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Fifth Circuit “Un-Dismisses” Ex-Austin ISD Student’s Special-Ed Lawsuit — Thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court Decision

Ruling: A three-month-old U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a special-ed lawsuit that originated in Michigan means that a Texas mother will be able to pursue her special-ed lawsuit against her son’s former ISD after all. Nidia Heston, As next of friend and mother to A.H., a minor child, v. Austin ISD, No. 22-50295. Issued June 22, by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Ordered “published”)

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This order by a three-judge Fifth Circuit panel — that reversed a dismissal by a federal judge of Heston’s special-ed lawsuit against AISD on behalf of her son (“A.H.”) — is rooted in a March 21, 2023, U.S. Supreme Court decision.

  • Note: The unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision (read about it here) sided with a deaf student who sued his former Michigan school district. The justices concluded that a plaintiff (typically, a parent, on behalf of their child) who doesn’t complete the administrative hearings process in a special-ed dispute with a school district only loses the right to sue the district for a claim of violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

    The plaintiff could — without going through the administrative hearing process — still pursue a lawsuit that claims violations of other federal laws which (unlike IDEA) could allow for the recovery of compensatory (monetary) damages, the justices ruled.

In This Texas Case
Heston’s complaint was that AISD, in 2016, had ignored her pleas to have a different aide assigned to her 14-year-old son, A.H., due to his disabling condition. The aide verbally harassed A.H., and seriously injured him when she threw a wastebasket at his head, reports reflect.

Heston initiated the TEA-appointed special-ed hearing officer process, and later sued the district before there was a ruling.

Heston’s lawsuit accused AISD of violating IDEA as well as other claims under: 1) §504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 2) the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and 3) §1983 (civil action for deprivation of rights).

$50,000 Settlement Agreement
AISD and Heston entered into a settlement agreement for her to drop the lawsuit in exchange for the district agreeing to pay up to $50,000 for tuition for A.H. to attend any private school of Heston’s choosing. The district stipulated in the agreement that Heston could file another lawsuit on her remaining (non-IDEA) §504, ADA and §1983 claims.

Heston filed a second lawsuit on the remaining claims, which the judge dismissed (and the Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal) based on the long standing precedent that for a parent to sue a school district under federal law related to a person with a disability for a claim that involves a potential violation of IDEA, the dispute must have first been “exhausted” via the administrative (special-ed hearing officer) process.

Heston filed a third lawsuit against AISD, again alleging similar violations — which the trial judge dismissed in 2022.

The Fifth Circuit panel, in this latest decision, noted that both the judge’s dismissal order and Heston’s appeal were filed before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its order in the Michigan case.

Without considering the merits of the appeal, the justices ordered the dispute sent back to the trial judge for further proceedings on Heston’s non-IDEA claims.