School district, psychologist win partial motions to dismiss in special ed discrimination suit

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A northern Indiana school district and its contract psychologist have secured partial victories in a lawsuit brought by the mother of a child with special needs who alleged her child was not given proper educational services.

Judge Philip Simon of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana on Friday granted partial motions to dismiss in favor of the School City of Hammond, psychologist Julie Steck, Ph.D., and her company, Children’s Resource Group. The defendants are being sued by Robin Cooper, the mother of high school sophomore M.D. who has been diagnosed with ADHD and a learning disability.

Cooper’s complaint dates back to the 2019-2020 school year, when M.D. reenrolled in the Hammond school district after moving back from Ohio. He was given an individualized education plan to accommodate his disabilities, but Cooper did not receive a copy of the plan until October 2019.

Meanwhile, M.D.’s teacher, who was a licensed special education teacher, went on medical leave in October 2019. The substitute was not licensed in special education.

Then in the summer of 2020, at the school’s request, M.D.’s educational needs were reevaluated. The school contracted with Steck and Children’s Resource Group to perform the evaluation, which was described to Cooper as an independent education evaluation.

However, Steck later testified as a litigation witness for the school and said the evaluation was not an IEE, as she told Cooper.

Ultimately, M.D. was recommended for continued special education services.

Cooper then sought a due process hearing at the Department of Education, where Steck admitted to failing to disclose her conflict of interest to Cooper. A hearing officer ultimately found M.D. had been deprived of a free and appropriate education, but a remedy of compensatory education wasn’t necessary.

Cooper then took her case to the Indiana Northern District Court, alleging violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Steck and her company moved for dismissal of the IDEA claim, but Simon denied that motion as moot because Cooper indicated she was only pursuing an IDEA claim against the school. However, the judge granted Steck’s motion to dismiss the ADA claim, finding no discrimination based on M.D.’s disability.

“Here, Cooper has a beef with how the evaluation was completed and, largely, the fact that Dr. Steck failed to disclose that she would become a litigation expert for the School rather than continuing in her role as an Independent Educational Evaluator,” Simon wrote. “But I don’t see how this claim fits under the rubric of recovery under either the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act. No causal link has been alleged between this claim about Dr. Steck’s behavior and any supposed discrimination against M.D. that he suffered as a result of his disability.”

The ADA claim was dismissed without prejudice to give Cooper the opportunity to file an amended complaint, if desired, by Oct. 29.

For its part, the school moved for partial dismissal of the IDEA claim as it related to the allegation that M.D. was not provided with a properly licensed teacher. It argued federal law does not provide a private right of action on that issue, and the district court agreed, granting the partial motion to dismiss.

“In response, Cooper oddly cites several provisions from the No Child Left Behind law, which was repealed … . I really don’t understand the significance of these repealed provisions,” Simon wrote. “Additionally, Plaintiff also cites case law for the proposition that when a student is deprived of a properly licensed teacher, that can result in the denial of a free and appropriate education. But all of the cases she cites are from administrative hearings which may be governed by different rules and remedies.

“What is clear is that she has no federal cause of action under the applicable statutes both of which plainly state that there is no private right of action for alleged failure to comply with teacher qualifications,” he continued. “While Plaintiffs may file a complaint with the IDOE, there is no private right of action in federal court.”

All other claims against the school remain pending.

The case is Robin Cooper v. School City of Hammond, et al., 2:21-cv-72.

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