Federal appeals court says teacher can't be sued by child who left school district
WILLMAR -- A federal appeals court has said a child and her mother did not have standing to sue the Willmar School District over alleged mistreatment by a special education teacher.
Because Jackie Nelson filed a complaint after she had transferred her child to another district in the fall of 2006, she no longer had a valid claim against the Willmar district, according to an opinion issued Thursday by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Using previous decisions as a precedent, the three-judge appeals court panel ruled that the claim against the school district under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act must have been filed before the child was transferred.
The court also dismissed several constitutional claims.
The opinion affirms the August 2008 decision of U.S. District Judge David S. Doty to dismiss the suit. In a separate concurring opinion, one of the judges suggested that in some cases there could be an exception made if a child were in imminent danger of physical or psychological harm, but he didn't find that exception in this case.
Nelson had alleged excessive use of a seclusion room and restraining holds by teacher Lisa Van Der Heiden at Lincoln Elementary School. She also alleged that school officials knew about alleged abuse in Van Der Heiden's classroom and did not try to stop it.
Van Der Heiden, through her attorneys, has strongly denied that any abuse took place and has said she was following the recommendations of the child's individualized education program.
Van Der Heiden was pleased with the ruling, said her lawyer Laura Tubbs Booth, and happy that the court's opinion noted that the child is doing well at the school she now attends.
"She was glad for the litigation to finally be concluded, as well," Booth said. The lawsuit was initially filed in late 2007, and the incidents that precipitated it occurred in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
Booth said she felt the opinion strongly supported current law in that "where an IEP calls for restraints, a teacher can't be faulted for using them."
"The school district is very pleased," said Nancy Blumstein, the school district's attorney. The suit had included several district administrators, including former Superintendent Kathy Leedom and Principal Beckie Simenson, who was principal at Lincoln Elementary.
The opinion follows what the district argued, she said.
Margaret O'Sullivan Kane, the attorney for the child, said she was disappointed in the outcome.
"This is really a sad day for children who are placed in abusive environments," Kane said. "The reality is it's a bad outcome for this kid."
The court dismissed the case on procedural grounds and stopped short of addressing the issue of the alleged abusive environment, she said.
Kane said she wanted to take more time to digest the opinion before she decides what to do. The appeals court said the plaintiff was free to pursue state charges that had been dismissed earlier.
Kane said she could also ask the entire Court of Appeals to review the case or apply for a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court. A very small percentage of cases are accepted by the Supreme Court, but Kane said the court may consider it because the Eighth Circuit has different standards for such cases than other federal courts.
"The reality is that there's no other court in the country that is denying access this way," she said.
Booth disagreed. "The other circuits aren't issuing decisions in conflict with this decision," she said.
The federal lawsuit is one of several legal issues involving Van Der Heiden. A second family went public with complaints about the teacher shortly after Nelson filed her federal suit.
She recently won an appeal of a state maltreatment finding in the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The Minnesota Department of Education had found that she was guilty of maltreatment by denying the child in this federal suit access to the restroom.
The state has investigated her two other times for maltreatment allegations, according to court records.
The state Board of Teaching has been monitoring Van Der Heiden's teaching performance and compliance with regulations for two years. According to a 2008 agreement, the monitoring is to conclude next month.