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Matthew M. Hoffman

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Co-chair, Municipal & School Group

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Parent’s Legal Ownership of Residence Defeats Claim of Homeless Status

D.C. ex rel. C.C. and M.C. vs. Wallingford-Swarthmore School District, 2018 WL 3968866 (E.D. Pa. August 18, 2018) (Federal district court concludes that children did not qualify for continued enrollment as “homeless” children where father had legal ownership of residence in another school district).

Summary Background

On October 10, 2010, a tree fell on the house of D.C. and his two minor children. The house was located in the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District (“District”). The house was condemned and DC and his children then lived at several other properties, including the home of their surrogate mother located in another school district, but continued to attend school within the District.

The surrogate mother previously lived with D.C. and testified that, although not the natural mother of D.C.’s children, she had raised them since they were infants. Her home had three bedrooms, but only two bedrooms were usable because the third bedroom was small and used as a closet. The children stayed at the home three to four nights a week. D.C. testified that they occasionally stayed at the surrogate mother’s house but “have no regular schedule” and will “be there sometimes four days straight and then they might not be there for two days.”  The surrogate mother testified that it was not her expectation that D.C. and the children would ever permanently stay with her, stating that she suffers from “many physical ailments” and is “too old and sick to take on the massive responsibility of having [Plaintiffs] stay with [her] permanently.”

Although D.C. and the surrogate mother considered the home to be the property of the surrogate mother, through a series of real estate transactions, D.C. and the surrogate mother became joint owners of the residence and, therefore, possessed a mutual right to use and enjoy the property.

Because it appeared from these circumstances that the children had established residency outside the District, the District informed D.C., that it would no longer continue to enroll the children. Maintaining that his children were homeless and entitled to continue enrollment in the District, D.C. brought suit against the District alleging violations of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2001 as enforceable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Ruling on the District’s motion for summary judgment, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania concluded that the District’s determination that the children resided outside its attendance zone was correct. Consequently, the court granted judgment in favor of the District and dismissed D.C.’s suit.

Discussion

The McKinney-Vento Act was passed in 1987 “to provide urgently needed assistance to protect and improve the lives and safety of the homeless.” The purpose of the Act is to “ensure that each child of a homeless individual and each homeless youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths.” The Act defines the term “homeless children and youths” to include “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” and “children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason.” Under the Act, school districts are required to continue a homeless child’s education in the child’s school of origin for the duration of homelessness or enroll the child in any public school that non-homeless students who live in the attendance area in which the homeless child is living are eligible to attend.

In this matter, the court determined that, although the children variously stayed with the surrogate mother at her home and with the father at several other properties, the children did not “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” The court concluded that they were not lacking a residence because their father was a joint owner of the surrogate mother’s house and, therefore, had the legal right to possess and use the home.

Also, the court ruled that the children were not “sharing the housing of other persons” within the meaning of the Act. Their father had a joint ownership interest in the surrogate mother’s house. Although their surrogate mother lives there as well, staying in that home does not constitute sharing the home of other persons. The court observed that it would be an “unprecedented expansion of the reach of the Act” to find that the plaintiffs were homeless where they are living in a house jointly owned by their father. Although D.C. testified that he was unwelcome in the home, this testimony did not contradict the fact that he had the legal right to possess and use the home.

Consequently, the court determined that the plaintiffs were not homeless within the meaning of the Act and granted summary judgment in favor of the District.

Practical Advice

Application of the McKinney-Vento Act is highly circumstantial. For the McKinney-Vento protections to apply, it must be demonstrated that a student meets the definition of “homeless,” meaning that the student must lack a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” In this case, the facts that the children stayed at a home three or four nights per week and that their father had joint legal ownership interest in that house, weighed against their claim that they were homeless, despite their irregular lodging arrangements. Thus, when presented with an assertion that a student is homeless, school districts can and should investigate the underlying circumstances to confirm the student’s status and entitlement to McKinney-Vento Act protections.

For additional information contact Matt Hoffman.

January 28, 2019

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