A federal judge has tossed claims brought by the parents of a child with hearing and visual impairments who sued a school district for denying their son access to schooling for two years and for allegedly discriminating against them by association.
U.S. District Judge Gerald J. Pappert of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted the School District of Philadelphia’s motion to dismiss claims of discrimination by association under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Act brought by plaintiffs Troy Souders and Melissa McCullough.
According to Pappert’s opinion, the parents moved into the school district in April 2014 and the school district refused to admit the boy, Elijah, with only a few months of school left. The following October, the district enrolled him in a high school, but it could not accommodate his disabilities, which also included chronic renal failure.
The district unsuccessfully attempted to place him in other schools over the course of two years, but none would accept his enrollment, save for one that was 30 miles away from his home.
Elijah’s parents sued, claiming the district denied him access to its facilities and services, causing him emotional suffering during that period from physical and social isolation, as well as harming him “financially due to his lack of schooling and delayed progress toward independence.”
They also claimed they were discriminated against based on their association with their son. They alleged they lost the right to participate in their son’s education, that they suffered physical and social isolation while caring for Elijah during the nearly two-year period when he was not in school, suffered a reduced quality of life, earnings, fewer job opportunities and lack of independence, according to Pappert.
Furthermore, the parents alleged they suffered financially because caring for Elijah cut into their work, and that Elijah’s delayed progress toward self-reliance increased their future costs and expenses. Finally, they also claimed a loss of consortium.
However, Pappert said the couple failed to meet the threshold of ADA and RA association claims.
“The complaint focuses on an act of discrimination toward Elijah. It does not allege facts from which the court could reasonably infer that Elijah’s parents were personally excluded from or personally denied benefits the school district was obligated to provide them or personally discriminated against by the school district because of their association with Elijah. Their alleged emotional and financial injuries, physical and social isolation and loss of consortium derive from Elijah’s own exclusion from school,” Pappert said.
“Although they conclusorily allege they were denied the right to participate in Elijah’s education, they have not alleged that the school district acted to deny them a benefit separate and distinct from the benefit Elijah was denied,” Pappert continued. “To the extent such a claim could be independent of the alleged discrimination against Elijah, the only alleged fact that could support their conclusion is that the school district did not contact them to discuss placement options for Elijah after they declined to send him to a school over thirty miles from their home. This lawsuit focuses on various schools’ rejection of applications made by the school district on Elijah’s behalf; the complaint concerns the district’s inability or unwillingness to accommodate Elijah’s disabilities, not shutting his parents out of the process.”
Benjamin J. Hinerfeld of Kershenbaum & Raffaele represents the parents and Elijah.
“We’re obviously disappointed and we’re considering our options,” Hinerfeld said. “We feel that the trends for discrimination by association are moving more toward our claim but Judge Pappert obviously felt differently. Elijah still has a very strong claim that we’re going to pursue vigorously.”
The school district’s lawyer, John Coyle, did not respond to a request for comment.