Saenz ex rel. V.S. v. Board of Education of Silver Consolidated Schools, No. CV 18-954, 2019 WL 1795539, 74 IDELR 97 (D.N.M. April 24, 2019), presents the issue of whether and when the state educational agency (SEA) may be a proper respondent in IDEA proceedings, a recurring question in cases under the Act. The case involved a 12-year-old nonverbal student with autism. According to the plaintiff, the school district in 2016-17 put the student on a shortened schedule and required the parent to attend with him; then in December, 2017 devised an IEP providing solely homebound services because the district did not have a qualified special education teacher, the parent could not attend school with the child, and the school lacked adequate staff for the student; then in February, 2018, the school disenrolled the student. The parent’s due process hearing request included both the school district and the SEA as respondents, the SEA moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, and the hearing officer granted the motion. Ultimately, the hearing officer ruled that the school denied the student appropriate education for two years and ordered equitable relief. In January 2019, the student resumed attending school. The parent then filed suit against both the school district and the SEA, bringing claims under the IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and seeking attorneys’ fees and costs.
The court dismissed the IDEA claim against the SEA. It relied heavily on a Tenth Circuit decision, Chavez ex rel. M.C. v. New Mexico Public Education Department, 621 F.3d 1275 (10th Cir. 2010), in which that court held that the SEA was not liable for the failure of the school district to provide a student free, appropriate public education. The court said there would be no SEA liability in the absence of notice to the SEA that the school district was not in compliance with the IDEA such that the state agency should have tried to take over education for the school district under 20 U.S.C. § 1413(g) before the completion of applicable administrative procedures; state intervention following the due process proceedings was not proper when the school district could properly implement the remedy ordered. The Saenz court said that in the case before it the same allegations of failure to supervise the school district were made as were made in Chavez, that in Saenz as in Chavez no showing was provided that the school district could not implement the due process hearing remedy, and that the Saenz plaintiff’s desire for systemic and structural relief to improve the availability of services for students with autism, particularly in rural areas did not create any meaningful distinction from Chavez. Although the state can implement services when a school district defaults, the IDEA provides procedures and procedural protections for school districts before states can take a school district’s funding on the basis of noncompliance under 20 U.S.C. § 1413(g). Crucially for the court, the parent did not allege that the SEA was on notice of the school district’s noncompliance so as to satisfy 20 U.S.C. § 1413(g) when all that was alleged was the SEA’s receipt of the due process hearing request and the only other relevant facts were the due process decision and availability of a record of the student’s disenrollment. The court pointed to recent amendments streamlining due process in New Mexico and the presence of the state complaint review process as indications that the parent has options when a school district fails to uphold its IDEA obligations.
The court took a different approach with respect to the SEA’s vulnerability to the parent’s Section 504 claim, denying dismissal. Although the Tenth Circuit has said that when a student has not been denied appropriate education under the IDEA, a Section 504 claim based on the same alleged denial will also fail (see Urban v. Jefferson Cnty. Sch. Dist., 89 F.3d 720, 728 (10th Cir. 1996), in Saenz the hearing officer concluded that the student was denied FAPE under the IDEA and that conclusion was uncontested. In denying the dismissal of the Section 504 claim, the court declared: “The only IDEA question before the Court in Defendant’s motion was whether NMPED [the SEA] could be liable for that denial based upon Plaintiff’s allegations. The conclusion that it could not, due to the peculiar nature of the IDEA, does not resolve the discrimination question under the Rehabilitation Act.” 2019 WL 1795539, at *11.
A recent opinion concerning the propriety of the New York SEA as a defendant in an IDEA case is R.S. v. Board of Education Shenendehowa Central School District, No. 117CV501LEKCFH, 2017 WL 6389710, 71 IDELR 85 (N.D.N.Y. Dec. 13, 2017). That case alleged denial of appropriate education to a six-year-old with autism spectrum disorder. The parent sought declaratory and injunctive relief, compensatory damages for educational therapy, and legal fees. The court dismissed the Section 504 claim against the state commissioner for lack of any allegation of bad faith or gross misjudgment. On the other hand, the court denied a motion to dismiss IDEA claims against the commissioner insofar as an allegation was made of a policy of not requiring schools to list specific methodologies in the Management Needs section of students’ IEPs, something that was claimed to disadvantage children needing Applied Behavioral Analysis as a specific methodology. Ultimately, however, the parent’s case was unsuccessful. A.S. v. Board of Educ. Shenendehowa Cent. Sch. Dist., No. 1:17-CV-0501, 2019 WL 719833, 73 IDELR 260 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 20, 2019).