Court Revives Parents’ Claim of Retaliation Over Abuse Report

By Mark Walsh — April 02, 2013 3 min read
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A federal appeals court has revived a Tennessee family’s lawsuit alleging that a school principal retaliated against them over their demands for how their child with Type I diabetes would be accommodated in school.

The lawsuit against the Shelby County, Tenn., school district says that the principal filed reports with the state’s Department of Children’s Services alleging that the parents were medically abusing their 2nd grade daughter by not properly managing her diabetes. The parents contend the reports were retaliation for their frequent clashes with school authorities over their daughter’s care in school.

A federal district court granted summary judgment to the school district in the parent’s suit filed under the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It had said that the reasons given by the school district for making the child-abuse reports were essentially not a pretext for the retaliation prohibited by the two federal disability-discrimination laws.

But in an April 1 decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, unanimously revived the suit filed by parents identified as J.C. and B.C. (over a child identified as A.C.).

The appeal panel describes the background of the case in considerable detail in its opinion in A.C. v. Shelby County Board of Education. The court essentially held that some school officials had a poor understanding of the frequent fluctuations in glucose levels experienced by a child with Type I diabetes, and that some misinterpreted actions of the parents (such as allowing their daughter to eat cookies at school, which was allowed when properly balanced with insulin injections, the court noted).

The parents and school officials clashed over the medical accommodations for A.C. over three school years, court papers say, with the parents demanding that their daughter receive her frequent blood tests in the classroom rather than in the school clinic.

In the fall of 2009, the principal made an abuse report to the state child-services agency, stating that the child was sent to school with cookies and candy and that school officials were worried that the diabetes was not being addressed at home. The lawsuit alleges that the principal later told a state investigator that “the family wants something horrible to happen to [A.C.] at school” and that they were “just looking for a lawsuit.”

The state Department of Children’s Services finished its investigation in December 2009 with the conclusion that the medical maltreatment allegations against the parents were “unfounded.”

The appeals court noted that the school district put forth 10 non-retaliatory reasons for reports to state authorities. They included the regularly wide fluctuation of A.C.'s glucose levels, the parents’ refusal to let school officials consult with A.C.'s physicians, and the fact that administrators in the district had just been warned at the time of their special duty to report any suspected child abuse.

The appeals court said the family has numerous responses to the district’s arguments that suggest the proffered reasons were pretexts for retaliatory conduct. The court said, for example, that “the DCS reports and the e-mail precursor to them consistently reflected a concern with the [parents’] requests for accommodations themselves, apart from A.C.'s health.”

One e-mail from the principal to her superiors asking advice about whether to file an abuse report referred to the “constant harassment” coming from A.C.'s parents, the court noted.

“We conclude that a reasonable jury could find by a preponderance of all of this evidence that [school district’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,” the 6th Circuit panel concluded.

There will be much factually for a jury to sort out, the court added, but the lower court should not have decided the case by granting summary judgment to the school district.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.