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Reyes v. Manor Independent School District

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

May 11, 2017

MONICA REYES, as next friend of E.M. Plaintiffs - Appellants
v.
MANOR INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant-Appellee

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas

          Before DAVIS, CLEMENT, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.

          GREGG COSTA, Circuit Judge.

         The mother of E.M. brought this suit alleging that the Manor Independent School District violated E.M.'s rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.; 29 U.S.C. § 794. The district court held that the majority of E.M.'s IDEA claims are barred by the one-year statute of limitations period and that E.M. failed to administratively exhaust his Rehabilitation Act 504 claims. We agree and therefore AFFIRM.

         I.

         The IDEA was enacted to ensure that children with disabilities receive a "free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). To that end, a child's education "must be tailored to each disabled child's needs through an 'individualized education program'." El Paso Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Richard R., 567 F.Supp.2d 918, 925 (W.D. Tex. 2008). Parents are given the authority to enforce their child's IDEA rights, but that authority transfers to the child when he turns 18. Tex. Educ. Code. § 29.017(a); 34 C.F.R. § 300.520(a)(1)(ii).

         Although a child's rights flow from the federal statute, states are given authority to set up the enforcement procedures for achieving the IDEA's goals. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(a). That includes the ability to set the statute of limitations for IDEA claims. Id. § 1415(b)(6)(B). In Texas, a child's parent-or the child if he is over 18-may initiate a due process hearing if the parent believes the child's rights under the IDEA are being violated. 19 Tex. Admin. Code § 89.1151(a). That hearing must be brought within one year of the date that the parent knew or should have known about the alleged action that serves as the basis for the complaint. Id. § 89.1151(c). That time limit may be tolled if the parent can show that the delay was caused by: "(1) specific misrepresentations by the public education agency that it had resolved the problem forming the basis of the due process complaint; or (2) the public education agency's withholding of information from the parent that was required by [federal regulations] to be provided to the parent." Id. § 89.1151(d).

         II.

         E.M. was a student at Manor Independent School District, which he started attending about a week before he turned 18 on August 18, 2010. E.M. has severe intellectual disabilities and autism, with psychiatric evaluations placing his developmental age at around three years old. This made him eligible for special education under federal law, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq., and he was placed in a special education program in the District.

         While attending school in the District, E.M. was aggressive towards staff and harmed himself. In response, the District repeatedly met with E.M.'s parents to collaborate on ways to help E.M. improve. Following the last of these meetings in May 2012, however, E.M.'s parents notified the District that E.M. would be transferring to a specialized school for severely impaired students.

         In February 2013, E.M.'s mother requested a due process hearing. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6). The District challenged her authority to bring the due process complaint, pointing out that she did not have the capacity to file suit on behalf of her son who had turned 18 in 2010. As with other legal claims, rights under the IDEA must be asserted by the individual possessing those rights once the person has reached the age of majority unless another party has been appointed to legally assert those rights. Tex. Educ. Code. § 29.017(a); 20 U.S.C. § 1415(m)(2). E.M.'s parents corrected this defect by April 2013, when they obtained a state court order finding E.M. incompetent and appointing them to be his guardian.

         That allowed the hearing to proceed. The administrative complaint alleged a number of IDEA violations against the District, including physical abuse by the staff and failure to provide E.M. with appropriate education services. Although that complaint initially included claims under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the prehearing request for relief did not mention those claims. 29 U.S.C. § 794. In her decision, the Special Education hearing officer thus did not discuss the Rehabilitation Act claims. As to the IDEA claims, the hearing officer found that most of them were barred by the one-year statute of limitations for seeking due process hearings. 19 Tex. Admin. Code § 89.1151(c). But in a ruling favorable to E.M., she considered the operative date of the hearing request to be the February 2013 date on which his mother filed the complaint even though she was not appointed as his guardian until two months later. Even with that determination allowing the claim to reach back to February 2012, the complaint covered only three months when E.M. was a student at the District. Limiting her review to that time period, the hearing officer found that the District did not violate E.M.'s IDEA rights.

         E.M.'s mother then filed this suit on his behalf. The complaint alleges a number of procedural and substantive causes of action under the IDEA and Rehabilitation Act. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2). The District filed a motion for judgment on the administrative record, which the district court granted. E.M. appeals, arguing: 1) that the district court erred in holding that the majority of his claims were barred by the statute of limitations, and 2) that the district court erred in holding that his Rehabilitation Act claims were not exhausted. We review de novo these questions of ...


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