Justia U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Education Law
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D.T.’s parents, concerned that their son, who has autism, was not getting an appropriate education in the Tennessee schools, removed him from public school and placed him in a private therapy program, where he improved. They were convicted of truancy. To avoid further prosecution. they enrolled D.T. in a state-approved private school and a private therapy program. To have the option of removing him from school again in the future, they sought a preliminary injunction to keep the state from charging them with truancy. They argued they had the right to remove D.T. from school because federal disability law preempts state educational requirements. The district court found that D.T.’s parents had not yet suffered an immediate and irreparable injury. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. The hypothetical threat of prosecution is not an “immediate,” “irreparable” injury that warrants the “extraordinary remedy” of a preliminary injunction. View "D.T. v. Sumner County Schools" on Justia Law

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Speech challenged University of Michigan policies prohibiting,“[h]arassing or bullying another person—physically, verbally, or through other means.” The office that investigates alleged violations defined terms on its website, using state law, University policies, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Speech challenged only the Dictionary definitions: Harassing: to annoy persistently; to create an unpleasant or hostile situation for, especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal and physical conduct. Bullying: to frighten, hurt, or threaten ...; to act like a bully ...; to cause (someone) to do something by making threats or insults or by using force; to treat abusively; to affect by means of force or coercion. After this lawsuit was filed, the University removed those definitions, leaving only the unchallenged state law definitions. Speech also challenged the Bias Response Team, which responds to student-reported “bias incidents,” defined as “conduct that discriminates, stereotypes, excludes, harasses or harms anyone in our community based on their identity (such as race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, age, or religion).” Causing a bias incident is not, itself, punishable. The Team does not determine whether reported conduct is a bias incident but offers support to the individual who made the report; it may request a voluntary meeting with the subject of the report. The Team cannot compel a meeting and has no direct punitive authority but can make reports to other bodies. The district court denied a preliminary injunction. The Sixth Circuit vacated. Speech has standing to bring its facial challenge because its members face an objective chill: the referral power and the invitation to meet. the University has not established that its voluntary change makes it “absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.” View "Speech First, Inc. v. Schlissel" on Justia Law

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Endres has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; since age six, Endres has taken medication to treat that condition, beginning with Ritalin. Endres began medical school at Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED). Endres passed 14 required classes during his first year at NEOMED, but having stopped taking Ritalin because of side effects, Endres failed one class. NEOMED made Endres repeat the entire first-year curriculum including the classes he had passed. During a test in a class he had already passed, Endres appeared to shift his eyes repeatedly toward another student’s laptop. NEOMED dismissed Endres for cheating. Endres sued, citing procedural due process violations, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The district court dismissed Endres’s complaint as untimely, stating that even if Endres’s due process claim were timely, the NEOMED official is entitled to qualified immunity. The Sixth Circuit reversed, finding the case timely. The statute of limitations did not start until Endres learned that a second panel issued a final, non-appealable decision recommending his dismissal. Endres alleged facts which, taken as true, establish several violations of his procedural due process rights. Because the contours of those rights were not clearly established, the court affirmed the grant of qualified immunity to the official, which immunizes her from damages though not from injunctive relief. View "Endres v. Northeast Ohio Medical University" on Justia Law

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Sensabaugh, the former head football coach at David Crockett High School in Washington County, Tennessee, made two Facebook posts expressing his concerns about the conditions and practices of schools within the District. The posts included pictures of students. Sensabaugh refused to comply with requests to remove the posts and became aggressive with his supervisors who noted other alleged misconduct, including his use of profane language with students and his requiring a student to practice while injured. He was fired after a guidance meeting where his conduct caused his supervisor to report her concern “that Sensabaugh posed a threat to the safety of the students and staff.” He sued, raising First Amendment retaliation and municipal liability claims. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding no causal connection between Sensabaugh’s Facebook posts and his termination. A thorough independent investigation preceded Sensabaugh’s termination; that investigation concluded that the misconduct allegations were substantiated in full or in part and that the misconduct supported termination. View "Sensabaugh v. Halliburton" on Justia Law

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Doe sued the University for violating his due-process rights during a disciplinary hearing. The Sixth Circuit remanded Doe’s case in light of a related ruling requiring live hearings and cross-examination in such proceedings. Upon remand, the district judge, frustrated with the University’s apparent foot-dragging, scheduled a settlement conference and required the University’s president to attend. The University requested that the president be allowed to attend by telephone but the district judge refused. The University then requested permission to send someone with both more knowledge about the sexual assault policy at issue and full settlement authority. The judge again refused, stating he wanted the president to be there even if someone else with full settlement authority attended, and “even if the parties [we]re able to resolve" the issue. The University planned for the president to attend. Two days before the settlement conference, the district judge decided that the conference (which he had assured the University would be private) should be a public event, stating that “the University’s public filing of a Motion to Dismiss . . . . The filing incited confusion amongst the media.” The Sixth Circuit issued a writ of mandamus, finding that the district judge acted beyond his power and abused his discretion. Neither Congress nor the Constitution granted the judge the power to order a specific state official to attend a public settlement conference. View "In re: University of Michigan" on Justia Law

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Mother contends that Utica Schools (UCS) violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. 1400 because the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) for her son, Dylan did provide him with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Dylan suffers from Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Tourette’s Disorder, and symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. During the 2012–2013 school year, Dylan was 18 years old and in his fifth year of high school. Dylan's IEP provided that Dylan’s IEP team would implement and document a trial of “assistive technology” and that his curriculum would be evenly split between special education and general education classes. The “Post-Secondary Vision and Transition Activities” section listed several activities in which Dylan was interested that could lead to employment but did not list any next steps or resources. UCS placed Dylan in Community Based Inclusion (CBI) for two periods of his school day. CBI covers “daily living skills, employability training, recreation[,] leisure, [and] personal social skills.” Dylan was enrolled in three special education classes and one general education class, so the CBI placement was inconsistent with his IEP. After mother objected, UCS provided Dylan with instruction in the office, apart from other students. By June 2013, the school had reevaluated Dylan and developed a new IEP, which was amended several times. Mother voluntarily withdrew Dylan from UCS and enrolled him in private school. She filed an administrative complaint with the Michigan Department of Education. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment, noting that the district acknowledged denying Dylan a FAPE. UCS was ordered to pay for 1,200 hours of tutoring and one year of transition planning as compensatory education and to pay $210,654.65 in attorney fees and costs. View "Somberg v. Utica Community Schools" on Justia Law

Posted in: Education Law
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In 1984, a Tennessee jury convicted Zagorski of two first-degree murders and sentenced him to death. The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the convictions and sentence; state courts denied post-conviction relief. Zagorski sought federal habeas corpus relief, alleging that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate an alternative suspect, that the court erred by improperly instructing the jury on the meaning of mitigating circumstances, and that the jury could not constitutionally impose the death penalty because prosecutors originally offered a plea deal for two life sentences. Finding all three arguments procedurally defaulted, the district court denied relief, the Sixth Circuit affirmed, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari. The Supreme Court subsequently decided "Martinez," permitting ineffective assistance of counsel at initial-review collateral proceedings to establish cause for a prisoner’s procedural default of an ineffective assistance claim at trial. Zagorski sought post-judgment relief under FRCP 60(b)(6), which grants courts equitable power to vacate judgments “to achieve substantial justice” in the most “unusual and extreme situations.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief, “giving due deference to the district court’s discretion in balancing the equities” and noting that, given the overwhelming evidence, a more thorough investigation of another suspect would not have reasonably been likely to affect the outcome. View "Zagorski v. Mays" on Justia Law

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During her freshman and his junior year at the University of Michigan, John and Jane met at a fraternity party, drank, danced, and eventually had sex. Two days later, Roe filed a sexual misconduct complaint, claiming that she was too drunk to consent. For three months, the school’s investigator collected evidence and interviewed John, Jane, and 23 others. John stated that Jane did not appear drunk, that she was an active participant in their sexual encounter, and that he had no reason to believe that his sexual advances were unwelcome. Jane claimed that she was drunk and told Doe “no sex” before she “flopped” onto his bed. Almost all of the male witnesses corroborated John’s story; all of the female witnesses corroborated Jane’s. The investigator concluded that the evidence supporting a finding of sexual misconduct was not more convincing than the evidence offered in opposition and recommended closing the case. The Appeals Board held closed sessions (without considering new evidence or interviewing any students), and reversed, finding Jane’s narrative “more credible” and her witnesses more persuasive. Facing possible expulsion, John agreed to withdraw from the university, 13.5 credits short of graduating. The Sixth Circuit reversed the dismissal of John’s suit against the University. If a public university has to choose between competing narratives to resolve a case, it must give the accused student an opportunity to cross-examine the accuser and adverse witnesses in the presence of a neutral fact-finder. View "Doe v. Baum" on Justia Law

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L.H. has Down Syndrome. Through second grade, L.H. was “mainstreamed,” i.e., educated in the standard Normal Park School setting, integrated with non-disabled grade-level peers, and taught the standard curriculum, with special supports and services. An “IEP team” comprising his parents, teachers, and staff, prepared an annual “individualized education program” (IEP). L.H. made progress academically but did not keep pace with his peers. Staff members suggested moving L.H. to a Comprehensive Development Classroom (CDC) at a different school. L.H.’s parents resisted. L.H. remained at Normal Park. Teachers reported that L.H.’s behavior became disruptive; they changed his curriculum and attempted to minimize distractions by isolating L.H. L.H.’s behavior improved but progress toward his goals did not. Over his parents’ objections, L.H.’s 2013-2014 (third grade) IEP unilaterally ordered L.H. transferred to the CDC, where the curriculum uses an online special-education program (ULS) to teach reading and math. ULS follows Common CORE standards but is not peer-reviewed nor is it tied to Tennessee’s general-education standards. The CDC had two teachers and nine students. There would be little interaction between disabled and non-disabled students. L.H.’s parents rejected the IEP and enrolled L.H. at a private school, where he has remained. They sued under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. 1400. The district court held that placement of L.H. in the segregated classroom was more restrictive than necessary and violated the IDEA, but that the parents’ alternative placement did not satisfy the IDEA. The Sixth Circuit affirmed that the CDC placement violated the IDEA, but concluded that the private placement did satisfy the IDEA, and remanded for a determination of reimbursement. The Normal Park teachers were openly unwilling to properly mainstream L.H., rather than removing him when it became challenging. View "L. H. v. Hamilton County Department of Education" on Justia Law

Posted in: Education Law
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School superintendent Groening had surgery that required six weeks of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. 2612(a), leave. She returned to work part-time. Her mother then fell ill. Groening took intermittent leave to care for her throughout the rest of that year. A school board member told Groening that the district spent "too much time” working around Groening’s schedule. The board president told a colleague that Groening’s time away would be reflected in her annual evaluation. The board asked Groening for a breakdown of her leave. Groening created a spreadsheet. Between her leave, vacation, and business trips, Groening had been away for 12 weeks. The board indicated that it was hesitant to approve an upcoming conference. Groening submitted her notice of retirement, effective at the end of the following school year. The board then audited the business office, directing the auditors to review the method for tracking administrators’ time off. Groening was to be paid for unpaid leave when she retired, so any discrepancies had to be addressed before her retirement. Groening resigned the day before the auditors submitted their report. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the rejection of her FMLA claims. Groening's claims fell far short of showing constructive discharge. Groening failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether her working conditions were objectively intolerable. The audit was not an adverse employment action. View "Groening v. Glen Lake Community Schools" on Justia Law