Louisiana Record

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Developmentally disabled woman wins appeal over sexual abuse claim

By Elizabeth Young | Mar 26, 2013

NEW ORLEANS – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overruled a district court’s dismissal of a Texas woman’s suit against her former high school.

Andricka Stewart appealed a Texas district court’s dismissal of her civil rights action against the Waco Independent School District. The case was originally dismissed for failure to state a claim and Stewart sought review under a section of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Stewart, who suffers from “mental retardation, speech impairment and hearing impairment” attended A.J.  Moore Academy in Waco, Texas as a special education student. In November 2005, her Individualized Education Program (IEP) was modified following an incident of sexual contact between Stewart and another student. Following the incident Stewart was to be separated from male students and closely supervised while at school.

Stewart’s suit claims that three more instances of sexual abuse occurred after the IEP was modified, two when she was permitted to go to the bathroom unsupervised, and one in which a male student exposed himself to her. The school district concluded that Stewart was “somewhat complicit” in the abuse and suspended her twice. The district did not further modify Stewart’s IEP or take other steps to prevent further sexual abuse.

Stewart claims that the district’s failure to modify her IEP constitute “gross mismanagement” and that her suspensions deprived her of educational benefits.

A majority opinion written by Circuit Judge Catharina Haynes states that Stewart’s original petition lacks detail but concludes that Stewart “plausibly states that the District acted with gross misjudgment in failing to further modify her IEP.” The opinion further states that regardless of the role Stewart had in the abuse, her IEP was designed to prevent it and Stewart can plausibly claim that an alternative IEP would have prevented the incidents and thus any need for her suspension.

Circuit Judge Jennifer Elrod concurred with the opinion.

In dissent, Circuit Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote that Stewart’s claims fail because she did not exhaust them through the administrative scheme provided in the  Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). He wrote that the exhaustion does not apply because Stewart sought damages for physical harm rather than compensation in the form of “educational relief or related services.”

Higginbotham also wrote that the majority sets a precedent that permits “parents unhappy with an IEP to bypass the comprehensive remedial scheme of the IDEA” and allows them to sue for monetary damages. This, he says, misapplies the section of the Rehabilitation Act in question "to impose on schools a tort-like duty not to mismanage a disabled student’s IEP.”

The panel reversed the district court’s dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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