims that the district court failed to implement O.W.'s individualized education program (IEP), the district court did not err in finding that the use of the take-discipline was a significant or substantial departure from the IEP; the district court erred in concluding that eight instances of physical restraints violated O.W.'s IEP; and the single instance of police involvement did not rise to the level of an actionable violation. Furthermore, the district court correctly concluded the May 18, 2015, modification rose to the level of an actionable violation, but erred in finding the May 6, 2015, modification represented an actionable failure to implement O.W.'s IEP. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the remedy issue for reconsideration. View "Spring Branch Independent School District v. O.W." on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to UTA in an appeal arising out of a Title IX suit for damages alleging that UTA discriminated on the basis of sex in disciplining Thomas Klocke. Klocke was placed on disciplinary probation by UTA and was not allowed to attend class because he had harassed another student for being gay. Klocke committed suicide shortly afterwards. His estate filed suit against UTA, seeking damages for Klocke's suffering and anguish prior to his death. The court held that UTA's disciplinary decisions were reasonable and justifiable on non-discriminatory grounds, and an inference of gender bias in these circumstances would necessarily be speculative. The court also held that the selective enforcement claim failed because none of the cases that the estate has identified permit the inference that similarly situated female students were treated more favorably than Klocke. Finally, the estate cited no additional evidence to support a retaliation claim. View "Klocke v. University of Texas at Arlington" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs appealed the district court's grant of defendants' motion to dismiss or alternatively for summary judgment regarding plaintiffs' disability-related claims under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or the Americans with Disabilities Act. Plaintiffs' claims stemmed from an officers' treatment of their autistic, eight year old son. The Fifth Circuit vacated, holding that there were material disputes of fact and this case was distinguishable from Hainze v. Richards, 207 F.3d 795 (2000), because there was no exigent circumstance. In this case, the court held that a jump rope in the hands of an eight year old child was not a weapon and was not capable of inflicting the same injuries or damage as an actual weapon, even if he called the jump rope his "nunchucks." At the very least, the court held that whether an eight year old twirling a child's jump rope created a danger of physical harm or a potentially life-threatening situation is a dispute of material fact. Because there are disputes of material fact, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Wilson v. City of Southlake" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the bankruptcy court's denial of discharge on plaintiff's student loan debt under 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(8). The court held that there was no evidence that plaintiff's present circumstances -- her deteriorating diabetic conditions and the costs associated with it, and her inability to maintain employment -- are likely to persist throughout a significant portion of the loans' repayment period. Therefore, under the Brunner standard adopted by this court in In re Gerhardt, 348 F.3d at 91, and the vast majority of other circuit courts, plaintiff was not eligible for discharge for her student loans. View "Thomas v. Department of Education" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's complaint, based on subject matter jurisdiction, against the University, UT High School, and various school officials, alleging claims of racketeering and "gaslighting." Plaintiff alleged that UT High School's various policies and practices regarding grading and ranking knocked him out of the running for various scholarships and admissions into prestigious colleges, and that officials conspired to do so in order to gaslight, or cause psychological harm, to him. The court held that defendants were entitled to qualified immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, because UT High School is an instrumentality of the State of Texas that enjoys sovereign immunity. Plaintiff's claims against the remaining defendants were abandoned. View "Sissom v. University of Texas High School" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's conclusion that J.M., a fourth grade student, was eligible for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The court held that the district court's findings were well-supported, reasonable, and correct. Among other things, there were various reliable indicators of J.M.'s struggle in the general education environment where he failed his benchmark tests, teachers reported that he struggled with attention to task due to avoidance behaviors, he had difficulty producing written work, and displayed excessively high/low activity level. View "Lisa M. v. Leander Independent School District" on Justia Law