National Class Action on School Reopening Dismissed

Nov 14, 2020 | Advocacy, Covid-19

In July, a Plaintiffs attorney filed a purported class action on behalf of all students with disabilities in the United States, JT v. DeBlasio. He filed the case in federal district court in New York (Southern District of New York). In addition to naming New York officials and the New York City Department of Education, he also tried to sue every single state department of education, as well as every single school district in the country. There are 13,800 of them.

Plaintiffs alleged that, when schools shut down due to COVID-19, every school district in the United States that went from in person to remote learning (1) automatically changed the placement of every special education student in the United States; and (2) ceased providing every one of those students with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in violation of the IDEA and other laws.

Plaintiffs asked for: the immediate reopening of every school in the United States or vouchers to attend private school, independent evaluations, IEP meetings, compensatory education and other damages.
The suit quickly ran into problems, including potential ethical violations by the Plaintiffs’ attorney.
Yesterday, the court dismissed all claims against all defendants.

First, the court dismissed the claims against all defendants outside of New York for a number of procedural reasons.

Next, the court flatly disposed of Plaintiffs’ attempt to bring this as a class action, stating: “It is obvious that this is no class action at all, but rather tens of thousands of individual cases that Plaintiffs’ counsel has tried to amalgamate into a single lawsuit.”

The court then examined the claims of the 38 NYC parents with disabled students in NYC public schools. The court rejected the parents’ request for a preliminary injunction ordering in-person education as a “stay put” placement under their children’s IEPs. (Under the IDEA’s “stay put” provision, if a due process proceeding has been initiated, the existing IEP stays in place until due process concludes.)

The court held that the move from in-person to remote learning is not a change in placement under the IDEA. Rather, it was an administrative decision made during a health crisis that applied to the entire school system and impacted all students, disabled or not. Moreover, the request for a preliminary injunction was moot because NYC had since offered in-person instruction.

The court then proceeded to dismiss all of the Plaintiffs’ claims because the Plaintiffs had ignored the basic requirement to first exhaust their claims in administrative due process proceedings, instead of jumping right to federal court.

So what are the takeaways from this case? It appears that the outcome was driven in large part by extraordinarily bad lawyering on the part of the Plaintiffs’ attorney. The largest impact for down-the-line may be the ruling that a system-wide move to virtual instruction is not a change in placement for purposes of the IDEA. The court was also very deferential to state and federal agency guidance, and to the unique circumstance presented by the public health crisis.