Fed. judge dismisses suit alleging nationwide denial of FAPE during pandemic

The class action accused every state and local educational agency in the country of denying FAPE to students with disabilities during the extended school closures.
By: | November 17, 2020
Free appropriate public education FAPE book on a desk. (iStock / Getty Images Plus)

A federal District Court in New York has dismissed a putative class action that accused every state and local educational agency in the country of denying FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) to students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a 54-page decision issued on Friday, the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York dismissed the parents’ IDEA, Section 504, ADA, and 14th Amendment claims without prejudice, meaning that the parents are free to replead the allegations in their complaint down the road. The court based its decision on its inability to hear claims against districts outside of New York and the parents’ failure to exhaust their administrative remedies.

Related: Current suits, resolved cases related to pandemic-related school closures.

The case is the largest FAPE action arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic to date. Most putative class actions based on the extended school closures have sought relief on behalf of students with disabilities in a specific state or district. The parents in J.T. alleged in their complaint that they were suing on behalf of every student in the United States who receives services under the IDEA or Section 504.

Chief U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon, who wrote the opinion dismissing the J.T. case, did not rule out the possibility that smaller groups of students could pursue more targeted class actions against their SEAs or LEAs.

“Whether groups of parents from a single [out-of-state] district can band together to sue that district is not an issue I can or should address today; it is enough that the claims asserted in this action can be brought against the [out-of-state] defendants in [another] forum,” the judge wrote.

Civil RICO claims

One of the more notable aspects of J.T. v. de Blasio was the parents’ claim that the educational agencies violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act by accepting federal funding and failing to provide special education services. Judge McMahon rejected the notion that the nationwide school closures proved the agencies were working together to deny FAPE to students with disabilities. She also questioned the parents’ claim that the districts knowingly accepted federal funding for services they had no intention of providing.

“The utter implausibility of such a contention speaks for itself,” the judge wrote. “No one knew that there was going to be a pandemic; it took the entire world by surprise.”

The judge dismissed the parents’ RICO claim with prejudice, meaning that the parents cannot refile that claim. That dismissal applies to all SEAs and LEAs identified as defendants in the case.

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Amy E. Slater, Esq., covers special education legal issues for LRP Publications