11th Circuit reverses lower court’s decision in disability discrimination suit against Cobb County School District

The logo on front of a Cobb County School District facilityCobb County School District sign (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

By Rebecca Gaunt

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit disagreed with Chief Judge Timothy Batten, who found in favor of Cobb County School District last year, regarding a lawsuit brought by students with disabilities who requested COVID-19 mitigation strategies be reinstated in Cobb schools.

CCSD claimed the appeal was moot as the Centers for Disease Control no longer required masking, but the decision from the 11th Circuit found that the matter is a live issue as the students sought additional relief in the form of other mitigation strategies.

In October 2021, Batten, of the U.S. District Court for Northern District of Georgia, found that the plaintiffs’ argument “falls well short of the high bar required for injunctive relief.”

The latest ruling, handed down last week, reversed Batten’s decision saying “after careful review and with the benefit of oral argument, we hold this claim presents a live controversy that survives mootness and the district court erred in its review of the Students’ discrimination claims.”

The ruling from the 11th Circuit states, “[The Students] are asking this Court for more than just a mask mandate. They are asking this Court to order the district to strictly comply with each and every one of the CDC’s recommendations. Part of those recommendations include (both now and at the time of the hearing) guidance for schools on how to accommodate students with disabilities. The Students argue that CCSD ignored those recommendations and continues to disregard CDC guidance in this respect.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Goodmark Law Firm, and the Law Office of Allison B. Vrolijk filed the lawsuit on behalf of four students with disabilities and medical issues that prevented them from attending school safely in person without masks and other layered mitigation strategies in place. The lawsuit alleged that they are being denied an appropriate education in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the 2020-2021 school year, CCSD had COVID-19 mitigation strategies in place, including a mask policy, social distancing and sanitization measures, and a quarantine policy.

In the spring of 2021, while CCSD was still following CDC guidelines, Cobb students had the opportunity to select either in-person or virtual classes for the 2021-2022 school year. However, between the deadline for selection and the start of the school year, CCSD dropped most of the guidelines, including masks.

The four students represented by the lawsuit all have disabilities recognized by the ADA and Section 504. They alleged that “unless CCSD reimplemented certain safety measures, the Students would be unable to attend in-person school and would suffer irreparable harm.”

The case has been remanded back to the District Court for reevaluation.

Read the 11th Circuit’s decision in full here.