Smith v. Henderson, No. 13-420 (D.D.C. Oct. 10, 2013)
Abstract: A federal district court in the District of Columbia (DC) has granted in part and denied in part a motion to dismiss or in the alternative grant summary judgment in a suit seeking to block implementation of a plan to close some of DC’s public schools on the grounds that the plan discriminates on the bases of race and income. It found that the plaintiffs had alleged sufficient faces to state claims under the Equal Protection Clause, Title VI, and the D.C. Human Rights Act.
Facts/Issues: The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) experienced substantial decreases in enrollment at various neighborhood schools, due to populations shifts and a significant rise in charter school enrollment. Fifteen schools were particularly affected: by 2013, most of those schools were half full, and in five schools only a quarter of the seats remained occupied. In response, DCPS implemented a school-reorganization plan (Plan) that involved closing the fifteen schools and reassigning students to higher-performing schools. The cost savings would be reallocated to other schools throughout the District.
The closed schools are located in predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods. In DCPS schools as a whole, 69% of students are black; 16% are Hispanic; 4% are Asian, other, or unknown; and 11% are white. In the schools slated for closure, by contrast, 93.7% of students are black; 5.9% are Hispanic; 0.4% are Asian, other, or unknown; and less than 0.1% (2 out of 3053) are white. The closing schools also contain a disproportionate number of children with special needs: 27.7% of students in those schools are in special education, versus 14.2% of students in DCPS overall. The plaintiffs, parents of students in closing schools and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANC) who say they never received the legally required notice of the school closures, claim that the closures discriminate against poor, minority, and disabled students and were enacted without sufficient community input, thus violating several constitutional, federal, and state provisions. The plaintiffs also allege that similarly under-enrolled schools in affluent white neighborhoods were kept open and nursed back to health in the 1970s, and that the District’s policy regarding under-enrolled schools has therefore been applied differently based on race and income.
The plaintiffs filed suit alleging breach of contract, fraudulent representation, and violation of the Equal Protection Clause, Title VI, the IDEA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the D.C. Human Rights Act, and the D.C. Sunshine Act. They sought a preliminary injunction to bar implementation of the plan, which the court denied in May, 2013. Thereafter, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint. DCPS filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint or in the alternative grant DCPS summary judgment.
Ruling/Rationale: The district court granted DCPS’ motion to dismiss/summary judgment as to many of the claims, but kept alive the Equal Protection Clause, Title VI, and the D.C. Human Rights Act claims. It also confirmed its previous ruling that the ANC commissioners lacked standing to the bring the suit, for lack of an identified injury.
The court dismissed the plaintiffs’ IDEA claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The plaintiffs had invoked the futility exception to the exhaustion requirement, but the court disagreed. The court ruled that the rights available under the IDEA–compliance with the IEP and a least restrictive environment–could be addressed in an administrative appeal and that the remedy the plaintiffs sought–an order that schools remain open for all students–was not available under the IDEA.
The plaintiffs had filed a § 504 claim asserting that the closures violated the code of federal regulations’ requirement that districts provide a “free appropriate public education” to disabled students. They also asserted a Section 504 claim based on disparate impact. The court dismissed the FAPE 504 claim based on the administrative exhaustion requirement, which the plaintiffs failed to satisfy, which is just as applicable under 504 as IDEA. As to the § 504 claim alleging disparate impact, the court, citing Alexander v. Choate, 469 U.S. 287 (1985), said that disparate impact alone does not show discrimination “by reason of” disability. In addition, the plaintiffs must “allege something more, such as intentional discrimination by the District, denial of some meaningful benefit, or failure to make a reasonable accommodation for students with special needs.” The court concluded that the plaintiffs had alleged “nothing more than disparate impact” and, therefore, failed to state a claim on which relief can be granted.
The court dismissed the ADA claim because, like a Section 504 disparate impact claim, an ADA claim requires proof of discriminatory intent beyond disparate impact. The court concluded: “Because Plaintiffs here allege nothing more than disparate impact, their ADA claim also fails.”
The plaintiffs equal protection and Title VI claims, however, were not dismissed, but the court signaled they may face trouble at the summary judgement stage. The court emphasized that equal protection and Title VI claims require proof of intentional discrimination, not simply disparate impact. Under Supreme Court rulings, intentional discrimination may be proved three ways:
First, a plaintiff may proffer a law or policy that explicitly classifies citizens on the basis of race. Second, a plaintiff may claim that a facially neutral law or policy has been applied differently on the basis of race. Finally, a plaintiff may show that a facially neutral law or policy that is applied evenhandedly is, in fact, motivated by discriminatory intent and has a racially discriminatory impact.
The court ruled the first method inapplicable, but found the plaintiffs had alleged sufficient facts to support a claim under the second and third theories of intentional discrimination. The court pointed to the allegation that the District’s facially neutral school-closure policy has been applied differently on the basis of race because under-utilized white schools were not closed in the 1970s, and to the allegation that the decision to close schools was motivated by discriminatory intent because the closures over the last several decades establish a clear pattern, unexplainable on grounds other than race.
In a word of caution, the court said, “These theories, of course, may well ultimately be too slender a reed on which to hang Plaintiffs’ case.” It also restated its admonition from its preliminary injunction ruling: “harmful discrimination may be hard to find where students are being transferred to more integrated, better performing schools.”
The DCPS urged the court to grant it summary judgement at this time, prior to full discovery, but the court deferred, saying that a case generally does not proceed to summary judgment unless all parties have “had a full opportunity to conduct discovery.” It stated:
Out of an abundance of caution and giving the benefit of all possible inferences to the Plaintiffs, then, the Equal Protection and Title VI claims pass muster under Rule 12(b)(6) and entitle the Plaintiffs to discovery in this case. That said, however, the Court is not in the business of sanctioning a fishing expedition into decades of DCPS files. Only targeted discovery will garner approval.
The court summarily dismissed the breach of contract, fraudulent representation, and Sunshine Act claims. The court also declined DCPS’ motion to dismiss the DCPS officials as defendants because they were being sued in their individual, rather than official, capacities.
Smith v. Henderson, No. 13-420 (D.D.C. Oct. 10, 2013)
[Editor’s Note: In May 2013, Legal Clips summarized the district court’s decision in Smith v. Henderson denying the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, concluding that they had failed to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits.]