Illinois Federal District Court Again Dismisses Case for Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies under IDEA

By October 27, 2016 News No Comments

We have been following in the Extra Mile the case of Kuhner v. Highland Community Unit School District No. 5.  Most recently, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois again dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former special education student that alleged, among other things, denial of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”).

In this case, successfully defended by Stephanie Jones, Michelle Todd, and Frazier Satterly, the District and four individually-named District employees were sued by Kim Kuhner, parent and legal-guardian of student J.K. The eleven-count complaint alleged that J.K. was bullied while she attended school and the District failed to respond. Specifically, J.K. alleged that the District failed to develop a program that implemented its bullying policy, and that the failure to do so caused her to be bullied, harassed and intimidated on a continuous and daily basis.

The complaint further alleged that a District teacher personally bullied J.K. in the presence of other students, and that all of the individually-named District employees acted “willfully and wantonly” and with “reckless disregard” for J.K.’s safety when they failed to take any action to prevent the bullying. Plaintiff claimed the alleged bullying was so extreme that she was denied FAPE under the Individuals with Disabilities  Education Act (“IDEA”), and that she was entitled to damages for the District’s violation of her civil rights.

The District sought to dismiss the Complaint, arguing that J.K. failed to “exhaust her administrative remedies” under IDEA.

The Court found that the incidents of bullying occurred over a period of approximately nine months, during which time J.K. had the opportunity to take her concerns beyond the purview of the school through additional administrative avenues but failed to do so. The Court found the facts of the case more analogous to those of Charlie F. v. Bd. of Education of Skokie School District—the seminal 7th Circuit case holding that emotional issues and related services are also subject to the exhaustion requirements of IDEA. The Court granted the motion to dismiss, but allowed J.K. the opportunity to amend her complaint to specifically address those physical injuries and medical bills for which a remedy is unavailable under IDEA.  The Court further advised J.K. to complete the administrative process under IDEA for her claims regarding both emotional distress and denial of FAPE.

In her amended complaint, J.K. removed all references to her right to FAPE, substituting instead language referencing her “right to bodily integrity.” The substance of her original legal theory remained unchanged, and contrary to the Court’s express directive, J.K. failed to address her physical injuries or related medical bills. The District filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint, again arguing failure to exhaust administrative remedies under IDEA. The Court dismissed J.K.’s amended complaint with prejudice, stating that “[a] one-time physical injury may not fall within IDEA where there is no likelihood of further harm, but an on-going issue that is interfering with the emotional and physical health of a student is exactly the intent of the administrative remedies of IDEA.”

In an attempt to find another avenue of relief in state court, Plaintiff filed a motion to reconsider, requesting that the Court relinquish jurisdiction over her state law tort claims, where those claims are not subject to IDEA’s exhaustion requirement. The Court has now denied the motion, finding that Illinois does not recognize a separate willful and wanton cause of action, thus J.K. did not plead any state law tort claims.

Contact Michelle Todd, Stephanie Jones, Frazier Satterly or any of our student/special education attorneys for your IDEA or bullying policy inquiries, and how this ruling may impact your district.

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