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September 2017 Court Report

19-Sep-2017

Read the September 2017 issue of Court Report, which includes such topics as addressing tolling of Title VII claims, attorneys fees in IDEA cases and public disclosure of emails.

 Click the case names to read the complete opinions. This newsletter is an ACSBA member benefit.

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September 2017 COURT REPORT

 

Eleventh Circuit

Stamper v. Duval County School Board, 863 F.3d 1336 (11th Cir. Jul. 18, 2017)

In this case, the employee filed an EEOC charge against the school board. The EEOC ultimately dismissed her charge and issued a right to sue notice, but she did not file suit within the 90-day time period allowed. Two years later, the employee asked the EEOC to reconsider its decision. It did so under a regulation that permits it to reconsider a dismissal and she was ultimately issued a new right to sue. At that time, more than three years after she received her first right to sue, she filed her federal lawsuit. The trial court dismissed the complaint because it was not filed within 90 days of her first right to sue notice. The employee appealed.

The Court first considered whether the second right to sue revived the 90-day limitations period triggered by the first right to sue. The Court noted that 29 C.F.R. §1601.19(b) allows the EEOC to reconsider the dismissal of a charge under certain circumstances. The EEOC can reconsider a dismissal if it does so within 90 days of issuing the original right to sue notice as long as the employee has not yet filed suit. If the EEOC decides to reconsider a charge under these circumstances, the employee’s original right to sue is revoked and they cannot file suit until a new decision is reached. Once a new decision and right to sue is issued, the employee has 90 days to file a federal lawsuit. Here, the employee’s right to sue was never revoked. Therefore, the EEOC had no authority to reconsider its decision and issue a new right to sue.

The Court then considered whether the employee’s psychiatric difficulties tolled her limitations period. The employee claimed that she suffered from catatonic schizophrenia which prevented her from timely filing her lawsuit. The Court recognized that the 90-day statute of limitations is not jurisdictional and can be subject to equitable tolling or delay when the failure to file is based on extraordinary circumstances that are out of the employee’s control. Mental incompetence can sometimes warrant tolling if the employee can show a connection between the mental condition and their failure to file the lawsuit on time. The Court found that, despite her mental illness, the employee timely contacted an attorney and cashed her disability checks and that her medical records indicated that she was alert, happy and oriented. In light of these facts, the employee failed to establish that her failure to file her lawsuit should be excused. Accordingly, the Court found in favor of the school board.

IDEA - Attorneys’ Fees

Jefferson County Board of Education v. Bryan M., --Fed.Appx.--, 2017 WL 3446881 (11th Cir. Aug. 11, 2017)

In this case, parents filed a due process complaint against the board regarding placement of their child. While the complaint was pending, the parents withdrew the child from the school system and enrolled him in a private school. Two months later, the hearing officer ruled in the parents’ favor on some claims and ordered training and other relief relating to the IEP team’s work and the child’s placement in the system. The board complied with the training requirement and held the IEP meeting as ordered, but the child was not reenrolled in the school system. The board subsequently filed a federal lawsuit challenging the hearing officer’s decision. The parents counterclaimed and sought attorneys’ fees among other relief. The trial court found that the bulk of the challenges were moot because the board had already satisfied much of the order and the student was no longer enrolled in the system. The trial court also determined that the parents were “prevailing parties” and ordered attorneys’ fees be paid to them. The board appealed.

The Court first considered whether the trial court correctly found much of the hearing officer’s order moot. The Court found that because it could not “untrain staff members or undevelop an IEP”, there was no relief it could order that would provide relief to the board. Accordingly, the trial court correctly held that the board’s appeal was moot. Likewise, because the parents withdrew the child from the system and did not intend to return, their counterclaim was moot.

Nevertheless, the Court did agree that the parents were the “prevailing parties” in the hearing officer’s order, and therefore, were entitled to attorneys’ fees. To be considered the “prevailing party”, the plaintiff must receive “some relief on the merits of his claim.” The board argued that the due process proceedings were mooted before the hearing officer ruled because they withdrew the child, but the Court disagreed noting that parents can remove their child while the due process is pending if they believe the placement violates the IDEA. Therefore, the Court determined that the parents can still be the “prevailing party” even though the appeal was rendered moot. Accordingly, the Court upheld the trial court’s order regarding attorneys’ fees in favor of the parents.

Attorney General’s Opinions

A.G. Op. 2017-041 (Jul. 17, 2017)

The State Board of Education approved a resolution to intervene in a local district pursuant to the Educational Accountability and Intervention Act of 2013. Ala. Code §16-6E-1, et seq. After some disputes between the state superintendent and state board regarding the intervention, the state superintendent sought clarification regarding the extent of his authority to make decisions during the intervention. The opinion noted that the Act limits the state board’s authority in interventions to authorizing the intervention, receiving status reports at least every six months and authorizing release from the intervention. Beyond those duties, the state superintendent has “plenary authority” (defined as full or complete authority) to control the intervention as evidenced by the Act’s plain language, including its statement of legislative intent. Accordingly, his decisions are not subject to state board approval.

A.G. Op. 2017-036 (Jun. 20, 2017)

While this opinion does not directly address an educational issue, it does inform a common question that boards of education face. This opinion addressed whether documents on potential actions are subject to public disclosure, whether they are shared internally or externally. Specifically, the agency asked about emails, draft rules, draft legislation and other draft documents which had not been finalized by the agency.

Multiple opinions have held that only finalized documents are subject to disclosure, while preliminary discussions, proposals and recommendations are considered the private thought process of the individual. One opinion specifically determined that internal emails regarding potential actions were not considered public. A.G. Op. 2010-050. Here, the Attorney General held that preliminary documents of this nature can be treated as private even if they are shared externally.

 

-Jayne Harrell Williams

Jayne is General Counsel &

Director of Legal Advocacy for the

Alabama Association of School Boards