COA affirms dismissal of COVID-19 lawsuit by Granger parents against local school corporation, health department

A pair of Northern Indiana parents did not present a legal cause of action in a lawsuit filed against their local health department and children’s school corporation regarding decisions to conduct virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has ruled.

The COA affirmed Friday the dismissal of Jennifer and Jason Reinoehl’s suit against the St. Joseph County Health Department, Dr. Robert M. Einterz, Dr. Mark D. Fox, and Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation.

The Reinoehls, of Granger, have two children diagnosed with ADHD and depression; one of which also has anxiety. The students have a Section 504 Plan that provides them accommodations at school to their physical environment for learning, including sitting at the front of the classroom, being away from main traffic areas and being free from distractions.

When the children began their 2020-2021 school year receiving virtual instruction, as recommended by the local health department and implemented by the school corporation due to COVID-19 concerns, the Reinoehls demanded their kids be permitted to attend school in person.

Although students eventually learned under a hybrid format of both e-learning and in-person instruction, rising COVID-19 cases in the community prompted the school corporation to move to 100% virtual learning between Nov. 23, 2020 and Jan. 15, 2021, with a plan to return fully to the classroom by April 2021.

The Reinoehls sued days after the announcement, alleging multiple counts against the school system and state and local governments. In an amended complaint, they sought damages and declaratory and injunctive relief, challenging the health department’s recommendations regarding closure of schools and the school corporation’s decision to follow those recommendations.

However, the St. Joseph Circuit Court subsequently granted the defendants motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(6).

Despite sympathizing with the Reinoehls’ struggles, it concluded that no matter how well stated the parents’ amended complaint was in relation to the hardships endured by both them and their children, “that is different and distinct from stating an actionable, legal cause of action against Defendants Einterz, Fox, St. Joseph County Health Department, and Penn Harris Madison School Corporation.”

The COA affirmed in Jennifer Reinoehl and Jason Reinoehl v. St. Joseph County Health Department, Dr. Robert M. Einterz, Dr. Mark D. Fox, and Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation, 21A-CT-433.

The appellate court concluded that the trial court properly dismissed the Reinoehls’ failure to accommodate claim, which included an alleged violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004.

It also found that the Reinoehls sought accommodations unique to the classroom setting and were therefore required to exhaust their administrative remedies prior to filing suit, which they did not.

The COA found the trial court correctly determined that Reinoehls failed to allege facts showing that the defendants’ actions amounted to a violation of Indiana Code section 35-1-3-8(a)(7) of the Home Rule Act. It further concluded the trial court did not err in dismissing their arguments that the health department violated Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Executive Order 20-02 in finding that the Reinoehls did not allege a cognizable property or liberty interest that was affected by the health department’s recommendations and the school corporation’s decision to follow them.

On the Reinoehls’ substantive due process claim, the COA agreed with the holding in Borishkevich v. Sprinfield Pub. Schs. Bd. of Educ., — F. Supp. 3d —, 2021 WL 2213237 at *6-*7 (W.D. Mo. May 27, 2021), stating that with respect to a parental substantive due process challenge to a school district’s decision related to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents “do not have a constitutional right to control each and every aspect of their children’s education and oust the state’s authority over the subject.”

It found the Reinoehls’ equal protection claim to be waived, but noted that waiver notwithstanding their equal protection claims failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

As for the claims against Einterz and Fox in their individual capacities as health officers, the COA found the officers’ recommendations to schools within their county regarding in-person learning during the global COVID-19 pandemic fall squarely within the scope of their employment.

It also found the Reinoehls did not plead facts showing that the health officers failed to cooperate with the Indiana State Department of Health or that the ISDH issued guidance about in-person instruction which the health officers’ recommendations violated.

Finally, the COA concluded that the trial court did not err in dismissing the Reinoehls’ request for a jury trial or in dismissing their amended complaint without first giving them the opportunity to file a second amended complaint.

“The court acted with fairness and compassion to the parties,” Senior Judge John Baker wrote. “Indeed, we find the court’s handling of this matter to be a model of empathy to the plights of the litigants before it while impartially applying the law to the facts before it. We commend the court for its efforts.”

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