First Federal Lawsuit Filed Against Texas Governor on Mask Mandate Ban Says It Violates ADA, Section 504

Posted on

August 17, 2021

UPDATED 8/18/21: Temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction filed
UPDATED 8/31/21: Amended complaint filed adding Texas Attorney General as a defendant
UPDATED on 9/8/21: Supplemental brief filed urging court to take up request for TRO

Edie Surtees, Communications Director

First Federal Lawsuit Challenging Mask Mandate Ban Filed Against Texas Governor and TEA Commissioner Says It Violates ADA, Section 504

AUSTIN—Today, Disability Rights Texas, the federally mandated protection and advocacy agency for Texans with disabilities, and pro bono partners Winston & Strawn LLP filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of 14 child plaintiffs against Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath.

The complaint states that the Governor’s Executive Order GA-38 prohibiting school districts and charter schools from implementing mask mandates is putting students with disabilities at significant risk, is discriminatory, and violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected students with disabilities, beginning with the closure of the public school system in the spring of 2020. These students lost critical instruction and services, continuing into the 2020-21 school year. Now, the Delta variant and a surge in cases is threating this school year. Students with disabilities need in-person schooling more than other student groups, but they must be able to receive instruction and services safely. Many of these students have underlying health conditions and are at high risk for illness and even death due to COVID-19.

One of the student plaintiffs, J.R., lives in Bexar County and attends San Antonio ISD. J.R. is eight years old and lives with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a growth hormone deficiency, and moderate to severe asthma.  Her mother, Julia Longoria, doesn’t get much sleep right now because of the very real worry that her daughter, who needs in-person instruction to succeed in school, is at greater risk of serious illness, hospitalization and even death if she gets the virus. This is a very real possibility if schools are open at full capacity, with optional masking and the current level of community spread. “Having to make a choice between my daughter’s education or her life – what kind of choice is that?” said Ms. Longoria. “My child has the right to an education and to be safe at school. I shouldn’t have to choose.”

This is the first federal lawsuit to challenge the Governor’s Executive Order. The complaint explains how the order is a barrier to public schools for students with disabilities and that no family should be forced to choose between health and their child’s education. It also states that Texas needs to follow the recommendations of public health officials to include the mandated use of masks in areas with significant exposure.

“Under Gov. Abbott’s order, parents of these children face an untenable choice: educate their children at school and expose them to potential severe illness, long COVID, and even death or keep their children home, where they will receive a fraction of their education in one of the least integrated settings available with limited to no exposure to non-disabled peers,” said Tom Melsheimer, attorney from Winston & Strawn. “Either outcome is a violation of students’ rights under the ADA and Section 504, and both are wholly avoidable.”

The lawsuit asks for a temporary restraining order that requires Governor Abbott, TEA, and the districts named to cease violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 and allows local school districts and local public health authorities to require masks for its students and staff as they determine is necessary.

Read the full complaint attached below along with supplementary briefs and supporting documents.

August 18, 2021 Update:

The case filed on August 17, 2021, has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel. Today, Plaintiffs filed a request for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction enjoining Defendants from prohibiting local school districts from requiring masks for their students and staff. The full motion is attached below along with the original complaint.

The filing includes sworn statements from the parents of the young plaintiffs with disabilities about their health conditions and risks. It also includes compelling declarations from two medical experts explaining the harm posed to children with serious health conditions in schools not allowed to implement mask mandates with the exploding spread of the Delta variant.

The brief explains that plaintiffs will prevail because it violates federal disability laws to exclude them from school or make them risk their lives to get an education.

Plaintiffs also argue they will succeed because the Governor’s order violates the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, in which Texas districts received over $11 billion dollars in funding so that they can adopt plans for a safe return to in-person instruction.

“The injunction is required to protect the lives of children with disabilities and their basic right to attend school,” said Dustin Rynders, Supervising Attorney with Disability Rights Texas. (TRO and injunction filed are attached below.)

August 31, 2021 Update:

The plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on August 31, 2021, adding Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton as a defendant.  According the amended complaint, “Attorney General Paxton has threatened to enforce the mask provisions of GA-38 against specific school districts, and his filing of a lawsuit to enforce against San Antonio Independent School District the vaccine-related provisions of GA-38 shows that Attorney General Paxton is enforcing the mask-related provisions of GA-38 against school districts.” (Amended Complaint attached below.)

September 8, 2021 Update:

The plaintiffs had set aside their request for a temporary restraining order on mask mandate bans since several state courts had upheld other TROs and injunctions. But due to an exponential increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in schools, the number of school and district closings, the number of pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations, and the recent ruling that effectively lifted all temporary injunctions barring the enforcement of GA-38, the plaintiffs re-entered the previous request of a temporary restraining order prohibiting the enforcement of GA-38. (Supplemental brief filed is attached below.)

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Disability Rights Texas is the federally designated legal protection and advocacy agency (P&A) for people with disabilities in Texas established in 1977. Its mission is to help people with disabilities understand and exercise their rights under the law, ensuring their full and equal participation in society. Visit www.DRTx.org for more information.

Attached documents