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Boutelle v. Board of Education of Las Cruces Public Schools

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 20, 2018

DOMINIC BOUTELLE, as parent of L.B., a minor child, Plaintiff/Counter-Defendant,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF LAS CRUCES PUBLIC SCHOOLS, Defendant/Counter-Claimant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HONORABLE GREGORY J. FOURATT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This case is before the Court[1] upon Plaintiff/Counter-Defendant Dominic Boutelle's (“Plaintiff's”) “Motion to Dismiss Counterclaim” (“Motion”) filed on April 9, 2018. ECF No. 8. Defendant/Counter-Claimant Board of Education of Las Cruces Public Schools (“Defendant”) responded on April 21, 2018. ECF No. 13. Plaintiff replied on May 3, 2018. ECF No. 16. On June 22, 2018, the Court held a hearing on the Motion to obtain additional information and argument from the parties. ECF No. l9. Having considered the parties' oral and written submissions, the record, and governing case law, the Court concludes that the Motion should be granted for the reasons that follow.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is the parent of L.B., a minor child and student living within the boundaries of the Las Cruces Public Schools District (“the District”). Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 5, ECF No. 2. Plaintiff maintains that L.B. is a child with a disability who should have qualified for special education eligibility under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (“the IDEA”). Id., see 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (2016).

         L.B. attended Camino Real Middle School, a school within the District, throughout the 2016-17 school year. See Pl.'s Compl. ¶¶ 5, 16. In that time, L.B. demonstrated noncomforming behaviors that culminated in his being subject to disciplinary measures by the District on May 1, 2017. Id. ¶¶ 17, 22-23. Plaintiff alleges that the District's failure to develop an individualized educational program for L.B. prior to imposing punishment denied L.B. the free appropriate public education guaranteed to him by the IDEA. See Id. ¶ 27. See also 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A) (guaranteeing that “all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living”). On May 4, 2017, the District crafted Plaintiff's first individualized educational program. Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 24.

         On July 31, 2017, Plaintiff challenged the District's actions by requesting a due process hearing with the New Mexico Public Education Department (“NMPED”). See Id. ¶ 10. NMPED thereafter appointed a due process hearing officer (“DPHO”) who conducted a five-day hearing in September 2017. Id. ¶ 11. The DPHO issued his decision on November 14, 2017, finding against Plaintiff and concluding generally that L.B. had not been denied a free appropriate public education by the District. See Id. ¶ 12.

         The parties stipulate that Plaintiff timely filed his appeal of the DPHO's decision to this Court on December 14, 2017. See Id. ¶¶ 13-14, Def.'s Answer and Countercl. ¶¶23-24, ECF No. 4. See also N.M. Admin. Code § 6.31.2.13(I)(24)(a) (2018) (“Any party aggrieved by the decision of a hearing officer in an IDEA matter has the right to bring a civil action in a state or federal district court . . . within 30 days of the receipt of the hearing officer's decision by the appealing agency.”). On March 19, 2018, the District filed its Original Answer and Counterclaim, which gave rise to the current controversy. ECF No. 4.

         II. PLAINTIFF'S MOTION

         Plaintiff filed the instant Motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b) urging this Court to dismiss Defendant's counterclaim on two grounds. First, Plaintiff challenges the Court's jurisdiction to hear the counterclaim, as he contends that it constitutes an untimely appeal of the DPHO's decision under both federal and state law. See Pl.'s Mot. 2-3. See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) (allowing a party to move for dismissal based on lack of subject-matter jurisdiction); N.M. Admin. Code § 6.31.2.13(I)(24)(a) (setting thirty-day period for judicial appeals of DPHO decisions). Additionally, Plaintiff argues that Defendant is not an “aggrieved party” for purposes of the IDEA, thereby depriving this Court of jurisdiction to hear its counterclaim and depriving the counterclaim of any basis upon which this Court could grant relief. See Pl.'s Mot. 3-4. See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) (allowing a party to move for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted); N.M. Admin. Code § 6.31.2.13(I)(24)(a) (allowing only an “aggrieved party” to bring a civil action challenging a DPHO's decision).

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Motions to Dismiss Under Rule 12(b)(1)

         “A 12(b)(1) motion is the proper avenue to challenge the court's subject matter jurisdiction, and Rule 12(h)(3) requires that ‘(w)henever it appears by suggestion of the parties or otherwise that the court lacks jurisdiction of the subject matter, the court shall dismiss the action.'” Barnson v. United States, 531 F.Supp. 614, 617 (D. Utah 1982). Such motions may take one of two forms. First, “a facial attack on the complaint's allegations as to subject matter jurisdiction questions the sufficiency of the complaint.” Holt v. United States, 46 F.3d 1000, 1002 (10th Cir. 1995). In reviewing motions of this type, “a district court must accept the allegations in the complaint as true.” Id. Second, “a party may go beyond allegations contained in the complaint and challenge facts upon which subject matter jurisdiction depends.” Id. at 1003. In evaluating motions brought under the second form, the Tenth Circuit explained:

When reviewing a factual attack on subject matter jurisdiction, a district court may not presume the truthfulness of the complaint's factual allegations. A court has wide discretion to allow affidavits, other documents, and a limited evidentiary hearing to resolve disputed jurisdictional facts under Rule 12(b)(1).

Id. (internal citations omitted). Accordingly, this Court reviews the face of the complaint and any relevant external materials to determine whether Plaintiff has presented claims within the Court's jurisdiction, a necessary prerequisite for adjudication on the merits. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1); see also Fleming v. Gutierrez, 785 F.3d 442, 444 (10th Cir. 2015) (holding that lack of subject matter jurisdiction precludes reaching the merits of a dispute).

         B. Motions to Dismiss Under Rule 12(b)(6)

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), a court may dismiss a complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A plaintiff's complaint (or a defendant's counterclaim) must set forth factual allegations that “raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). It is not enough for a claimant to just set forth labels, conclusions, and formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action. Id. When reviewing a complaint for Rule 12(b)(6) purposes, the Court must accept all well-pleaded allegations as true. Smith v. United States, 561 F.3d 1090, 1098 (10th Cir. 2009). The Court must view the allegations in the light most favorable to the claimant. Id. The Court “will disregard conclusory statements and look only to whether the remaining, factual allegations plausibly suggest the defendant is liable.” Khalik v. United Air Lines, 671 F.3d 1188, 1191 (10th Cir. 2012). “This plausibility standard does not require evidence of probability, but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         At first blush, Plaintiff's grounds for dismissal appear routine. Closer examination, however, reveals that neither proposition falls neatly within the four corners of settled law within this circuit, and neither can be counted among the frequently litigated topics in the federal courts. Were that not enough, neither ground may be understood without at least a basic understanding of how and when parties may appeal administrative decisions issued pursuant to the IDEA. Thus, to craft its decision, the Court will first explore relevant sections of the IDEA, followed by a sequential analysis of Plaintiff's two claims.

         A. The IDEA

         The IDEA creates an “enforceable substantive right to public education.” Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 310 (1988) (citation omitted). Further, the IDEA seeks to ensure that “all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education [(“FAPE”)] that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for employment and independent living.” 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). Providing a FAPE is achieved through the ...


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