Justia U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Education Law
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Escondido Union School District (“Escondido”) appealed the district court’s ruling that Escondido denied D.O. a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) by failing to timely assess him for autism. An administrative law judge ruled that Escondido’s delay in assessing D.O. for autism was neither a procedural violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (“IDEA”) nor a denial of a free appropriate public education, or FAPE. The district court reversed the ALJ in part, holding that Escondido’s four-month delay in assessing D.O. constituted a procedural violation of IDEA and that this procedural violation denied D.O. a FAPE by depriving him of educational benefits.   The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s summary judgment ruling. The panel concluded that Escondido’s duty to propose an assessment in an area of suspected disability was triggered on December 5, 2016, when Escondido was put on notice that D.O. might be autistic by Dr. M.D., who had completed an assessment and report. The panel concluded that Escondido’s subsequent four-month delay in proposing an autism assessment plan did not violate any California statutory deadlines or any federal statutory timeline. The panel held that Escondido’s delay did not constitute a procedural violation of IDEA because Escondido did not fail to assess D.O., and some delay in complying with IDEA’s procedural requirement is permissible. The panel held that the district court erred in determining that Escondido’s delay was due, at least in part, to the subjective skepticism of its staff. The panel also held that even if the delay were a procedural violation of FAPE, it did not deny D.O. a FAPE. View "D.O. V. ESCONDIDO UNION SCHOOL DIST." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff was a long-time teacher in the Evergreen School District #114 (District) in Vancouver, Washington. Before the 2019–2020 school year began, he attended two days of teacher training and brought with him a MAGA hat. The question, in this case, is whether the First Amendment was violated when a principal told Plaintiff he could not bring his Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat with him to teacher-only trainings on threat of disciplinary action and when the school board affirmed the denial of the teacher’s harassment complaint filed against the principal.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Defendants in Plaintiff’s 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 action. The panel first concluded that Plaintiff was engaged in speech protected by the First Amendment because the undisputed facts demonstrated that his MAGA hat conveyed a message of public concern, and he was acting as a private citizen in expressing that message. The record failed to establish, however, that the school district’s Chief Human Resource Officer, took any adverse employment action against Plaintiff, and for this reason, Plaintiff’s First Amendment retaliation claim against that defendant failed as a matter of law.   Further, any violation of Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by the principal was clearly established where longstanding precedent held that concern over the reaction to controversial or disfavored speech itself does not justify restricting such speech. For these reasons, the panel reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the principal. View "ERIC DODGE V. EVERGREEN SCHOOL DISTRICT #114, ET AL" on Justia Law

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This case concerns a public high school’s ability under the First Amendment to discipline students for assertedly “private” off-campus social media posts that, once they predictably made their way onto campus, amounted to “severe bullying or harassment targeting particular” classmates.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment rejecting First Amendment claims brought by students against Albany High School and school officials after the students were disciplined for assertedly “private” off-campus social media posts that amounted to severe bullying or harassment targeting particular classmates. The panel held that, under the circumstances of the case, the school properly disciplined two of the involved students for bullying. The court explained that some of the posts used violent imagery that, even if subjectively intended only as immature attempts at malign comedy, would reasonably be viewed as alarming, both to the students targeted in such violently-themed posts and to the school community more generally. Nothing in the First Amendment would even remotely require schools to tolerate such behavior or speech that occurred under its auspices.   The panel concluded, taking into account the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Mahoney Area Sch. Dist. v. B.L. ex rel. Levy, 141 S. Ct. 2038 (2021), that the speech bore a sufficient nexus to Albany High School and its students to be susceptible to regulation by the school. Finally, the panel concluded that the discipline did not independently violate the California Constitution or the California Education Code. Because California follows federal law for free expression claims arising in a school setting, Plaintiffs’ reliance on the California Constitution failed for the same reasons discussed above. View "KEVIN CHEN, ET AL V. ALBANY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, ET AL" on Justia Law

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The parents believe their son, D.R., should spend most of the school day being educated in a regular classroom with his non-disabled peers. School officials believed D.R. would be better served spending more of his school day in a special education classroom receiving instruction with other disabled students. As permitted under the IDEA, D.R.’s parents requested a due process hearing before the California Office of Administrative Hearings. The district agreed with the ALJ’s analysis and affirmed the decision denying relief.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s judgment affirming an administrative law judge’s decision denying relief. Reversing in part, the panel held that, given the IDEA’s strong preference for educating children with disabilities alongside their non-disabled peers, the law supported the parents’ position. The panel held that D.R.’s parents met their burden of proving that the school district’s proposed individualized education program (IEP) failed to comply with the IDEA’s requirement that children with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” alongside their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate.   Affirming in part, the panel held that D.R.’s parents were not entitled to reimbursement for the expenses they incurred after unilaterally removing their son from school and hiring a private instructor to educate him in a one-on-one setting. The panel concluded that D.R.’s parents showed that the IEP offered by the school district violated the IDEA, but they did not show that the alternative private placement they chose was proper under the Act. View "D. R. V. RBUSD" on Justia Law

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The Fellowship of Christian Athletes (“FCA”) requires students serving in leadership roles to abide by a Statement of Faith, which includes the belief that sexual relations should be limited within the context of a marriage between a man and a woman. The San Jose Unified School District (the “School District”) revoked FCA’s status as an official student club at its high schools, claiming that FCA’s religious pledge requirement violated the School District’s non-discrimination policy.   The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of a motion for a preliminary injunction sought by a derecognized student club, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and directed the district court to enter an order reinstating the Fellowship as a student club within the San Jose Unified School District.   The panel first held that FCA National had direct organizational standing and Pioneer High School FCA had representational organizational standing to seek prospective injunctive relief. The School District’s denial of Associated Student Body (“ASB”) recognition hampered FCA National’s ability to further student engagement with the Christian faith and required it to expend significant time and resources to assist its student members.   Addressing the merits, the panel first held that Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction sought to maintain the status quo that existed before the School District’s novel scrutiny of FCA—a prohibitory injunction—so the district court erred in applying the heightened standard for mandatory injunctions. The panel held that Plaintiffs would likely prevail on the merits of its selective enforcement claim under the Free Exercise Clause. View "FELLOWSHIP OF CHRISTIAN ATHLET V. SAN JOSE UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRI" on Justia Law

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In a putative class action, Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Fourteenth Amendment, and they sought declaratory and injunctive relief. The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part the district court’s dismissal of claims brought by a group of students and parents who alleged that every school district in California failed to adequately accommodate special needs students after California public schools transitioned to remote instruction in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.   The panel held that Plaintiffs lacked standing to sue school districts in which they were not enrolled and the State Special Schools, which they did not attend because they did not allege that those Defendants injured them personally. The panel held that even if the “juridical link” doctrine, provides an exception to the rule that a named plaintiff who has not been harmed by a defendant is generally an inadequate and atypical class representative for purposes of Fed. R. Civ. P. 23, ever applies outside of the Rule 23 context, it would not apply here.   The panel held that the California public schools’ return to in-person instruction mooted Plaintiffs’ claims against the California Department of Education and the State Superintendent of Public Education, as well as their claims against other defendants seeking injunctions requiring a return to in-person instruction or reassessment and services until students return to in-person instruction. The panel vacated the district court’s judgment dismissing on the merits the claims that Plaintiffs lacked standing to bring and remanded with instruction to dismiss those claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. View "DANIELLE MARTINEZ V. GAVIN NEWSOM" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff was raped by a fellow student two weeks after starting at the University of Washington. Plaintiff later learned that two other students had reported the same individual for unwanted sexual advances and contact. Plaintiff filed Title IX and common-law negligence claims against the University in the district court, which granted summary judgment to the University after finding that the University did not owe Plaintiff a duty of care. Plaintiff appealed.The Ninth Circuit certified two questions to the Washington Supreme Court:1. Does Washington law recognize a special relationship between a university and its students giving rise to a duty to use reasonable care to protect students from foreseeable injury at the hands of other students?2. If the answer to question 1 is yes, what is the measure and scope of that duty? View "MADELEINE BARLOW V. STATE OF WASHINGTON" on Justia Law

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The en banc Ninth Circuit court dismissed as moot an appeal from the district court’s summary judgment in favor of California Governor Newsom and state officials in an action brought by a group of parents and a student alleging Defendants violated federal law when they ordered schools to suspend in-person instruction in 2020 and early 2021, at a time when California was taking its first steps of navigating the Covid-19 pandemic.   The en banc court held that this was a classic case in which, due to intervening events, there was no longer a live controversy necessary for Article III jurisdiction. Nor was there any effective relief that could be granted by the court. The parents had not brought a claim for damages; they sought a declaratory judgment that Governor Newsom’s executive orders, to the extent they incorporated guidance on school reopening, were unconstitutional. Relatedly, they sought an injunction against the 2020-21 Reopening Framework. But Governor Newsom has rescinded the challenged executive orders, and the 2020-21 Reopening Framework has been revoked. Schools now operate under the 2021-22 Guidance, which declares that all schools may reopen for in-person learning. And the parents conceded that, since April 2021, there has been no “state-imposed barrier to reopening for in-person instruction.” The actual controversy has evaporated.The en banc court rejected Plaintiffs’ assertion that the case survived under two exceptions to mootness: the voluntary cessation exception and the capable of repetition yet evading review exception. Neither exception applied. View "MATTHEW BRACH V. GAVIN NEWSOM" on Justia Law

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Riley’s Farm provides historical reenactments and hosts apple picking. In 2001-2017, schools within the District took field trips to Riley’s. In 2018, Riley used his personal Twitter account to comment on controversial topics. Parents complained; a local newspaper published an article about Riley and his postings. The District severed the business relationship. In a 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit alleging retaliation for protected speech, the district court granted the District defendants summary judgment.The Ninth Circuit reversed as to injunctive relief but affirmed as to damages. Riley made a prima facie case of retaliation; he engaged in expressive conduct, some of the District defendants took an adverse action that caused Riley to lose a valuable government benefit, and those defendants were motivated by Riley’s expressive conduct. There was sufficient evidence that Board members had the requisite mental state to be liable for damages. The defendants failed to establish that the District’s asserted interests in preventing disruption to their operations and curricular design because of parental complaints outweighed Riley’s free speech interests. Even assuming that the selection of a field trip venue was protected government speech, the pedagogical concerns underlying the government-speech doctrine did not apply because Riley was not speaking for the District. Nonetheless, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on the damages claim. There was no case directly on point that would have clearly established that the defendants’ reaction to parental complaints and media attention was unconstitutional. View "Riley’s American Heritage Farms v. Elsasser" on Justia Law

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The "borrower defense" cancellation of federal student loans is allowed in certain cases of school misconduct, 20 U.S.C. 1087e(h). After DeVos became the Secretary of the Department of Education, the Department used a new methodology to decide borrower defense claims. The Department was preliminarily enjoined from using that methodology. From June 2018-December 2019, the Department issued no borrower defense decisions. Individuals with pending applications sued. The parties negotiated a proposed settlement that included an 18-month deadline to resolve outstanding claims. Before the class fairness hearing, the Department sent out form letters denying borrower defense applications at a rate of 89.8%. The district court denied final approval of the settlement and ordered updated written discovery. Plaintiffs took four depositions of Department officials and received about 2,500 documents. In 2021, after DeVos resigned as secretary, the district court authorized class counsel to take her deposition. Plaintiffs then served a subpoena for a nonparty deposition on DeVos under FRCP 45.The Ninth Circuit quashed the subpoena. Compelling the testimony of a cabinet secretary about the actions she took as a leader in the executive branch is allowable only in extraordinary circumstances. The party seeking the deposition must demonstrate agency bad faith and that the information sought from the secretary is essential to the case and cannot be obtained in any other way. There was no indication that DeVos held information that was essential to the case or that it was otherwise unobtainable. View "In re: United States Department of Education" on Justia Law