Federal appeals court rules parents of diabetic student stated valid claim of retaliation under disability laws based on principal’s child abuse report of parents after they requested accommodations
A.C. v. Shelby Cnty. Bd. of Educ., No. 11-6506 (6th Cir. Apr. 1, 2013)
Abstract: A U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (MI, OH, KY, TN) three-judge panel has ruled that the parents of a diabetic student have stated a valid claim for retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and § 504 of the Rehabilitation ACT (§ 504 ) based on the school’s Principal reporting the parents for suspected medical abuse of the student to the state department of child services (DCS) after the parents requested certain disability accommodations for the student. In particular, it found, unlike the federal district court, that the parents had satisfied the adverse action and causation elements of a retaliation claim, and had rebutted as pretextual the non-retaliatory reasons for the DCS reports proffered by the school district.
Facts/Issues: A.C., who suffers from Type 1 diabetes, attended Bon Lin Elementary School (BLES). Because of the nature of A.C.’s disease and her age, she required close supervision from the school nurse and her teacher. The relationship between A.C.’s parents and BLES officials started on the wrong foot and never improved. Throughout her time at BLES, there was tension between the parents and the BLES Principal and staff.
The parents requested a number of accommodations prior to A.C. starting kindergarten. The day before a meeting with the parents to discuss their requests, the Principal expressed her frustrations with the parents in the following voice mail:
“This is Kay Williams from Bon Lin. [A.C.'s mom] is here causing all kinds of confusion and [A.C.’s teacher] has already broken down and cried. This woman is out to lunch… I don’t know what to do with this lady anymore. She does not reason or have any common sense. So you know that since I am the one with common sense, I am going to have a little problem with her.”
The Principal’s voice mail was intended for the school nurse, but the Principal accidentally left it on the parent’s home phone. The parents, meanwhile, had filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) the day before the misdirected voice mail.
As a result OCR’s intervention, the Shelby County Board of Education (SCBOE) provided the parents with almost all the accommodations they requested, including a full time nurse and training for A.C.’s teachers. The parents’ request that A.C. be manually tested four times a day in her classroom instead of in Bon Lin’s clinic was denied, but would remain a bone of contention through A.C.’s second grade year.
Nurses at the school were assigned the responsibility of writing Individualized Health Plans (IHP) for students. A.C.’s parents insisted, however, that they write the IHP for A.C., and the school acquiesced. The nurses were upset at this, two quit because of their concerns, and a third threatened to do the same.
A.C.’s first grade teacher, who at the time was untrained on Type 1 diabetes, saw A.C. with candy and drew the conclusion that the parents were committing medical abuse by failing to feed A.C. properly, a belief she shared with the Principal. School staff began privately discussing putting A.C. into homebound services. At about the same time, the parents renewed their request that A.C.’s blood tests be done in the classroom, because students in the health room would be sick. In response, the school nurse wrote in her log that “students in [A.C.'s] class may be ill” and “If such a problem, may need to reconsider school itself!” A section 504 meeting was scheduled to address the parents’ request.
One day the school nurse found A.C.’s blood sugar low. The nurse remarked to A.C.’s teacher that they were fortunate A.C. had not passed out. The teacher became distraught, began hyperventilating and crying, and had to be sent home. The Principal then emailed SCBOE’s superintendent, director of student services, and director of coordinated health asking for guidance, stating that the teacher was “having an anxiety attack from the constant harassment of [A.C.'s parents], the teacher was worried about A.C.’s “roller coaster [glucose] levels,” A.C.’s parents were “not monitoring [A.C.] at home,” and that A.C. “comes in [to school with] very high [glucose] and then crashes.” The Principal’s email concluded by stating that she was “ready to report the family to DCS” because “[w]e care about this child and the parents do not.”
All three officials concurred in the Principal’s recommendation to file a child abuse report, and the Principal called DCS. She identified A.C.’s parents as abusers and provided two basic rationales for the allegation of medical child abuse. First, she said that A.C. was being “sent to [Bon Lin] with cookies, Kool-Aid, and candy, which makes her sugar shoot up to a very high level.” Second, she reported that A.C.’s “diabetes is not being monitored at home, and [she had] documentation on this neglect.” The Principal emphasized that she worried the abuse could be “fatal” and that two previous nurses had left in fear that A.C. would die, with the third nurse now also thinking of leaving for the same reason. Ten days later, the Principal escalated her allegations considerably. She told a DCS investigator that “the family wants something horrible to happen to [A.C.] at school.” She explained that A.C. “could die at school,” and that “the parents are just looking for a lawsuit.”
DCS investigated and closed the case, concluding that the “medical maltreatment” allegation was “unfounded.” The parents subsequently filed suit against SCBOE in federal district court, alleging that the DCS Reports were made in retaliation for the attempts of A.C.’s parents to secure accommodations for A.C.’s disabilities under the ADA and § 504.
Focusing on the DCS reports, the district court granted SCBOE’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that the parents failed to prove that the DCS reports constituted an “adverse act.”
Ruling/Rationale: The Sixth Circuit panel reversed the lower court’s decision and remanded the case. The panel pointed out that the parents’ retaliation claims were based solely on the Principal’s reports to DCS. Because the parents did not present any direct evidence of retaliation, only evidence of intent and motive, the retaliation claim was analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting approach. Initially, the parents must present a prima facie case of retaliation by establishing that (1) they engaged in a protected activity under the ADA and Section 504; (2) SCBOE knew of this protected activity; (3) SCBOE took adverse action against them; and (4) there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action. The panel noted that the burden of establishing a prima facie case in a retaliation action is easily met. Establishing the prima facie case results in a presumption that the defendants engaged in retaliation. To rebut that presumption SCBOE must show that it had a legitimate, non-discriminatory basis for the DCS reports. If SCBOE does that, the burden shifts back to the parents to “prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the legitimate reasons offered by [SCBOE] were not its true reasons, but were a pretext for retaliation.”
Noting that SCBOE conceded that the requests for accommodation, including the classroom-testing requests, were protected under Section 504 and the ADA, and that it was fully aware of the parents’ requests, the panel addressed the prima facie element of adverse action, noting that it was the sticking point in the parents’ claim. The panel stressed that in order to be adverse, “a retaliatory action must be enough to dissuade a reasonable person from engaging in the protected activity; ‘petty slights or minor annoyances’ cannot qualify.”
The panel found that the “type of intrusive investigation that Tennessee officials must conduct of such parents’ homes and children to complete a DCS investigation could be powerfully dissuasive in its own right.” The panel also noted that the Sixth Circuit and other courts have treated the making of such reports as adverse. Based on the record, it determined that “the actions of the Principal in making DCS Reports rose well above a petty slight or minor annoyance and constituted adverse action.”
The panel rejected the district court’s reliance on Cox v. Warwick Valley Central School District, 654 F.3d 267 (2d Cir. 2011) for its conclusion that the parents were required, at the prima facie stage, to disprove that the Principal made the DCS Reports protectively and in good faith. It pointed out Cox was a First Amendment retaliation case, not an ADA/Section 504 retaliation case, and so did not involve the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting approach.
The panel, therefore, stated:
SCBOE may raise Cox in its defense, but at the pretext stage, not the prima facie stage. For the same reason, the district court erred in relying—at the prima facie stage of the proceedings—on Tennessee law governing the duty to report child abuse. In short, we conclude that Plaintiffs adequately established the adverse-action element of their prima facie case.
The panel next examined the causation element. Noting that the burden of proof at this stage was minimal, it concluded: “The evidence in this case, including both temporal proximity [the short duration of time between the parent's request for accommodations and the filing of the DCS report] and evidence calling into question the truthfulness of the reports themselves, is sufficient to meet [the parents'] minimal burden to put forth evidence permitting a reasonable inference of causation.”
SCBOE argued that so long as the Principal would have made a DCS report regardless of the parents’ requests, the parents cannot meet the causation requirement. Ruling that the issue was one for the jury, the panel emphasized that the jury would be considering not “a” hypothetical DCS report, but rather the actual reports that the Principal filed, “reports which did not focus on alerting DCS officials to the glucose fluctuations that SCBE so emphasizes on appeal but rather pinned the blame for those fluctuations on A.C.’s parents’ alleged neglect and active misconduct, allegedly born in part out of a desire to see A.C. harmed.” As a result, “[i]t would be permissible for a reasonable jury to conclude that those reports would not have been made inevitably, without the accommodation requests.”
Turning to SCBOE’s proffered non-retaliatory reasons for filing the DCS reports, the panel stated that the ten reasons offered comprised three broad categories: (1) reasons related to the duty to report itself; (2) reasons relating to A.C.’s health generally; and (3) reasons relating to J.C. and B.C.’s treatment of A.C. The panel concluded that SCBOE had carried its burden of articulating a non-retaliatory basis for the DCS reports, which shifted the burden back to the parents to show SCBOE’s reasons were a pretext for retaliation.
The panel stated the parents could prove pretext by demonstrating by a preponderance of the evidence that SCBOE’s reasons “(1) lack a basis in fact, (2) did not actually motivate the DCS Reports, or (3) were insufficient to motivate the DCS Reports.” After reviewing the parents’ offers of proof, it concluded that “a reasonable jury could find by a preponderance of all of this evidence that SCBOE’s stated concerns about A.C.’s health were pretextual, and that the DCS Reports were actually motivated by the school’s well-established displeasure with A.C.’s parents and their accommodation requests.”
However, the panel stressed that based on the same facts “a reasonable jury could decide that SCBE’s concerns were not pretextual.” To survive summary judgment, however, the parents need “only rebut, not disprove,” SCBOE’s proffered reasons.
The panel also discussed the “honest belief” rule–which would require dismissal of the parents’ case if the Principal honestly believed the reasons she cited for filing the abuse report. The Sixth Circuit follows a modified version of rule, asking whether the defendant “made a reasonably informed and considered decision before taking an adverse . . . action.” Because the material facts are in dispute, a reasonable jury could conclude that neither of the core allegations made in the initial DCS Report was “reasonably informed” and that both comprised errors “too obvious to be unintentional.”
The panel assumed without deciding that Tennessee’s reporting statute, providing a presumption of good faith to reports, was applicable to the case, even though the plaintiffs had brought federal actions. It noted: “Given the generous view of facts and inferences required at the summary judgment stage, the nature of [the Principal's] statements to DCS, and the fact that the core issue here turns on [the Principal's] intent in making those statements, we conclude that a reasonable jury could still find for [the parents].”
A.C. v. Shelby Cnty. Bd. of Educ., No. 11-6506 (6th Cir. Apr. 1, 2013)
[Editor's Note: In August 2012, Legal Clips summarized a decision by a Sixth Circuit panel in R.K. v. Board of Educ. of Scott Cnty. , vacating a Kentucky federal district court’s decision granting summary judgment to a school board, but affirming summary judgment in favor of the district’s superintendent, in a suit by a diabetic student claiming the board’s refusal to allow him to attend his neighborhood school violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.]