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D.J. v. Connecticut State Board of Education

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 23, 2018

D.J., through his parent O.W., on behalf of a class of those similarly situated, Plaintiff,


          CHARLES S. HAIGHT, JR. Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff D.J. brings this purported class action through his parent O.W. against the Connecticut State Board of Education, alleging a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a), and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, and compensatory damages. Plaintiff has filed a motion to certify a class, and a motion for summary judgment. Defendant has cross-moved for summary judgment. However, before the Court may consider those pending motions, it must resolve the threshold question of standing.

         An inquiry into Plaintiff's standing to bring this case is not only appropriate, it is constitutionally mandated.

[F]ederal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, their powers circumscribed at their most basic level by the terms of Article III of the Constitution, which states that they may hear only "Cases" or "Controversies." U.S. Const. art. III, § 2, cl. 1. Although the "case or controversy" requirement has itself been a fertile ground for controversy through the years, at its uncontroverted core lies the principle that, at all times, the dispute before the court must be real and live, not feigned, academic, or conjectural.

Russman v. Bd. of Educ. of Enlarged City Sch. Dist. of City of Watervliet, 260 F.3d 114, 118 (2d Cir. 2001). "Standing to sue is a doctrine rooted in the traditional understanding of a case or controversy. . . . The doctrine limits the category of litigants empowered to maintain a lawsuit in federal court to seek redress for a legal wrong." Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S.Ct. 1540, 1547 (2016) (citations omitted), as revised (May 24, 2016). "In essence the question of standing is whether the litigant is entitled to have the court decide the merits of the dispute or of particular issues. This inquiry involves both constitutional limitations on federal-court jurisdiction and prudential limitations on its exercise." Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498 (1975).

         "Fundamentally, standing simply means that the plaintiff is entitled to walk through the courthouse door and raise his grievance before a federal court[.]" Baur v. Veneman, 352 F.3d 625, 643 (2d Cir. 2003) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Thus, if a plaintiff lacks Article III standing, a court has no jurisdiction to hear his claims. And "[b]ecause the standing issue goes to this Court's subject matter jurisdiction, it can be raised sua sponte." Cent. States Se. & Sw. Areas Health & Welfare Fund v. Merck-Medco Managed Care, L.L.C., 433 F.3d 181, 198 (2d Cir. 2005) (citations omitted).

         The "'irreducible constitutional minimum' of standing consists of three elements. The plaintiff must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision." Spokeo, Inc., 136 S.Ct. at 1547 (quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992)). The party invoking federal jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing these three elements, id., and this burden "increases over the course of litigation." Cacchillo v. Insmed, Inc., 638 F.3d 401, 404 (2d Cir. 2011).

Since they are not mere pleading requirements but rather an indispensable part of the plaintiff's case, each element must be supported in the same way as any other matter on which the plaintiff bears the burden of proof, i.e., with the manner and degree of evidence required at the successive stages of the litigation. At the pleading stage, general factual allegations of injury resulting from the defendant's conduct may suffice, for on a motion to dismiss we presume that general allegations embrace those specific facts that are necessary to support the claim. In response to a summary judgment motion, however, the plaintiff can no longer rest on such "mere allegations, " but must "set forth" by affidavit or other evidence "specific facts, " Fed. Rule Civ.Proc. 56(e), which for purposes of the summary judgment motion will be taken to be true.

Lujan, 504 U.S. at 561 (quotation marks, alteration and citation omitted).

         Consistent with its obligation to do so, the Court considers sua sponte whether Plaintiff D.J. has standing to commence and prosecute this action, either individually or as the representative of the purported class.

         The Complaint alleges that D.J. is an individual with intellectual disabilities who turned 21 years old on May 29, 2016. Doc. 1, ¶ 2. D.J. and co-Plaintiff O.W., his parent and guardian, bring this purported class action "to establish the rights of Plaintiff D.J. and the class he seeks to represent to a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA")." Id., ¶ 1.

         The regulations implementing the IDEA state that the obligation to provide a free appropriate public education to children with disabilities "does not apply with respect to . . . [c]hildren with disabilities who have graduated from high school with a regular high school diploma." 34 C.F.R. § 300.102(a)(3)(i). Such a diploma must be "fully aligned with State standards[.]" Id. at (a)(3)(iv). Connecticut law provides the criteria for high school graduation in this state. See Conn. Gen. Stat. §10-221a. While a student who has not yet received a regular high school diploma remains eligible for special education through the end of the school year in which that student turns 21 years of age, see Conn. Gen. Stat § 10-76d(b); Conn. Agencies Regs. § 10-76d-1(a)(4), there appears to be no question that a student who has received a regular high school diploma does not remain eligible for such services.

         In the case at bar, Plaintiff filed a Complaint on July 15, 2016, alleging that D.J. "has not received a high school diploma." Doc. 1, ¶17. The Complaint further alleges that until the end of the school year in which he turned 21, Plaintiff D.J. received a free appropriate public education pursuant to the IDEA at the Hartford Public High School Law and Government Academy. Id., ¶¶2, 20. Plaintiff seeks to certify a class pursuant to Rule 23(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure of all individuals who would have otherwise qualified to continue receiving a FAPE but for turning 21, "because they have not or had not yet earned a regular high school diploma." Id., ¶36. Plaintiff seeks a declaration that the Connecticut laws which terminate the entitlement of Connecticut students receiving a FAPE under the IDEA at the end of the school year in which the student turns 21 are inconsistent with the IDEA, "because they apply only to special education students and not to non-special education students." Id., ¶30.

         Plaintiff's Complaint satisfied his burden of establishing at the pleading stage that he had standing to pursue his claims. However, "[t]hat point is irrelevant now, however, for we are beyond the pleading stage." Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 357 (1996). Plaintiff has filed a motion for class certification, and a motion for summary judgment. In support of the summary judgment motion, Plaintiff appended an affidavit, authored by Plaintiff O.W., D.J.'s parent. The affidavit states, inter alia, that "D.J. earned a diploma from Hartford Public High School in or about 2013. However, he continued to receive ...

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