Travis Unified School District v. Bell et al

Filing 27

ORDER signed by Senior Judge William B. Shubb on 7/28/2017 GRANTING 8 Motion to Dismiss; DISMISSING the plaintiff's second and third causes of action with prejudice; DENYING 12 Motion to Strike as moot. (Michel, G.)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 9 EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 10 ----oo0oo---11 12 TRAVIS UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, Civ. No. 2:17-0808 WBS AC 13 MEMORANDUM AND ORDER RE: MOTION FOR PARTIAL DISMISSAL AND SPECIAL MOTION TO STRIKE IN PART Plaintiff, 14 v. 15 16 DONALD BELL and DEBRA BELL, individually and as parents on behalf of C.B., a minor, 17 Defendants. 18 19 ----oo0oo---- 20 Plaintiff Travis Unified School District brought this 21 22 action against defendants Donald and Debra Bell, alleging that 23 defendants breached an agreement the parties had entered into for 24 the provision of special education services to defendants’ son, 25 C.B. 26 Motion to dismiss and special Motion to strike two of the three 27 causes of action alleged by plaintiff in this action. 28 Mot. (Docket No. 8); Defs.’ Special Mot. (Docket No. 12).) (Compl. (Docket No. 1).) Before the court are defendants’ 1 (Defs.’ 1 I. Factual and Procedural Background 2 C.B. is a student at Vanden High School, a public high 3 school supervised by plaintiff. 4 from type 1 neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that impacts 5 his brain development and causes him to experience learning 6 difficulties. 7 services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 8 (“IDEA”). 9 (Id.) (See Compl. ¶ 2.) He suffers He is eligible for special education (Id. ¶ 16.) Since the end of the 2014-2015 school year, plaintiff 10 and defendants have disputed whether the specialized reading and 11 writing classes offered by plaintiff to C.B. satisfy the free 12 appropriate public education (“FAPE”) standard set forth in the 13 IDEA.1 14 such classes do not satisfy the FAPE standard, and the most 15 appropriate way to address C.B.’s reading and writing 16 deficiencies is to have C.B. receive private reading and writing 17 lessons in lieu of the classes. 18 the position that the classes do satisfy the FAPE standard, and 19 private lessons are not necessary. 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 (See id. ¶ 3.) Defendants have taken the position that (See id.) Plaintiff has taken (See id. ¶ 4.) In July 2015, defendants filed a complaint with the 1 “The IDEA requires that all states receiving federal funds for education . . . provide disabled school children with a FAPE.” Covington v. Yuba City Unified Sch. Dist., 780 F. Supp. 2d 1014, 1020 (E.D. Cal. 2011) (England, J.) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A)). An education is a FAPE only if it is “tailored to the [student’s] unique needs” and “reasonably calculated to provide the student with some educational benefit.” Id. (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1401(9)). Where a school district fails to provide a disabled student a FAPE, the student’s parents “may unilaterally remove [him] from the public school, place him . . . in another educational institution, and seek tuition reimbursement for the cost of the alternate placement.” Id. (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10)(C)). 2 1 California Office of Administrative Hearings (“OAH”), challenging 2 the adequacy of plaintiff’s reading and writing classes under the 3 FAPE standard. 4 a settlement agreement wherein plaintiff agreed to fund C.B.’s 5 private reading and writing lessons and allow C.B. to miss the 6 first two periods of school to receive such lessons for the first 7 half of the 2015-2016 school year. 8 (Id. ¶ 3.) In October 2015, the parties reached (See id.) In January 2016, the parties convened an individualized 9 education program (“IEP”) meeting, at which plaintiff informed 10 defendants that it would not be consenting to the October 2015 11 arrangement going forward. 12 a new OAH complaint. 13 (See id. ¶ 4.) Defendants then filed (Id.) In March 2016, the parties reached another settlement 14 agreement wherein, in exchange for defendants’ agreement to drop 15 the pending OAH complaint and waive all compensatory education 16 claims against plaintiff for the 2015-2016 school year, plaintiff 17 agreed to extend the October 2015 arrangement to the second half 18 of the 2015-2016 school year and reimburse a portion of the 19 attorneys’ fees incurred by defendants in bringing their OAH 20 actions. 21 2); Pl.’s Opp’n to Defs.’ Special Mot. at 3-4, 16 (Docket No. 22 14).) 23 following clause (“‘stay put’ clause”): “Should the Parties 24 disagree with the next annual placement and services offered for 25 [C.B.] at the IEP meeting that will be held on or before May 18, 26 2016, the Parties agree that [C.B.’s] ‘stay put’ placement and 27 program will be a full-time district program at Vanden High 28 School with the same amount of services and goals as identified (See Compl. Ex. B., March 2016 Agreement (Docket No. 1- The March 2016 settlement agreement contained the 3 1 [at the] January 14, 2016 IEP [meeting. 2 placement will not include any outside, private instructional 3 services arranged for [C.B.] by [defendants].” 4 Agreement ¶ 2(I).) 5 The] ‘stay put’ (March 2016 The parties convened an IEP meeting on May 17, 2016. 6 (Compl. ¶ 6.) 7 level of placement and services it offered him at the January 8 2016 meeting, which did not include private reading and writing 9 lessons. 10 5.) At the meeting, plaintiff offered C.B. the same (See id. ¶ 7; Pl.’s Opp’n to Defs.’ Special Mot. at 4- Defendants declined to accept that offer. 11 (Compl. ¶ 7.) Defendants thereafter filed a third OAH complaint, 12 challenging the adequacy of plaintiff’s May 2016 offer under the 13 FAPE standard and demanding for C.B. an arrangement similar to 14 the October 2015 arrangement for the 2016-2017 school year. 15 id.; Pl.’s Opp’n to Defs.’ Special Mot. at 5-6.) 16 notified plaintiff that they intended to unilaterally continue 17 C.B.’s private lessons during the 2016-2017 school year and would 18 be seeking reimbursement for such lessons from plaintiff via 19 their OAH action. 20 Mot. at 5.) 21 (See Defendants (Compl. ¶ 7; Pl.’s Opp’n to Defs.’ Special About three weeks into the 2016-2017 school year, 22 defendants began to pull C.B. out of the first two periods of 23 school to attend private reading and writing lessons. 24 11-12.) 25 reading and writing education plaintiff offered to C.B. at the 26 May 2016 IEP meeting to be inadequate under the FAPE standard and 27 ordering plaintiff to reimburse defendants for private reading 28 and writing lessons provided to C.B. until it makes a (Compl. ¶¶ In January 2017, the OAH issued a decision finding the 4 1 satisfactory offer of reading and writing education to C.B.2 2 (See id. ¶ 13; Compl. Ex. A, OAH Decision at 21-24 (Docket No. 1- 3 1).) 4 since the decision. Plaintiff has not made a new offer of education to C.B. (See Compl. ¶ 13.) 5 Plaintiff filed this action in April 2017. 6 It brings three causes of action against defendants: (1) appeal 7 of the OAH’s January 2017 decision, 20 U.S.C. § 1415; (2) breach 8 of contract; and (3) declaratory relief. 9 Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim alleges that defendants (Compl.) (Id. at 8, 12, 15.) 10 breached the “stay put” clause by unilaterally removing C.B. from 11 school to attend private reading and writing lessons during the 12 2016-2017 school year and seeking reimbursement for such lessons. 13 (Id. ¶ 32.) 14 declaration from the court that under the “stay put” clause, 15 defendants may not remove C.B. from school to attend private 16 reading and writing lessons during the pendency of the parties’ 17 dispute over his education or seek reimbursement for such 18 lessons. 19 19, 25.) 20 Plaintiff’s declaratory relief claim seeks a (See id. ¶ 41; Pl.’s Opp’n to Defs.’ Special Mot. at Defendants now move to dismiss plaintiff’s breach of 21 contract and declaratory relief claims pursuant to Federal Rule 22 of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) based on the contention that the 23 “stay put” clause does not prohibit them from removing C.B. from 24 school to attend private reading and writing lessons during the 25 pendency of the parties’ dispute or seeking reimbursement for 26 27 28 2 Plaintiff alleges that it raised, and the presiding ALJ refused to enforce, the “stay put” clause. (See Compl. ¶ 14.) 5 1 such lessons.3 2 II. (See Defs.’ Mot. at 4-5.) Discussion 3 On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the inquiry before the court 4 is whether, accepting the allegations in the complaint as true 5 and drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff’s favor, 6 the plaintiff has stated a claim to relief that is plausible on 7 its face. 8 Navarro v. Block, 250 F.3d 729, 732 (9th Cir. 2001). 9 tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); “[T]he 10 contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” 11 Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 67. 12 Agreements settling IDEA disputes between parents and 13 school districts are recognized as contracts. 14 Marchese v. Drycreek Joint Elementary Sch. Dist., CIV NO. 2:10- 15 0944 GEB, 2012 WL 3913403, at *26 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 7, 2012) 16 (enforcing agreement settling IDEA dispute between parents and 17 school district); Pedraza v. Alameda Unified Sch. Dist., No. 05- 18 4977 CW, 2011 WL 4507111, at *13 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 29, 2011) 19 (same); cf. T.B. ex rel. Brenneise v. San Diego Unified Sch. 20 Dist., 806 F.3d 451, 482 (9th Cir. 2015) (“[P]ublic policy 21 plainly favors upholding the [IDEA] settlement agreement entered 22 between [the minor’s] parents and the [school] Board.”). 23 interpreting such agreements, courts have applied the contract 24 law of the state in which the school district is located. 25 Marchese, 2012 WL 3913403, at *24 (applying California contract 26 27 28 3 See G.M. ex rel. In See Defendants also move to strike plaintiff’s breach of contract and declaratory relief claims pursuant to California’s Anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation statute, Cal. Civ. Code § 425.16. (Defs.’ Special Mot.) 6 1 law in interpreting IDEA settlement agreement involving 2 California school district); Pedraza, 2011 WL 4507111, at *10 3 (same). 4 Under California law, a “contract must be so 5 interpreted as to give effect to the mutual intention of the 6 parties as it existed at the time of contracting.” 7 Code § 1636. 8 from the written provisions of the contract.” 9 Inc. v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 40 Cal. 4th 19, 27 (2006). Cal. Civ. “Such intent is to be inferred, if possible, solely TRB Investments, “The 10 clear and explicit meaning of these provisions, interpreted in 11 their ordinary and popular sense, unless used by the parties in a 12 technical sense or a special meaning is given to them by usage, 13 controls judicial interpretation.” 14 Code sections 1638 and 1644). 15 contractual provision at issue “does not turn on the credibility 16 of extrinsic evidence, interpretation is a question of law, and 17 [the court] independently determine[s] the [provision’s] 18 meaning.”4 19 (citing Parsons v. Bristol Dev. Co., 62 Cal. 2d 861, 865-66 20 (1965)). 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 Id. (citing California Civil Where, as here, the meaning of the People v. Doolin, 45 Cal. 4th 390, 413 n.17 (2009) The contractual language at issue here--that “[s]hould 4 Plaintiff and defendants raise a number of factual disputes as to what the other sides subjectively believed at the time of the March 2016 settlement agreement. (See Defs.’ Reply in Supp. of Special Mot. at 6-7 (Docket No. 17); Pl.’s Sur-Reply in Opp’n to Defs.’ Special Mot. at 3-4 (Docket No. 20-1).) Such disputes are not material to interpretation of the agreement. See Iqbal v. Ziadeh, 10 Cal. App. 5th 1, 8 (3d Dist. 2017) (“California recognizes the objective theory of contracts under which it is the objective intent, as evidenced by the words of the contract, rather than the subject intent of one of the parties, that controls interpretation.”). 7 1 the Parties disagree with [C.B.’s 2016-2017] placement . . . the 2 Parties agree that [C.B.’s] ‘stay put’ placement and program will 3 be a full-time district program at Vanden High School . . . [and] 4 will not include any outside, private instructional services”-- 5 does not expressly prohibit defendants from removing C.B. from 6 school to attend private lessons during the pendency of their 7 dispute with plaintiff or seeking reimbursement for such lessons. 8 The words “stay put” are not defined in the March 2016 settlement 9 agreement. 10 Plaintiff contends that “stay put” is an adjective used 11 to identify the only education C.B. is permitted to receive 12 during the pendency of the parties’ dispute. 13 Defs.’ Special Mot. at 26.) 14 that C.B.’s “stay put” education is a full-time placement at 15 Vanden High School with no private lessons, it impliedly 16 prohibits defendants from taking C.B. out of school for private 17 lessons during the pendency of the parties’ dispute and seeking 18 reimbursement for such lessons, according to plaintiff. 19 at 12, 28.) (See Pl.’s Opp’n to Because the “stay put” clause states (See id. 20 Defendants, on the other hand, contend that “stay put” 21 is a term of art used to reference 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j) (“section 22 1415(j)”). 23 [an administrative challenge to an offer of education], unless 24 the State or local educational agency and the parents otherwise 25 agree, the child shall remain in [his] then-current educational 26 placement.” 27 of Educ. of Mass., 471 U.S. 359 (1985), the Supreme Court held Section 1415(j) provides: “[D]uring the pendency of In Sch. Comm. of Town of Burlington, Mass. v. Dep’t 28 8 1 that parents who violate section 1415(j)5 by unilaterally taking 2 their child out of school during the pendency of an 3 administrative challenge to the child’s offer of education are 4 not barred from seeking reimbursement for their alternative 5 placement of the child from the school. 6 Contending that the “stay put” clause is coextensive with section 7 1415(j) and citing Burlington, defendants contend that the “stay 8 put” clause does not bar them from taking C.B. out of school 9 during their dispute with plaintiff and seeking reimbursement of 10 C.B.’s private lessons from plaintiff. 11 See id. at 371-74. (See Defs.’ Mot. at 5-6.) Both plaintiff’s interpretation and defendants’ 12 interpretation of the “stay put” clause require the court to read 13 into the agreement much more than is there. 14 plaintiff contends that its definition of “stay put” comports 15 with the ordinary meaning of those words, plaintiff offers no 16 explanation for why those words are put in quotes, which suggests 17 that they may have a technical or specialized meaning different 18 from the meaning plaintiff offers. 19 adopt plaintiff’s definition of “stay put,” there would be a 20 question as to what prohibitions, if any, the “stay put” clause 21 imposes against defendants, as the clause does not expressly 22 mention any actions defendants are prohibited from taking.6 To the extent Even if the court were to 23 5 Section 1415(j) was then 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(3). 24 6 25 26 27 28 Plaintiff asks the court to consider defendants’ postMay 2016 behavior in interpreting the “stay put” clause. (See Pl.’s Opp’n to Defs.’ Special Mot. at 30-32.) It notes that after the May 2016 IEP meeting, defendants appeared to waver between conceding to the education referred to in the “stay put” clause and continuing to have C.B. take private lessons. (See id. at 5-10.) Defendants sent conflicting written notices to 9 1 It is far from clear that the term “stay put” in the 2 agreement, as defendant contends, refers to the provisions of 3 section 1414(j). 4 mentioned. 5 put.”7 6 that “stay put” is a reference to section 1415(j) and the “stay 7 put” clause is coextensive with that statute, it is unclear how 8 Burlington’s interpretation of section 1415(j) would affect the 9 outcome of plaintiff’s breach of contract and declaratory relief Nowhere in the agreement is section 1415(j) Section 1415(j) itself does not use the words “stay Even if the court were to accept defendants’ contentions 10 claims. 11 consequences for taking their children out of school during 12 administrative challenges, as defendants suggest, and expressly 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 plaintiff as to their plans for C.B. for the 2016-2017 school year, and had C.B. attend full days of school for the first three weeks of the school year. (See Compl. ¶¶ 7-12.) Defendants’ wavering suggests that they understood the “stay put” clause to set forth the prohibitions plaintiff contends it sets forth, according to plaintiff. That defendants wavered as to their plans for C.B. after the May 2016 IEP meeting does not necessarily indicate that they agreed with plaintiff’s interpretation of the “stay put” clause. It may have been that defendants wavered because they were open to trying the full-time school placement to see how it would work for C.B. or wary that plaintiff would bring action to enforce obligations they never believed they owed under the “stay put” clause. Particularly revealing is the fact that defendants’ first written notice to plaintiff after the May 2016 IEP meeting was a notice of unilateral placement in private instruction for C.B., sent on July 7, 2016. (See id. ¶ 7.) It was only after plaintiff responded to that notice with threat of legal action that defendants began to waver as to their initial position. (See id. ¶ 8.) For these reasons, the court finds plaintiff’s ‘wavering’ argument to be unpersuasive. 7 26 27 28 Burlington did not exonerate parents from all In Johnson ex rel. Johnson v. Special Educ. Hearing Office, State of Cal., 287 F.3d 1176 (9th Cir. 2002), the Ninth Circuit noted that section 1415(j) is “commonly referred to as the ‘stay put’ provision.” Id. at 1179. That case is not cited in the March 2016 settlement agreement, however. 10 1 referred to the act of taking one’s child out of school in 2 contravention of section 1415(j) as a “violation” of that 3 statute. 4 See Burlington, 471 U.S. at 372-74. On balance, the court finds the “stay put” clause too 5 vague to be enforceable. The clause does not define “stay put” 6 with sufficient clarity. Even if the court were to adopt 7 plaintiff’s or defendants’ interpretation of “stay put,” neither 8 interpretation would resolve plaintiff’s breach of contract and 9 declaratory relief claims, as explained above. Because the “stay 10 put” clause is “so uncertain and indefinite that the intention of 11 the parties [as to the] material particulars [of the clause] 12 cannot be ascertained,” the clause is simply unenforceable. 13 Ladas v. California State Auto. Assn., 19 Cal. App. 4th 761, 770 14 (1st Dist. 1993) (“Where a contract is so uncertain and 15 indefinite that the intention of the parties in material 16 particulars cannot be ascertained, the contract is void and 17 unenforceable.” (citing California Lettuce Growers v. Union Sugar 18 Co., 45 Cal. 2d 474, 481 (1955) and California Civil Code section 19 1598)); Moncada v. W. Coast Quartz Corp., 221 Cal. App. 4th 768, 20 777 (6th Dist. 2013) (same). 21 See IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that defendants’ Motion to 22 dismiss plaintiff’s second and third causes of action be, and the 23 same hereby is, GRANTED. 24 action are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. 25 Plaintiff’s second and third causes of Defendants’ special Motion to strike plaintiff’s second 26 and third causes of action is DENIED AS MOOT. 27 Dated: July 28, 2017 28 11

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