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Phillips v. Town of Hebron

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 7, 2017

ALEXANDER PHILLIPS ppa Ralph E. Phillips, Plaintiff,
TOWN OF HEBRON, et al., Defendants.


          Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

         I. Introduction

         Defendants Town of Hebron, Hebron Board of Education, and various teachers and school officials at a Hebron elementary school (collectively, the “Defendants”) removed this case from Connecticut Superior Court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction. Although the complaint pleads claims created by state statutes and common law, Defendants contend that federal question jurisdiction exists because those claims assert the violation of a duty created by federal law, i.e., the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et. seq. (ECF No. 1 at 2.) Plaintiff has filed a motion to remand the case to state court, arguing that the complaint does not raise a “substantial federal question” under relevant Supreme Court case law. (ECF No. 12 at 1.) For the reasons set forth below, I agree with Plaintiff and grant the motion to remand.

         II. Background

         A. Facts Alleged in the Complaint

         Plaintiff, Alexander Phillips, is a seven-year-old child diagnosed with Down Syndrome and “without functional speech.” (ECF No. 1-2 at 2.)[1] He attends Gilead Hill Elementary School (“Gilead”), a public school in Hebron, Connecticut, where he has an individualized education program (“IEP”).[2] Alexander's IEP provides that he is to “spend 26.33 hours per week with children/students who do not have disabilities.” (Id. at 5.)

         On February 25, 2015, Alexander's father, Ralph Phillips, visited Alexander's kindergarten classroom. (Id. at 3.) During his visit, Mr. Phillips “noticed that Alexander and Mrs. Prior, the paraprofessional assigned to Alexander, went into the coatroom.” (Id.) Mr. Phillips was invited to observe. (Id.) Mr. Phillips “saw that there was a desk and chair for Alexander” in the coatroom. (Id.) Mr. Phillips was not aware of this arrangement and had never consented to it. (Id. at 5.) Following his visit to Alexander's classroom, on March 2, 2015, Mr. Phillips met with Mr. Joshua Martin, the Director of Special Education for Hebron Public Schools, to discuss how much time Alexander spent in the coatroom each day. (Id. at 3-4.) Mr. Martin indicated that he did not know why “Alexander would have to go to the coatroom unless there was some discrete testing going on” and assured Mr. Phillips he would look into it. (Id. at 4.)

         In the interim, on March 25, 2015, Mr. Phillips attended a planning and placement team meeting (a “PPT”) with Alexander's classroom teacher, Ms. Poulin, and his special education teacher, Mrs. Ellsworth. (Id. at 4.) At the PPT, Mr. Phillips inquired as to how much time Alex spent in the coatroom. (Id.) Mrs. Ellsworth responded that Alex spent “on average, about 40 minutes a day” in the coatroom doing projects or classwork. (Id.) Ms. Poulin added that Alex “work[ed] in the coatroom because his projects require[d] a lot of space and there [was not] enough [space] in the classroom” and further, that Alex was assigned to the coatroom because he could be “distracting to other children” and other children could “be distracting to him.” (Id. at 5.) Five days after the PPT, on March 30, 2015, Gilead notified Mr. Phillips that Alexander's workspace had been moved from the coatroom into the classroom. (Id.)

         More than a year later, on June 22, 2016, Mr. Philips learned that Ms. Ellen Kirkpatrick, Gilead's school nurse, on May 13, 2016, had -- without Mr. Phillips' consent -- taken Alexander “into a room at school, removed his clothes, photographed him with her personal cellphone, and sent the photographs via text message to a third party.” (Id. at 23.) Two days earlier, on May 11, 2016, Ms. Kirkpatrick had requested and received permission from Ms. Patricia Buell, Hebron's Director of Educational Services, to take that action. (Id. at 24-25.) After learning of the May 13 incident, Mr. Phillips convened a meeting with Mr. Timothy Van Tasel, the Superintendent of Hebron Public Schools, to discuss the incident. (Id. at 26-27.) At that meeting, Superintendent Tasel informed Mr. Phillips that he had directed Hebron staff to maintain communication with Mr. Phillips and obtain his consent before taking any actions concerning Alexander. (Id. at 27.)

         B. Plaintiff's Causes of Action

         In his complaint, Plaintiff asserts seventeen state law causes of action arising from his placement in the coatroom and the photographs taken by Ms. Kirkpatrick. Plaintiff claims (i) discrimination in violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 46a-58(a) and 46a-75(a) and (b) (counts one through five); (ii) negligence per se (counts six through ten); (iii) assault (counts eleven and twelve); and (iv) negligence (counts thirteen through seventeen).

         More specifically, the discrimination claims (counts one through five) allege the defendants - Hebron Board of Education, Martin, Wilson, Ellsworth, and Poulin - violated Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 46a-58(a) and 46a-75(a) and (b) when they deprived Alexander of “his rights, privileges or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of [Connecticut] or of the United States on account of [his] disabilities.” (ECF No. 1-2 at 6-9, 11, 13.) In those claims, Plaintiff also alleges that those defendants violated Alexander's “right to be educated in the least restrictive environment as provided by [the IDEA.].” (Id. at 7.) Further, in the negligence per se counts (six through ten), Plaintiff claims that the same defendants “had a duty under [the IDEA] to educate [Alexander] in the least restrictive environment, ” and they breached that duty because they “knew or should have known that [Alexander] was not spending time with nondisabled children to the maximum extent possible” resulting in “imminent harm and/or detriment to his academic and social development.” (Id. at 15-22.) The next two counts - counts eleven and twelve - claim assault by defendants Kirkpatrick and Buell. (Id. at 23-26.) The final counts - thirteen through seventeen brought against defendants Van Tasel, Brody, Martin, Wilson, and Buell - assert multiple theories of negligence, including that Martin and Wilson “failed to take reasonable steps to supervise and/or control” school staff “to ensure [Alexander's] rights under state and federal law were protected.” (Id. at 32, 34.)

         III. Relevant Law

         A. ...

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