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Nelson v. Charles City Community School District

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 15, 2018

Eugene J. Nelson, as Parents and Next Friends of C.N. a Minor; Lisa J. Nelson, as Parents and Next Friends of C.N. a Minor, Plaintiffs - Appellants,
v.
Charles City Community School District, Defendant-Appellee.

          Submitted: February 15, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa - Waterloo

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, MURPHY and COLLOTON, Circuit Judges. [*]

          COLLOTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Eugene and Lisa Nelson, as parents and next friends of their daughter C.N., sued the Charles City (Iowa) Community School District. They alleged that the District violated § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a), when it failed to make reasonable accommodations for C.N. while she was a student. The district court[1] granted summary judgment for the District, reasoning that the Nelsons failed to exhaust their administrative remedies as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. We affirm.

         I.

         The parties dispute some of the facts in this case; they also have conflicting views on whether factual findings of the Iowa Department of Education in a prior administrative proceeding should have preclusive effect in this action. For purposes of this appeal, we adopt the approach most favorable to the Nelsons. We assume without deciding that the Department's factual findings that favor the Nelsons preclude relitigation of the same facts here, and we consider other disputed facts in the light most favorable to the Nelsons.

         C.N. attended a school in the Charles City Community School District for ninth grade during the 2013-2014 school year. When Lisa Nelson registered C.N., she reported under "Medical Conditions" that C.N. had polycystic ovarian syndrome ("PCOS") and depression. C.N. was absent frequently from school due to depression and complications from PCOS. On April 29, 2014, the District submitted a Truancy Referral Form regarding C.N. to the Floyd County Attorney. The Nelsons met with representatives from the District for a truancy mediation on May 22, 2014. The parties agreed that C.N. would obtain a mental health evaluation, and attend school through the end of the school year, summer school, and subsequent mediations.

         After the May 2014 mediation, Mrs. Nelson began to inquire about online educational opportunities for C.N. At a truancy mediation in July 2014, school officials encouraged Mrs. Nelson and C.N. to apply to the Iowa Connections Academy, an online educational opportunity offered through the CAM Community School District based in Anita, Iowa. Mrs. Nelson elected not to proceed with that option, and applied instead to the Iowa Virtual Academy, an online educational program through Clayton Ridge Community School District in Guttenberg, Iowa.

         Under Iowa law, through a process called open enrollment, parents may apply to enroll their child in a school district other than their own. See Iowa Code § 282.18. On July 26, 2014, Mrs. Nelson filed an open enrollment application with the Clayton Ridge District for the 2014-2015 school year, seeking permission to enroll C.N. outside the Charles City District. The application deadline was March 1, 2014, but Mrs. Nelson asserted that she had "good cause" for applying late. She represented that C.N. "was bullied, but more importantly has health issues that interfere with attendance, PCOS & depression."

         The superintendent of Clayton Ridge District recommended denying the application as untimely. He expressed willingness to reconsider, if the Charles City District recommended approval, but the Charles City superintendent also recommended denial. He noted that the application was untimely, and that the Charles City District had its own online classes in which C.N. could enroll.

         The Nelsons took the matter to the Charles City Board of Education, but the Board voted in early September 2014 to deny the open enrollment application. The Nelsons then appealed to the Iowa State Board of Education under Iowa Code § 290.1. The State Board ruled in favor of the Nelsons in February 2015 in the open enrollment proceedings:

[Mrs. Nelson's] application for open enrollment was the direct result of the [Charles City District] facilitating her open enrollment application because they could not meet the needs of C.N. [Mrs. Nelson] did exactly what administration told her to do. She has a right to expect that the district would recommend that the board approve her request, especially when [Mrs. Nelson] and C.N. are involved in a criminal truancy prosecution initiated by Charles City.

         After the State Board approved the open enrollment application, Mrs. Nelson sought to enroll C.N. in the online program through the Clayton Ridge District. But the program's representatives told Mrs. Nelson that because the school year was already ...


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