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Media Alerts - A.C. et al v. Shelby County Board of Education - 6th Circuit
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April 19, 2013
  A.C. et al v. Shelby County Board of Education - 6th Circuit
Headline: Sixth Circuit clarifies standard for prima facie cases under the ADA.

Area of Law: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); Rehabilitation Act (Section 504).

Issue(s) Presented: (1) Did the district court properly apply the test for a prima facie case of retaliation under the ADA and Section 504? (2) Did the district court err in finding that the plaintiffs' evidence of retaliatory intent was insufficient?

Brief Summary: After the parents of a disabled child asked their child's school for a series of accommodations, their relationship with the school grew tense, and the school principal filed a Department of Child Services report alleging parental abuse. The district court found that the report was not retaliatory and granted summary judgment in the school district's favor. The parents appealed, arguing that summary judgment was improper because the district court applied a heightened clear-and-convincing-evidence standard and because the court had ignored substantial evidence of retaliatory intent. The Sixth Circuit agreed, reversing and remanding the case.

Significance: This case clarifies the plaintiff's burden under the burden-shifting analysis for an ADA or Section 504 case.

Extended Summary: When a child with Type 1 diabetes began kindergarten, her parents sought a number of accommodations for her. The school met some of their requests, but it did not meet others, and the relationship between the school and the family soured. Their relationship continued to deteriorate as the child continued through school. By her second-grade year, tensions between the school and the family boiled over, and the school principal filed a Department of Child Services report alleging that the parents were medically abusing their child. The report was found to be untrue. The parents sued the school district, alleging that the false report of abuse was a retaliatory act that violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504).

After discovery, the school district moved for summary judgment; the district court granted the motion. The district court held that the parents failed to prove two essential elements of their prima facie case: an adverse action by the school district and a causal link between that action and the plaintiffs' protected act. In assessing the parents' prima facie case (and pretext argument), the district court required clear and convincing evidence that the principal had acted in bad faith, with a punitive or retaliatory intent. In imposing this higher burden, the district court relied largely on a state law cloaking school reports of child abuse with a presumption of good faith.

The parents appealed, arguing that the district court improperly imposed a heightened burden of proof and that the court failed to fully consider evidence that the school district had illegally retaliated against them. The Sixth Circuit reversed.

The Sixth Circuit explained that to establish a prima facie case of retaliation where there is no direct evidence of retaliation, a plaintiff must meet the four elements of the McDonnell burden-shifting test. The elements are (1) whether the plaintiff's act was protected under the ADA or Section 504; (2) whether the defendant was aware of the plaintiff's protected act; (3) whether the defendant's action constituted "adverse action"; and (4) whether there was a causal relationship between the plaintiff's protected act and the defendant's supposedly retaliatory action. If the plaintiff can establish a prima facie case, the defendant may rebut that by showing that there was a legitimate basis for its action. The plaintiff then has a final opportunity to prove his or her case by showing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant acted illegally.

The Sixth Circuit disagreed with the district court's finding that the parents failed to establish a prima facie case. It rejected the district court's heightened clear-and-convincing-evidence standard, reaffirming that the proper standard is preponderance of the evidence. Under this standard, the Sixth Circuit found sufficient evidence of retaliation. The court noted that the filing of a Department of Child Services report has previously been considered an adverse action. And the Sixth Circuit indicated that the standard for a retaliatory act is quite low; it is satisfied by any act that would make a reasonable person stop pursuing a protected activity.

The court next observed that a plaintiff can meet the causal-connection element by showing "temporal proximity" between the protected activity and the defendant's adverse action. Here, the evidence showed that the principal's report of abuse was untrue and that its timing could be seen as suspicious. Thus, according to the Sixth Circuit, the parents presented sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case, and the burden shifted to the school district.

The Sixth Circuit believed that the school district adequately rebutted the parents' prima facie case, but it also found that the parents' proofs were sufficient to prove pretext. The court concluded that a reasonable jury could find by a preponderance of the evidence that the school district's "stated concerns about [the child's] health [when making the abuse report] were pretextual, and that the [reports] were actually motivated by the school's well-established displeasure with [the] parents and their accommodation requests." Thus, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment and remanded the case.

Link to Full Opinion: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/op...s.pdf/13a0086p-06.pdf

Panel: Batchelder, Keith, and Martin

Argument: October 10, 2012

Date of Issued Opinion: April 1, 2013

Docket Number: 11-6506

Decided: Reversed and remanded.

Case Alert Author: Sarah Fuhrman

Counsel: ARGUED: Justin S. Gilbert, Gilbert Russell McWherter, PLC, Jackson, Tennessee, for Appellants. Valerie B. Speakman, Shelby County Board of Education, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Justin S. Gilbert, Gilbert Russell McWherter, PLC, Jackson, Tennessee, for Appellants. Valerie B. Speakman, Shelby County Board of Education, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellee. Gregory C. Paul, Morgan & Paul, PLC, Sewickly, Pennsylvania, for Amicus Curiae.
Author of Opinion: Alice M. Batchelder, Chief Judge

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mark Cooney

Edited: 04/19/2013 at 12:35 PM by Mark Cooney

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 04/19/2013 12:24 PM     6th Circuit  

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