Filed Date: Nov. 18, 1996
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On November 18, 1996, a group of students with disabilities filed this class-action lawsuit against the Ravenswood City School District and the state education department in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The eight named plaintiffs were school-aged children with disabilities who then attended, or had in the past attended, schools in Ravenswood. The plaintiffs sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") (42 U.S.C. §§ 12111 et seq.), and a variety of state law causes of action.
The plaintiffs alleged that Ravenswood failed not only to meet their individual educational needs, but also failed to provide similarly situated children within its jurisdiction a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"), as mandated by various state and federal laws. The plaintiffs alleged that the state defendants failed to monitor Ravenswood's compliance with state and federal laws that mandate the provision of a FAPE to all children with disabilities, failed to adequately investigate complaints regarding Ravenswood, and failed to enforce the directives generated by state education department investigations. The plaintiffs sought class-action certification for the case and declaratory, injunctive, and compensatory relief. Attorneys from the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Inc., the Youth and Education Law Project, and the East Palo Alto Community Law Project represented the plaintiffs, as did private counsel.
On October 17, 1997, District Judge Thelton E. Henderson ruled upon several defense motions seeking to dismiss or limit the plaintiffs' case. The judge, who had earlier (in July) dismissed the school district defendants from the case for the plaintiffs' failure to exhaust administrative remedies prior to bringing a lawsuit under IDEA and then reversed that decision upon reconsideration, refused the state defendants' request to be similarly dismissed from the case, finding that administrative exhaustion would be excused on the facts of this case. Judge Henderson also ruled that (1) compensatory damages were available under the IDEA, and monetary relief was also available in a § 1983 suit aimed at enforcing rights protected by the IDEA; (2) Congress' express abrogations of Eleventh Amendment immunity for claims under the IDEA, the ADA, and the Rehabilitation Act were enacted pursuant to a valid exercise of power under the Fourteenth Amendment; (3) the state education department was a state agency and thus cloaked by Eleventh Amendment immunity; (4) insofar as the § 1983 claim sought retrospective relief, it could not be maintained against state officials in their official capacities, but could be maintained against state officials in their official capacity for injunctive relief, and plaintiffs could proceed with their § 1983 claims against the state officials in their individual capacities; (5) the Eleventh Amendment barred pendent state law claims against the state education department and state officials named in their official capacities, but had no application to a suit against state officials in their individual capacities; and (6) the complaint satisfied liberal federal pleading requirements, as to allegations of "discrimination" by state defendants, given that the term is defined in relevant federal regulations. Emma C. v. Eastin, 985 F. Supp. 940 (N.D. Cal. 1997).
In November 1997, the district court certified a class comprised of children residing in the Ravenswood Elementary School District who were, are, or will be entitled to free and appropriate public education under federal and state laws.
The lawsuit prompted a state investigation into the allegations, which found them substantiated. State experts confirmed widespread noncompliance with special education requirements. The state thus developed a Ravenswood Corrective Action Plan in 1998. After revisions, the plan was adopted as a consent decree to settle the case in 1999.
The monitor (Mark A. Mlawer) appointed under the plan reported that the district did little to achieve compliance over a year after the decree issued. Deadlines were continually revised and yet noncompliance continued. Reviewing efforts into 2001, the court termed the compliance as "abysmal" and "extremely bleak." The court observed a lack of candor and commitment on the school district's part, characterized by a fraudulent petition of community support for the superintendent that defense counsel filed, then withdrew, evidently upon press stories noting fraudulent aspects of the petition. In a lengthy unpublished order on October 4, 2001, Judge Henderson found the school district defendants in contempt. As a remedy for the contempt, the court considered appointing the state, or an expert it would retain, as a receiver to operate the district. The court felt constrained by case law, however, to allow the district one more chance, particularly in view of district administrative personnel changes, recent retention of an expert consultant to assist the district, and explicit plans for improved compliance efforts. The court allowed for a seven-month period for improvement and expressly warned that it would continue to consider the propriety of a receivership as a contempt sanction.
By March 12, 2003, a detailed 65-page self-improvement plan for the district had been developed and tendered to the court, as part of an amended consent decree noting that the plan also aimed to end litigation over the remedy for the prior finding of contempt. The plan included specific time deadlines to achieve documented goals and provided for monitoring and state education department participation in the remedial process. The court approved the new decree at a hearing on March 31, 2003, and issued an order to that effect on April 3, 2003. The docket sheet for the case shows that by May 2003, the court was again considering contempt sanctions because the district violated the court's order regarding budget matters. We do not have copies of the order or pleadings surrounding this aspect of the dispute. Occasional settlement conferences were held during the remainder of 2003 and into 2004. On May 21, 2004, Judge Henderson issued an order granting plaintiffs' attorneys' fees and costs, according to the docket sheet. While the docket sheet is somewhat cryptic on the point, it notes a June 8, 2004, stipulation that attorneys' fees would be paid by the state and by the school district in amounts of $542,250, $36,150, $36,150, and $104,450 (with the latter three amounts being periodic payments by the district). Further attorneys' fees payment from the district of $14,377 was ordered on April 15, 2005. In August 2006, the state and the school district were ordered to split payment of $32,142 and $15,990 in attorneys' fees to plaintiffs' counsel. Somewhat smaller, but similarly split attorneys' fee payments were ordered by the court through 2011.
Active supervision by the court continued. After the Supreme Court's decision in Douglas v. Independent Living Center of Southern California, 132 S.Ct. 1204 (2012), which drew into question the existence of a cause of action under spending clause legislation against a state if a federal entity played an active supervisory role, the state argued that no cause of action existed under IDEA, because the federal Department of Education approves state IDEA plans. Accordingly, the state suggested here, the district court lacked jurisdiction to assess the state's system for monitoring local school districts. On November 26, 2012, Judge Henderson disagreed. Emma C. v. Eastin, 2012 WL 5904750 (N.D. Cal., Nov. 26, 2012). He explained that the federal government had not ever assessed whether the state's monitoring system is "capable of ensuring continued compliance with the law and the provision of FAPE to children with disabilities in Ravenswood." Moreover, he said, even if the federal agency had ruled on that precise question, the issue was one of potential deference, not jurisdiction.
For the next two years, the parties filed multiple joint stipulations of dispute resolutions but were at an impasse. On January 9, 2014, the monitor issued an 88-page report and determined that the monitoring system of the California Department of Education (CDE) was inadequate as applied to Ravenswood. The monitor’s report recommended that the court order the monitor to develop a corrective action plan and hire an outside consultant to develop such plan. On April 6, 2014, the state defendants moved to set aside monitor’s report and the plaintiffs subsequently filed an opposition brief against the defendants on May 14, 2014.
On July 2, 2014, Judge Henderson upheld the entirety of the monitor's findings and authorized the monitor to move forward with developing a corrective action plan and reform CDE’s statewide special education monitoring system. CDE was responsible for the costs associated with the development and oversight of the corrective action plan, including the outside consultant’s costs. On July 31, 2014, the state defendants appealed the court’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit and alleged, inter alia, that the district court lacked jurisdiction to issue such orders. The state defendants also sought to stay the Court’s ruling until the conclusion of the pending appeal, but the court (Judge Henderson) denied the motion to stay on August 25, 2014. On March 29, 2016, the monitor submitted a memorandum regarding CDE’s failure to comply with the fifth joint agreement that had been approved in January 2013. The court originally ordered CDE to show cause but later, on June 23, 2016, discharged that order without finding contempt or imposition of sanctions.
On December 15, 2016, the Ninth Circuit (Judges Thomas, Kozinski, and Friedland) affirmed the district court's order. The Circuit also affirmed that the district court did not exceed its subject matter jurisdiction or the scope of the consent decree in its orders. Although the case originally involved Ravenswood City School District’s IDEA compliance, the lawsuit also challenged the failure of CDE to fulfill its obligation to provide a FAPE. When the district court determined in 2014 that CDE failed to show the efficacy of its preexisting state-level monitoring system and ordered the monitor to develop a corrective action plan, the district court was authorized to order implementation of those recommendations. The defendants sought a panel rehearing regarding the Ninth Circuit’s decision in 2015 but this petition was denied on March 7, 2017.
On January 20, 2017, the district court issued an order regarding CDE’s failure to provide the monitor with information needed to evaluate whether CDE was complying with the consent decree. Judge Henderson noted that this was "simply unacceptable" and asserted that sanctions would be imposed unless CDE turned over the information immediately.
On March 10, 2017, the monitor’s report reported CDE’s key violations to the court. Mainly, the monitor asserted that CDE’s submissions revealed little movement toward the compliance with the corrective action plan and noted that “such a state of affairs, particularly in light of the finding of prior corrective action plan monitoring reports, is not acceptable.” On March 22, 2017, Judge Henderson stated that he was "dismayed by the Monitor’s recent report,” especially because CDE recently stated that it was continuing to work on the corrective action plan. He ordered the parties to appear on April 20, 2017, for a status conference to discuss compliance with the corrective action plan and consent decree.
In August 2017, Judge Henderson assumed inactive status and the case was reassigned to Judge Vince Chhabria. The court continued to review the defendants' compliance with the consent decree. On May 18, 2018, after hearing from both parties, Judge Chhabria set forth a four-phase plan for the school district to demonstrate compliance. Assuming the school district fully complied, the consent decree would be lifted in 2020.
On August 17, 2018, Judge Chhabria concluded that the California Department of Education was in "substantial compliance" regarding phase 1 requirements, meaning that the defendant had collected sufficient data to demonstrate compliance.
The court then conducted several hearings to assess compliance of phase 2 objectives, which focused on how the state analyzed data to determine which school districts required intervention and what intervention was called for. On July 15, 2019, Judge Chhabria concluded that there were serious defects in the defendants' processes and ultimately found that the defendants did not satisfy their phase 2 obligations. The court thus ordered that phase 2 proceedings be repeated until the defendants could demonstrate compliance.
As of March 30, 2020, the parties had not yet completed phase 2 proceedings.
Joshua Arocho (11/2/2012)
MJ Koo (3/31/2017)
Hope Brinn (3/30/2020)
For PACER's information on parties and their attorneys, see: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/4165276/parties/emma-c-v-thurmond/
Bal, Colleen (California)
Casey, Thomas F. III (California)
Aguilar, Edmundo (California)
Armsby, Aimee B. (California)
Bedwell, Marsha A. (California)
Chhabria, Vince Girdhari (California)
Friedland, Michelle Taryn (California)
Henderson, Thelton Eugene (California)
Kozinski, Alex (California)
Larson, James L. (California)
Mlawer, Mark (California)
Thomas, Sidney Runyan (Montana)
See docket on RECAP: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/4165276/emma-c-v-thurmond/
Last updated July 12, 2023, 12:07 a.m.
State / Territory: California
Filing Date: Nov. 18, 1996
Case Ongoing: Yes
Children with disabilities who presently attend, or have in the past attended, schools in the Ravenswood City School District.
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: Yes
Class Action Outcome: Granted
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Plaintiff
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Form of Settlement:
Order Duration: 2000 - None
Content of Injunction:
Type of Facility: