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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education v. Disability Rights of North Carolina

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

December 30, 2019

CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG BOARD OF EDUCATION d/b/a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Plaintiff,
v.
DISABILITY RIGHTS OF NORTH CAROLINA, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Robert J. Conrad, Jr. United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 49), and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 50). Plaintiff Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (“Plaintiff” or “CMBE”) controls and operates Mecklenburg County public schools, including the Metro School. Metro serves students who are cognitively disabled. Defendant Disability Rights of North Carolina (“Defendant” or “DRNC”) is a private organization that has been designated as the Protection and Advocacy Agency (“P&A”) for the State of North Carolina. The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act (“DDA”) and the Protection and Advocacy of Individual Rights Program (“PAIR”) authorize a P&A to have access to records of individuals with disabilities under certain circumstances. One such circumstance is when the P&A has probable cause to believe that an individual has been or may be subject to abuse or neglect. DRNC determined that it had such probable cause as to all Metro students and requested that CMBE provide certain records and information, including the names of and contact information for the parents or guardians of all students. CMBE refused to provide the requested parent name and contact information, contending that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”) prohibited it from doing so. CMBE also contended that DRNC's stated basis for its probable cause determination was insufficient under the DDA and PAIR. Through this action, the parties ask the Court to interpret these statutes and the parties' respective obligations thereunder.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On June 7, 2017, DRNC sent a letter to CMBE stating, in relevant part, that DRNC “received a complaint regarding improper use of restraint, including but not limited to wheelchairs and other assistive technology devices, at Metro” and thus was “conducting an investigation into student care and treatment.” (Doc. No. 10, at Ex. 1.) DRNC requested that CMBE provide the individual education plans (“IEPs”) for all students at Metro and copies of all forms, waivers, and other parental permission given to the school for the use of wheelchairs or other devices.[1] In the alternative, DRNC requested the names of and contact information for the parents or guardians (“parent name and contact information”) of each student enrolled at Metro so that DRNC could contact the parents or guardians to obtain consent to the release of complete records.

         At some point, DRNC initiated monitoring activities at Metro. Thereafter, on June 16, 2017, DRNC sent an email to CMBE stating:

For some of the students, [DRNC] has received a complaint of alleged abuse or neglect, and seeks the requested records based upon such a complaint. . . . For the remainder of the students . . . [DRNC] has determined that there is probable cause to believe that the students may have been, or may be, subjected to abuse/neglect. Based on the information provided to [DRNC] and [DRNC's] observations during the monitoring visit (including the extensive number of wheelchairs, Rifton chairs, [2] and other devices present in Metro's classrooms that constitute a restraint), [DRNC] finds there is a reasonable ground to believe that all of the other students at Metro have been or may be subject to abuse/neglect. Therefore, [DRNC] is entitled to obtain the requested records for all students at Metro.

(Doc. No. 10, at Ex. 7.)

         On July 13, 2017, CMBE mailed to DRNC the redacted IEPs of all Metro students. (Doc. No. 10, ¶ 20; Doc. No. 25, ¶ 20.)

         On August 3, 2017, DRNC sent a letter to CMBE stating that it had probable cause to believe that abuse or neglect occurred at Metro and requested parent name and contact information for all students. (Doc. No. 10, at Ex. 4.)

         On August 9, 2017, CMBE sent a response letter to DRNC denying DRNC's request for parent name and contact information for all students. (Doc. No. 10, at Ex. 5.) CMBE requested additional information underlying DRNC's probable cause determination. CMBE stated that its position was that “DRNC is not entitled to parent or guardian contact information due to the protections guaranteed to [its] students under FERPA, North Carolina privacy laws, and CMS board policies.” (Doc. No. 10, at Ex. 5.)

         On August 14, 2017, DRNC sent a letter to CMBE in which it provided a “limited summary of the information underlying [its] probable cause determination” as follows:

During visits to Metro School, [DRNC] staff members observed students being transported throughout the school in wheelchairs. [They] learned that many of these students are capable of ambulating and do not require the use of a wheelchair. Instead, the wheelchairs were used for ‘safety' and the convenience of staff. Such use of a wheelchair is an inappropriate form of restraint. During these visits, [DRNC] staff members observed students sitting in Rifton chairs. [They] learned that for many of these students, the Rifton chairs do not serve as adaptive equipment or assistive technology. Instead, they are used to contain the students and ‘keep them still' during classroom instruction. Such use of a Rifton chair is an inappropriate form of restraint. [DRNC] received information indicating that these practices are fairly commonplace. Therefore, [DRNC] determined that there is probable cause to believe students at Metro School have been subjected to the use of inappropriate restraint, and thus to abuse and/or neglect.

(Doc. No. 10, at Ex. 6.)

         CMBE initiated this action on August 18, 2017. CMBE's first claim seeks a declaratory judgment that FERPA prohibits CMBE from providing to DRNC parent name and contact information for all Metro students. (Doc. No. 10, at 7-8, 11.) CMBE's second claim seeks a declaratory judgment that DRNC does not have a sufficient factual basis for its determination that it has probable cause to believe all Metro students have been or may be subject to abuse or neglect and, thus, CMBE is not required to provide the requested parent name and contact information. (Doc. No. 10, at 8-11.)

         On August 23, 2017, DRNC initiated a separate action against CMBE, which was consolidated with this action on November 9, 2017. (Doc. No. 20.) DRNC seeks declaratory and injunctive relief under the DDA, PAIR, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Specifically, DRNC seeks (1) a declaratory judgment that CMBE's refusal to provide the requested information violates the DDA and PAIR and (2) permanent injunctive relief requiring CMBE to provide parent name and contact information for all Metro students. (No. 3:17-cv-00511-RJC-DSC, Doc. No. 1, at 8.)

         On September 6, 2019, the parties moved for summary judgment on all claims and issues.[3] On November 26, 2019, the Court held oral argument on the pending motions. Having been fully ...


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