A six-year class action against District public schools officials over a failure to provide special education programs to preschoolers won't be decertified in light of the Supreme Court's June 2011 ruling in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes.
U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth, in one of two opinions (PDF) published Wednesday morning, found that the class in this case – unlike the female Wal-Mart employees who had attempted to certify a class in Wal-Mart – showed enough "commonality" in that they all claimed to have been denied their legal right to a "free appropriate public education."
Lamberth also issued a new ruling (PDF) on the merits of the case, finding that the city continued to fail to identify eligible students and properly provide special education programs for preschoolers from 2008 through April 6 of this year. The opinion extends an order from last year finding that the city had failed to provide these programs during the period before 2007.
Lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Bruce Terris of Washington’s Terris, Pravlik & Millian, as well as a representative of the city attorney general’s office, were not immediately available for comment.
A spokesman for District of Columbia Public Schools, Frederick Lewis, said in an e-mail that, “We cannot comment while the Court’s Orders are under review.” Lewis also noted that the city is ranked 15th among states nationwide in its identification of students eligible for special education services.
It’s a case that’s proved troublesome for the city in the past. On May 9, Lamberth issued an opinion criticizing the city for its handling of discovery in the case, writing that “a discovery violation of this exotic magnitude is literally unheard of in this Court.”
The class action stems from allegations that city school officials failed to identify and provide special education programs to preschool students in need for years, in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and other federal and local statutes, according to the complaint (PDF). The class was certified in 2006.
The city moved to decertify (PDF) the class in March, arguing that the name plaintiffs had aged out of the class. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Wal-Mart, the city filed an additional brief (PDF) on July 1, arguing that, just as in Wal-Mart, the plaintiffs here “bundled together multiple different allegations of a variety of different provisions” and that the “complaint sweeps too broadly for purposes of commonality.”
In the opinion today, Lamberth wrote that once the class was certified, the name plaintiffs could continue to represent the interests of the class, even if they had grown too old to be directly affected by the outcome. On the Wal-Mart question, Lamberth found that the plaintiffs “amply” showed that there are issues common to the entire class.
“All of the class members have suffered the same injury: denial of their statutory right to a free appropriate public education,” Lamberth wrote. Just because the plaintiffs might have been denied that education in different ways, the judge wrote, “the superficially different allegations in this case points back to a basic injury common to all members of the class."
In the other opinion, Lamberth found that the city public school system had continued to fail to identify and provide special education services to eligible preschool children. Lamberth presided over a bench trial in the case in April. The judge found that while the city had made some reforms, they were undone by turnover within the school system.
“Since defendants have demonstrated their historic inability to keep their promises to the District’s disabled preschool children, this Court hereby makes it crystal clear that failing to abide by the Court’s Order will earn defendants far more significant court involvement and oversight than is ordered this day,” Lamberth wrote.