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A.C. et al v. Shelby County Board of Education - 6th Circuit

Discussion in 'Parents of Children with Type 1' started by Ellen, Apr 28, 2013.

  1. Ellen

    Ellen Senior Member

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    Wrightslaw summarizes on video Wrightslaw Section 504 Retaliation.ChildAbuse.Diabetes

    Full text of the opinion is worth reading : http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/13a0086p-06.pdf


    A.C. et al v. Shelby County Board of Education - 6th Circuit

    April 19, 2013
    A.C. et al v. Shelby County Board of Education - 6th Circuit
    Headline: Sixth Circuit clarifies standard for prima facie cases under the ADA.

    Area of Law: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); Rehabilitation Act (Section 504).

    Issue(s) Presented: (1) Did the district court properly apply the test for a prima facie case of retaliation under the ADA and Section 504? (2) Did the district court err in finding that the plaintiffs' evidence of retaliatory intent was insufficient?

    Brief Summary: After the parents of a disabled child asked their child's school for a series of accommodations, their relationship with the school grew tense, and the school principal filed a Department of Child Services report alleging parental abuse. The district court found that the report was not retaliatory and granted summary judgment in the school district's favor. The parents appealed, arguing that summary judgment was improper because the district court applied a heightened clear-and-convincing-evidence standard and because the court had ignored substantial evidence of retaliatory intent. The Sixth Circuit agreed, reversing and remanding the case.

    Significance: This case clarifies the plaintiff's burden under the burden-shifting analysis for an ADA or Section 504 case.

    Extended Summary: When a child with Type 1 diabetes began kindergarten, her parents sought a number of accommodations for her. The school met some of their requests, but it did not meet others, and the relationship between the school and the family soured. Their relationship continued to deteriorate as the child continued through school. By her second-grade year, tensions between the school and the family boiled over, and the school principal filed a Department of Child Services report alleging that the parents were medically abusing their child. The report was found to be untrue. The parents sued the school district, alleging that the false report of abuse was a retaliatory act that violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504).

    After discovery, the school district moved for summary judgment; the district court granted the motion. The district court held that the parents failed to prove two essential elements of their prima facie case: an adverse action by the school district and a causal link between that action and the plaintiffs' protected act. In assessing the parents' prima facie case (and pretext argument), the district court required clear and convincing evidence that the principal had acted in bad faith, with a punitive or retaliatory intent. In imposing this higher burden, the district court relied largely on a state law cloaking school reports of child abuse with a presumption of good faith.

    The parents appealed, arguing that the district court improperly imposed a heightened burden of proof and that the court failed to fully consider evidence that the school district had illegally retaliated against them. The Sixth Circuit reversed.

    The Sixth Circuit explained that to establish a prima facie case of retaliation where there is no direct evidence of retaliation, a plaintiff must meet the four elements of the McDonnell burden-shifting test. The elements are (1) whether the plaintiff's act was protected under the ADA or Section 504; (2) whether the defendant was aware of the plaintiff's protected act; (3) whether the defendant's action constituted "adverse action"; and (4) whether there was a causal relationship between the plaintiff's protected act and the defendant's supposedly retaliatory action. If the plaintiff can establish a prima facie case, the defendant may rebut that by showing that there was a legitimate basis for its action. The plaintiff then has a final opportunity to prove his or her case by showing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant acted illegally.

    The Sixth Circuit disagreed with the district court's finding that the parents failed to establish a prima facie case. It rejected the district court's heightened clear-and-convincing-evidence standard, reaffirming that the proper standard is preponderance of the evidence. Under this standard, the Sixth Circuit found sufficient evidence of retaliation. The court noted that the filing of a Department of Child Services report has previously been considered an adverse action. And the Sixth Circuit indicated that the standard for a retaliatory act is quite low; it is satisfied by any act that would make a reasonable person stop pursuing a protected activity.

    The court next observed that a plaintiff can meet the causal-connection element by showing "temporal proximity" between the protected activity and the defendant's adverse action. Here, the evidence showed that the principal's report of abuse was untrue and that its timing could be seen as suspicious. Thus, according to the Sixth Circuit, the parents presented sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case, and the burden shifted to the school district.

    The Sixth Circuit believed that the school district adequately rebutted the parents' prima facie case, but it also found that the parents' proofs were sufficient to prove pretext. The court concluded that a reasonable jury could find by a preponderance of the evidence that the school district's "stated concerns about [the child's] health [when making the abuse report] were pretextual, and that the [reports] were actually motivated by the school's well-established displeasure with [the] parents and their accommodation requests." Thus, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment and remanded the case.

    Link to Full Opinion: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/13a0086p-06.pdf

    Panel: Batchelder, Keith, and Martin

    Argument: October 10, 2012

    Date of Issued Opinion: April 1, 2013

    Docket Number: 11-6506

    Decided: Reversed and remanded.

    Case Alert Author: Sarah Fuhrman

    Counsel: ARGUED: Justin S. Gilbert, Gilbert Russell McWherter, PLC, Jackson, Tennessee, for Appellants. Valerie B. Speakman, Shelby County Board of Education, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Justin S. Gilbert, Gilbert Russell McWherter, PLC, Jackson, Tennessee, for Appellants. Valerie B. Speakman, Shelby County Board of Education, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellee. Gregory C. Paul, Morgan & Paul, PLC, Sewickly, Pennsylvania, for Amicus Curiae.
    Author of Opinion: Alice M. Batchelder, Chief Judge

    Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mark Cooney

    Edited: 04/19/2013 at 12:35 PM by Mark Cooney

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 04/19/2013 12:24 PM 6th Circuit
     
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2013
  2. Beach bum

    Beach bum Approved members

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    I would like to know if the principal is still employed by the school district, and if so, were they reprimanded in away way for their behavior and accusations???
     
  3. hawkeyegirl

    hawkeyegirl Approved members

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    I bet the principal is still there. The case remains ongoing, and if the district fired or reprimanded the principal, they would be admitting that the principal did something wrong.

    Wow. What a disaster. Starting with the bitchy voicemail that was left on the parents' answering machine instead of the nurse's answering machine(!), and going right on down the line to the teacher's panic attack (or not!). It is obviously hard to say much about the credibility of the witnesses by reading a court opinion, but frankly, everyone in that school sounds partially or wholly imbalanced. And I do have to say that the fact that the little girl wore a MM CGM full-time is pretty strong evidence to me, anyway, that the parents were not medically neglecting her.

    This little girl is fortunate that she has parents who had the knowledge and means to pursue this properly. Hopefully they have found another school for her by this time. Wow.
     
  4. SandiT

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    Now, now, we have to be more understanding. That child getting diabetes was terribly inconvenient for the school. :rolleyes:


    :mad:

    Sounds to me like the ones medically neglecting the child is the school. And I am astounded that any judge would see the timing on that and still permit that heightened clear-and-convincing-evidence standard. Although, I've seen too many cases go like that. I've seen States forge evidence to gain custody of children, and other things you wouldn't believe. So I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, but somehow it never really quite seems to sink in for me, the level of corruption people are capable of.
     
  5. Beach bum

    Beach bum Approved members

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    True. Forgot that he said the case is ongoing. And of course, they wouldn't be put on admin. leave either as it still hints of wrong doing.

    It amazes me that it went this far...but then again it doesn't. Thank goodness the parents are great advocates for their child. But what about the kids who don't have advocates, parents who don't have the time due to work, language barriers, minimal education. Their loss, and that really sucks.
    My husband and I have talked about moving, but when I hear stories of this, I figure it's best to stay in place where we are since our school district has got it's act together when it comes to student's rights. We can always move when they go to college.
     
  6. LoveMyHounds

    LoveMyHounds Approved members

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    :eek: OMG! It sounds so unreal and unbelievable!
    I love our principal even more now ;).
     
  7. mamattorney

    mamattorney Approved members

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    Interesting. I wonder how the case will turn on the actual facts.

    It doesn't sound retaliatory to me.
     
  8. hawkeyegirl

    hawkeyegirl Approved members

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    Honestly, I think the principal was too freaked out and, well, dumb to be acting retaliatorily. Glad I don't have to craft that into a defense. ;)
     
  9. dzirbel

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  10. hawkeyegirl

    hawkeyegirl Approved members

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    They probably buried her somewhere else in the district. She sounds like a complete menace, who has no business working in a school.
     
  11. dzirbel

    dzirbel Approved members

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    That's what I was thinking too. Sad that taxpayer money is spent on people like this.
     
  12. mamattorney

    mamattorney Approved members

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    I disagree that the principal sounds like a menace.

    My reading between the lines says that it was just a matter of time before these parents sued the district.

    You don't lose a county health department nurse every single year as a direct result of your child because you are a pain in the a$$ advocate for your child. You lose two, potentially three nurses in three years because they fear they are going to be sued professionally or personally. People don't say "this family's just waiting for something bad to happen so they can sue" out of nowhere.

    This family complained to the office of civil rights within the first couple of weeks of school starting (my assumption - since it was still the August of her kindergarten year); the OCR worked out a "solution" with the school and the parents, giving her everything she asked for - including having the district pay for a full time nurse for her (!!!) - except testing in the classroom, but the family was relentless in the next three years asking for that additional accommodation - harassing administration and staff (???). Why even involve the poor teacher to the point that she's physically upset? What's she supposed to do? I could see something bad happening and the parents suing because "if only my child could test in the classroom, this wouldn't have happened . . ." and if they accommodated that request, they would be on to something else.

    That district knew the minute they filed that report with DCS that the lawsuit was coming. In fact, the teacher probably hyperventilated because she thought "this kid went dangerously low during my watch, am I going to be fired?" So to me, it looks like the princicpal was clearly concerned about the child's health both during the school day and during the 18 hours that the child was not in the care of the school, particularly because they had previously asked to speak to her endocrinologist - which the parents denied (which was their right). My other thought was there's the possibility that the parents have the child's target BG too narrow (causing excessive alarms) and the school wanted to talk to the endo to confirm that it would be "OK" to allow higher spikes sometimes - thereby making it easier on the school.

    Regardless, the district/principal clearly felt the benefit of filing the report outweighed the costs it knew were coming.

    Anyway, that's my armchair opinion (and we all know what they say about opinions)
     
    Last edited: Apr 29, 2013
  13. hawkeyegirl

    hawkeyegirl Approved members

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    See, I don't think any of the originally requested accommodations were unusual in the least. I assume that the nurse who was hired acted as a school nurse, and not as a private nurse for this child. Our school has a full-time nurse, which I don't think is wildly unusual. I am assuming that the OCR complaint was resolved through mediation, because the case states that the school declined to allow the in-class testing accommodation. There would be no "declining" anything if this went to a full OCR hearing, so I can only conclude that the school CHOSE to hire the nurse (which would definitely NOT be ordered by OCR as an accommodation, if it had come to that), yet dug its heels in on the no-cost, easy, in-classroom testing. That's a major red flag to me.

    If the principal and nurse were competent, that teacher would have had ZERO involvement in the child's diabetes care. (I'd also note that a health department nurse is not a school nurse, and probably had no experience with children or T1 diabetes before being stuck in the middle of this toxic situation. No wonder they all quit.)

    At one point her 1st grade teacher wanted to file a report with DCS because she saw the child with candy and cookies. Really?! And again, it is baffling to me why the classroom teachers needed to be involved to the degree they were, when there was a full-time nurse in the school.

    Given what was disclosed in the appellate opinion, the DCS report was really baseless. It was either retaliatory or just ignorant, I can't decide which. But it is telling that the principal had recently attended a seminar which informed her all of the dire things that could happen to her if she failed to disclose, and that there would be "no adverse consequences" if she filed a report that turned out to be unfounded.

    As an aside, I have come to the almost certain conclusion that one of the child's parents (I think the mom) is an attorney. Could be a close family member or friend, but I think mom is a lawyer, and that, plus the early OCR complaint (which I think was probably legit) sent this entire school into a panic. There appears to be absolutely NO foundation for the claim that the child was being abused at home, which leads me to conclude that the principal concocted this whole thing to get this kid out of her school.
     
  14. mmgirls

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  15. hawkeyegirl

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    Well, it has been brought to my attention that the family in this case is a CWD member. (And no, I won't tell anyone who it is, even if you PM me and ask really nice. ;) They deserve their privacy.) But because of that, I'll refrain from commenting on the case further other than to say that the poster's posts on here are remarkably consistent with the parents' description of facts in the case, and are very rational and clearly not seeking out a lawsuit for the fun of it.
     
  16. mamattorney

    mamattorney Approved members

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    This is in response to mmgirls post (there was another post in between that I didn't realize was there)

    I'm just saying there's possibly a more selfish motive going on here with the school then a pure interest in the child's health.

    I'm not saying I agree with it, or that it is even happening, but that it was a thought that crossed my mind when I asked myself: why would the school want to talk to the endo?
     
  17. dzirbel

    dzirbel Approved members

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    Why would the school even think it was o.k. to talk to the Endo? What happen to privacy rights. You know those papers we all sign every year at every clinic, Dr, dentist appt??
     
  18. hawkeyegirl

    hawkeyegirl Approved members

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    I really think that this school had NO experience with a child with T1, and refused to believe that the daily fluctuations that we all see on a regular basis are normal.
     
  19. bisous

    bisous Approved members

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    I just read the whole thing. It makes me sick and it makes me sad because this case is just one of hundreds, probably thousands throughout the country of individuals battling school districts, one by one, oftentimes without so many resources. The whole issue with testing in the classroom is just too familiar for words. I cannot believe how some school districts fight this one little accommodation.

    I do think some of this (maybe a large part) is ignorance. I think another part is laziness. Type 1 kids need lots of help and attention at school and some people will dig in their heels and refuse to help AND refuse to learn. I think some of this ignorance is intentional. To learn about type 1 might mean you actually have to change your ways, say that you are wrong, and do things differently. FWIW, we had our struggles last year with in classroom testing and both the health aide AND the nurse transferred so they didn't have to deal with us. (Then we ended up changing schools but too bad for them, lol.)

    I've been in now FOUR school districts within the same twenty mile radius. The way that different groups operate with the same child, the same requests is mind blowing. My experience leads me to believe that most principals, teachers and nurses want to help and are willing to do a whole lot if they know they can help a child. But there are a good amount that are resistant to doing extra work and if you have the misfortune of being the first type 1 kid to encounter these people, you have quite the fight ahead for you.

    I read the whole argument Ellen attached and I really think that the principal and staff made a decision upon first encountering this child and his/her parents and have consequently not listened, really truly listened, to anything since then. They decided the parents were irrational and "lacking in common sense" and they have colored every request, every interaction with this bias. I think in some odd way they feel justified in having made the DCS request. Honestly, more than I hope that the family wins their lawsuit, I hope that they see how foolish they've been and how much trouble they've caused for a child suffering with a chronic illness.
     
  20. Ellen

    Ellen Senior Member

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    Do you think it will go to trial, or do you think the school district will settle?
     

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