Court addresses standing and joinder issues in case brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
L.K. v. North Carolina State Board of Education, No. 5:08-CV-85-BR, 2010 WL 3239505 (E.D.N.C. June 23, 2010)
L.K., a high school student with disabilities in the Granville County school system, was suspended for one year after bringing a razor to school. School personnel concluded that L.K.’s behavior was not a manifestation of his disability and so were able to discipline him like any other student. (Had his misbehavior been a manifestation of his disability, the maximum suspension allowed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] would be forty-five days.) L.K. appealed this determination at an expedited due process hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) in the Office of Administrative Hearings. The ALJ reversed the manifestation determination, thus voiding the yearlong suspension as well. The Granville County school board appealed this ruling to a state-level review officer (SRO), who reinstated the school’s manifestation determination.
After this last ruling L.K. appealed to the courts, naming as defendant the North Carolina State Board of Education (SBE) but not the Granville board—which had been the only defendant in all earlier proceedings. Some of L.K.’s claims were based on his contention that the two-tier administrative review process the state uses to review complaints brought under the IDEA violates that statute. His final claim was that the SRO applied an incorrect standard in reinstating the original manifestation determination. The SBE moved to dismiss L.K.’s claims for lack of standing: since filing his complaint, he had left Granville County and had no plans to return to the county or its school system. Further, the SBE argued that the claim could not be pursued until the Granville County board was joined as a defendant in the suit.
The federal court for the Eastern District of North Carolina refused to dismiss L.K.’s claims concerning the appeal process itself and determined that the case could proceed without the joinder of the Granville County board. The court dismissed L.K.’s claim concerning the substance of the SRO ruling.
The inquiry into whether a party has standing to pursue a claim in court is threefold: (1) has the party suffered an injury in fact? (2) is the injury fairly traceable to the defendant’s challenged action? and (3) is the injury likely to be redressed by a favorable decision? The court first found the injury requirement satisfied. The subjection of L.K. to an allegedly unauthorized second level of administrative review led to the reinstatement of his suspension and the inclusion of this incident on his permanent school record. The court next found that the injury was fairly traceable to the SBE, for both the IDEA and state law have designated it as the agency responsible for the lawful implementation of the IDEA; if there is a problem with the system of administrative review, it rests with decisions the SBE made when developing it. Finally, the court found that the only relief left to L.K., as he had left the Granville County school system, was the expungement of the suspension from his permanent record. The court found ample reason to believe that it was within the power of the SBE to require the Granville County board to remove such information pursuant to a court order. Based on these findings, the court ruled that L.K. had standing to challenge the review process. As to the substantive appeal of the SRO determination, the court found that L.K. did not have standing because the injury suffered as a result of the allegedly incorrect ruling could not be fairly traced to the SBE. The SRO was not an SBE employee and was charged with making an impartial and independent ruling on the matter.
Because the only remaining claims in L.K.’s complaint concerned the review system established by the SBE, the case could fairly proceed without joining the Granville County board. As the only relief L.K. could obtain is expungement of his suspension, the court could render a complete judgment without the need for Granville County’s participation. Nor would the Granville board be damaged by nonparticipation. Although it was the board’s initial manifestation determination that resulted in this claim being brought before the court, L.K.’s remaining claims do not challenge the merits of that determination. In addition, the Granville board has no control over the statutory review scheme of which L.K. complains. Finally, because L.K. no longer resides within the Granville County school system, a ruling that its manifestation determination was invalid would have no real affect on the board.
summarized by Ingrid M. Johansenposted March 3, 2011