UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR
THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
SELLERS, by his parents, Allen and Sherri Sellers;
SHERRI SELLERS; ALLEN SELLERS,
SCHOOL BOARD OF THE CITY OF MANASSAS, VIRGINIA,
a Municipal Corporation;
JAMES E. UPPERMAN, Superintendent of the School Board
of the City of Manassas,
from the United States District Court for
the Eastern District of Virginia, at Alexandria. T. S. Ellis, III,
Argued: January 29, 1998
Decided: April 13, 1998
Before WILKINSON, Chief Judge, PHILLIPS,
Senior Circuit Judge,
and VOORHEES, United States District Judge for the Western District
of North Carolina, sitting by designation.
Affirmed by published opinion.
Chief Judge Wilkinson wrote the opinion, in which Senior Judge Phillips
and Judge Voorhees joined.
COUNSEL ARGUED: Paul S. Dalton,
DALTON & DALTON, P.C., Annandale, Virginia, for Appellants.
Kathleen Shepherd Mehfoud, HAZEL & THOMAS, P.C., Richmond, Virginia,
Kristopher Sellers and his parents sued the School Board of the City
of Manassas and superintendent James Upperman, alleging violations of
the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), section 504
of the Rehabilitation Act, 42 U.S.C.§ 1983, and Virginia law. The
Sellers sought compensatory and punitive damages. The district court
granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss primarily on the grounds that
such damages are unavailable under IDEA, that the Sellers failed to
allege a section 504 violation, and that the Sellers’ failure to state
a claim under either IDEA or section 504 likewise required dismissal
of the section 1983 claim. Sellers v. School Bd. of Manassas, 960 F.
Supp. 1006 (E.D. Va. 1997). We agree that IDEA does not provide for
compensatory or punitive damages and that plaintiffs failed to allege
a section 504 violation. Furthermore, because parties may not sue under
section 1983 for IDEA violations, the Sellers’ claim under that statute
also must be dismissed. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the district
The instant appeal is from a dismissal for
failure to state a claim, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6); thus we accept
the facts alleged in the complaint as true. McNair v. Lend Lease Trucks,
Inc., 95 F.3d 325, 327 (4th Cir. 1996) (en banc). At the time the
Sellers filed their complaint, Kristopher was eighteen years old. Although
he had recently been diagnosed as learning disabled and emotionally disturbed,
his disability apparently had gone undiscovered for many years. Kristopher
received no special education services until the 1995-1996 school year.
The complaint states, however, that his test scores as early as fourth
grade “should have alerted” the defendants of the need to test and evaluate
Kristopher for disabilities. At some point, a truancy petition was brought
against Kristopher but was dismissed in March 1996 by the domestic relations
court because administrative proceedings under IDEA were pending.
According to the complaint, the parties to
the present suit reached a settlement as to all educational issues. After
the settlement, a hearing officer held due process hearings and decided
that he lacked authority to award compensatory and punitive damages. The
Sellers sought review of the decision by a state-level hearing officer.
He too, however, concluded that hearing officers lacked authority to award
such damages. The Sellers then filed the present suit in the United States
District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, seeking, inter alia,
compensatory and punitive damages for violations of IDEA, the Rehabilitation
Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and Virginia law. They complained that the
defendants should have discovered Kristopher’s learning disabilities and
provided him with special education services.
The Sellers also disputed the hearing officers’
refusal to award compensatory and punitive damages. Terming the Sellers’
action one for educational malpractice, the district court dismissed
the Sellers’ lawsuit pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) for failure
to state a claim.
The Sellers now appeal the dismissal of
their IDEA, Rehabilitation Act, and section 1983 claims.1
We first address the Sellers’ claims under
IDEA. The Sellers appear to base their claims on two alleged violations
of the statute. First, because the defendants did not evaluate Kristopher
for learning disabilities after certain test scores should have alerted
them of the need to do so, they neglected their duty to identify, locate,
and evaluate disabled children. Second, because Kristopher did not receive
any special education services prior to the 1995-1996 school year, defendants
did not provide him with a free appropriate public education.
For these alleged violations, the Sellers
contend that they are entitled to compensatory and punitive damages
under IDEA. See Emma C. v. Eastin, 985 F. Supp. 940, 945 (N.D.
Cal. 1997). IDEA provides that a court reviewing the findings and determination
of a hearing officer “shall grant such relief as [it] determines is
appropriate.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2).2 In Hall by Hall v. Vance
County Bd. of Educ., 774 F.2d 629 (4th Cir. 1985) (“Vance”), this
court interpreted the meaning of “appropriate” relief in an earlier
version of IDEA. Vance held that appropriate relief could include
reimbursement for private school tuition where a county board of education
had failed to provide a free appropriate public education to a disabled
child. Id. at 633. It followed an earlier decision of the Supreme
Court that had likewise found appropriate relief could include tuition
reimbursement. School Comm. of Burlington v. Department of Educ.
of Mass., 471 U.S. 359, 370 (1985). However, Vance made clear
that not all forms of relief are appropriate. While the Act permitted
reimbursement, it did “not create a private cause of action for damages
for educational malpractice.” Vance, 774 F.2d at 633 n.3.
Vance bars the Sellers’ recovery
under IDEA. Their claim is indistinguishable from one of educational
malpractice. The Sellers simply allege that the defendants improperly
diagnosed Kristopher and that, as a result, either they or Kristopher
have suffered some unspecified tort-like injuries. To award compensatory
or punitive damages under these circumstances would disregard settled
Nothing in the years since Vance
has undermined the soundness of its holding. Tort-like damages are simply
inconsistent with IDEA’s statutory scheme. The touchstone of a traditional
tort-like remedy is redress for a broad range of harms “associated with
personal injury, such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, harm
to reputation, or other consequential damages.” United States v.
Burke, 504 U.S. 229, 239 (1992) (interpreting Title VII). By contrast,
the touchstone of IDEA is the actual provision of a free appropriate
To advance this goal, IDEA provides a panoply
of procedural rights to parents to ensure their involvement in decisions
about their disabled child’s education. See Burlington, 471 U.S.
at 368; see also Board of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist.
v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982). For example, parents may examine
all relevant records relating to their disabled child’s identification,
evaluation, placement, and receipt of a free appropriate public education.
20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(1)(A). They must receive written notice prior
to changes in the child’s identification, evaluation, placement, or receipt
of a free appropriate public education. Id.§ 1415(b)(1)(C).
They also may present complaints with respect to such matters. Id.
§ 1415(b)(1)(E). They can air these complaints in an “impartial due
process hearing,” id. § 1415(b)(2), and, in some cases, can
appeal the findings and decision rendered in that hearing. Id.
§ 1415©. Finally, a party aggrieved by the findings or decision
of a hearing officer may seek judicial review. Id. § 1415(e)(2).
The purpose of these procedural mechanisms
is to preserve the right to a free appropriate public education, not to
provide a forum for tort-like claims of educational malpractice. Accordingly,
the Supreme Court has noted that “equitable considerations are relevant
in fashioning relief.” Burlington, 471 U.S. at 374; see also Florence
County Sch. Dist. Four v. Carter, 510 U.S. 7, 16 (1993). For example,
the Court in Burlington concluded that “by empowering the court
to grant ‘appropriate’ relief Congress meant to include retroactive reimbursement
to parents as an available remedy in a proper case.” 471 U.S. at 370;
see also Florence County, 510 U.S. at 14. Tuition reimbursement
requires an education agency “to belatedly pay expenses that it should
have paid all along.” Burlington, 471 U.S. at 370-71. Likewise,
appropriate relief may include special education services. Such services
are part and parcel of the free appropriate public education to which
the child is entitled. See id. at 367-68. But the Court has never
approved an award of compensatory or punitive damages under IDEA for a
violation of its requirements. In fact, it “took pains to emphasize that
. . . reimbursement [for appropriate specialized education] should not
be characterized as ‘damages.’” Hall v. Knott County Bd. of Educ.,
941 F.2d 402, 407 (6th Cir. 1991) (citing Burlington, 471 U.S.
at 370); see also Whitehead by and through Whitehead v. School Bd.
for Hillsborough County, 918 F. Supp. 1515, 1519 (M.D. Fla. 1996).
Compensatory or punitive damages would transform
IDEA into a remedy for pain and suffering, emotional distress, and other
consequential damages caused by the lack of a free appropriate public
education. Such a result would be inconsistent with the structure of the
statute, which so strongly favors the provision of and, where appropriate,
the restoration of educational rights.3 Charlie F. v. Board
of Educ. of Skokie Sch. Dist., 98 F.3d 989, 991 (7th Cir. 1996); Hall
v. Knott County, 941 F.2d at 407; Manecke v. School Bd. of Pinellas
County, 762 F.2d 912, 915 n.2 (11th Cir. 1985).
The Sellers base their claims on events that
occurred as far back as the fourth grade. Yet they did not file their
complaint until Kristopher was eighteen years old. To entertain the Sellers’
claims thus seems inconsistent with a scheme structured to encourage prompt
resolution of special education disputes. E.g., Schimmel by Schimmel
v. Spillane, 819 F.2d 477, 483 (4th Cir. 1987) (applying Virginia’s
one year statute of limitations to civil actions brought under IDEA);
8 Va. A.D.C. § 20-80-70.A.10.I (requiring appeals from local hearing
officer’s decision to be instituted within thirty administrative working
days). At this late date, it would be difficult to determine what particular
school officials and special education instructors should have done to
evaluate Kristopher or to provide him with particular services.
Not only are awards of compensatory and punitive
damages inconsistent with IDEA’s structure, they present acute problems
of measurability. Relief such as retroactive reimbursement is definable
and concrete. The actual costs borne by parents for special education
and related services provide an ascertainable benchmark for calculating
the relief to which they may be entitled. By contrast, IDEA lacks any
particular standard by which a court could evaluate what amount of compensatory
or punitive damages is appropriate in a particular case. Compare 42 U.S.C.
§ 1981a(b)(3) (providing a schedule for awards of compensatory and
punitive damages for certain violations of Title VII). Absent any such
standards, the range of possible monetary awards would be vast, particularly
in cases seeking recovery for less tangible injuries such as emotional
distress or pain and suffering.
Such a result is not consistent with a statute
designed primarily to provide education to disabled children.
Finally, we note that other circuits share
our view that compensatory and punitive damages are generally unavailable
under the statute. E.g., Charlie F., 98 F.3d at 991 (compensatory
damages unavailable); Heidemann v. Rother, 84 F.3d 1021, 1033 (8th
Cir. 1996) (general or punitive damages unavailable); Crocker v. Tennessee
Secondary Sch. Athletic Ass’n, 980 F.2d 382, 386-87 (6th Cir. 1992)
(compensatory or punitive damages unavailable); Knott County, 941
F.2d at 407 (general damages unavailable); Manecke, 762 F.2d at
916 n.2 (“tort-type damages” unavailable); Whitehead, 918 F. Supp.
at 1520 (compensatory or punitive damages unavailable). Like this circuit,
they reason that the structure of IDEA and the Supreme Court’s decisions
interpreting it do not support these forms of relief. Accordingly, the
district court properly dismissed the Sellers’ claims.
The Sellers next argue that, even if they
cannot recover compensatory and punitive damages under IDEA, such damages
are recoverable for a violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act,
29 U.S.C. § 794(a). They maintain that the defendants’ failure both
to identify Kristopher’s disability and to provide him with a free appropriate
public education violated section 504 because it constituted discrimination
against Kristopher solely on the basis of his disability. Because the
Sellers merely reallege a violation of IDEA, and fail to allege facts
sufficient to state a claim under section 504, we reject their argument.
IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act are different
statutes. Whereas IDEA affirmatively requires participating States to
assure disabled 7 children a free appropriate public education, see, e.g.,
20 U.S.C. § 1412(1), section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act instead
prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals. Section 504 states:
“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States
. . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from
the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination
under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance .
. . .” 29 U.S.C. § 794(a).
We have held that to establish a violation
of section 504, plaintiffs must prove that they have been discriminated
against—that they were “excluded from the employment or benefit due to
discrimination solely on the basis of the disability.” Doe v. University
of Md. Med. Sys. Corp., 50 F.3d 1261, 1265 (4th Cir. 1995) (emphasis
This discrimination requirement is rooted
in two parts of the statute’s text: plaintiffs must prove that they have
either been “subjected to discrimination” or excluded from a program or
denied benefits “solely by reason of” their disability. To prove discrimination
in the education context, “something more than a mere failure to provide
the ‘free appropriate education’ required by [IDEA] must be shown.” Monahan
v. Nebraska, 687 F.2d 1164, 1170 (8th Cir. 1982); see also Lunceford
v. District of Columbia Bd. of Educ., 745 F.2d 1577, 1580 (D.C. Cir.
1984). We agree with those courts that hold “that either bad faith or
gross misjudgment should be shown before a § 504 violation can be
made out, at least in the context of education of handicapped children.”
Monahan, 687 F.2d at 1171; see also Hoekstra v. Independent
Sch. Dist. No. 283, 103 F.3d 624, 626-27 (8th Cir. 1996), cert. denied,
117 S. Ct. 1852 (1997); Wenger v. Canastota Cent. Sch. Dist., 979
F. Supp. 147, 152 (N.D.N.Y. 1997).
In their complaint, the Sellers contend only
that Kristopher’s test scores from as early as fourth grade “should have
alerted” the defendants of his disability and the need to provide him
a free appropriate public education. The complaint therefore presents,
at best, a negligence claim—that the defendants should have recognized
Kristopher’s disability. The court in Monahan specifically addressed
situations in which plaintiffs allege a section 504 violation in the education
context on the basis of negligence:
The reference in the Rehabilitation Act to
“discrimination” must require, we think, something more than an incorrect
evaluation, or a substantively faulty individualized education plan, in
order for liability to exist. Experts often disagree on what the special
needs of a handicapped child are, and the educational placement of such
children is often necessarily an arguable matter. That a court may, after
hearing evidence and argument, come to the conclusion that an incorrect
evaluation has been made, and that a different placement must be required
under [IDEA], is not necessarily the same thing as a holding that a handicapped
child has been discriminated against solely by reason of his or her handicap.
687 F.2d at 1170. The Sellers’ claim that the defendants failed to notice
signs of disability is virtually indistinguishable from complaints that
a student has been incorrectly evaluated. They allege no facts which would
suggest the defendants discriminated, i.e., that they acted with bad faith
or gross misjudgment. In similar cases involving allegations of a school
district’s failure to “timely assess and diagnose” a child’s disability,
courts have been reluctant to find in misdiagnoses the evidence of bad
faith or gross misjudgment sufficient to support a discrimination claim
under section 504. Wenger, 979 F. Supp. at 153; Brantley v.
Independent Sch. Dist. No. 625, 936 F. Supp. 649, 657 (D. Minn. 1996).
The Sellers likewise raise nothing more than a failure to timely assess
and diagnose Kristopher’s disability. Their complaint does not clear the
hurdle set by the explicit language of section 504. We hold, therefore,
that the district court correctly dismissed the Sellers’ claim under the
The Sellers next contend that they still
may recover compensatory and punitive damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
They argue that other courts have recognized both that section 1983 actions
may be premised on IDEA violations, and that plaintiffs may recover monetary
damages pursuant to such actions. See, e.g., W.B. v. Matula, 67
F.3d 484, 493-95 (3d Cir. 1995). We disagree. Because IDEA provides a
comprehensive remedial scheme for violations of its own requirements,
we hold that parties may not sue under section 1983 for an IDEA violation.
In Smith v. Robinson, 468 U.S. 992 (1984), the Supreme Court considered
whether plaintiffs could pursue, under section 1983, claims based on the
Rehabilitation Act or the Equal Protection Clause when such claims were
“virtually identical to” those made under the Education of the Handicapped
Act (“EHA”) (IDEA’s predecessor). The Court found that EHA’s comprehensive
remedies demonstrated Congress’ intent that disabled children pursue claims
to a free appropriate public education solely through the remedial mechanisms
established by the statute. Id. at 1009. Specifically, the Court
We conclude, therefore, that where the
EHA is available to a handicapped child asserting a right to a free
appropriate public education, based either on the EHA or on the Equal
Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the EHA is the exclusive
avenue through which the child and his parents or guardian can pursue
their claim. Id. at 1013 (emphasis added). Under Smith, therefore, the
Sellers undoubtedly would be precluded from circumventing IDEA’s limits
on remedial relief by suing instead under section 1983 for the alleged
The Sellers argue, however, that the 1986 amendments to EHA, enacted in
response to the Smith decision, demonstrate a clear congressional
intent that plaintiffs once again be permitted to sue under section 1983
for IDEA violations. We disagree. A closer reading of the 1986 provision
relied upon by the Sellers -- 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f) -- reveals no intent
that parties be able to bypass the remedies provided in IDEA by suing
instead under section 1983 for an IDEA violation.
Section 1415(f) provides: “Nothing in this
chapter shall be construed to restrict or limit the rights, procedures,
and remedies available under the Constitution, title V of the Rehabilitation
Act of 1973, or other Federal statutes protecting the rights of children
and youth with disabilities . . . .” Id. (emphasis added).4
Concededly, section 1415(f) only with respect to matters unrelated to
the issue we consider in this decision. For example, Congress added language
to indicate that IDEA also does not preclude the pursuit of remedies under
the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990: “Nothing in this chapter
shall be construed to restrict or limit the rights, procedures, and remedies
available under the Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act
of 1990, title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or other Federal laws
protecting the rights of children with disabilities . . . .” 20 U.S.C.
§ 1415(l) (language added by amendment in italics).
The different standards of liability applicable
to constitutional equal protection claims and to statutory IDEA claims
confirm our interpretation of section 1415(f). Under IDEA, the simple
failure to provide a child with a free appropriate public education
constitutes a violation of the statute. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(1). By
contrast, plaintiffs must meet a higher standard of liability to prevail
on a constitutional claim. The Supreme Court’s decision in Washington
v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 239 (1976), requires that an equal protection
claim be supported by evidence of purposeful discrimination. In the
context of education of disabled children, Washington’s purpose
requirement is similar to that recognized under section 504 of the Rehabilitation
And even if a plaintiff can prove a school
board intended to treat children differently because of their disabilities,
another hurdle would remain. Because the Supreme Court has yet to classify
disabled persons as a suspect class, see City of Cleburne v. Cleburne
Living Ctr., Inc., 473 U.S. 432, 445-46 (1985), and because the Court
also has not identified education as a fundamental right, San Antonio
Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 33-37 (1973), a plaintiff
in this context would have to prove that a school board’s decision was
without any rational basis. Naturally school boards will be subject to
liability for statutory IDEA violations much more frequently than for
similarly pled constitutional claims. It is easy therefore to understand
why Congress intended to subject school boards to the more expansive remedies
available under section 1983 for their more culpable constitutional failures,
yet not for breaches of IDEA. Section 1415(f) sensibly retains IDEA’s
comprehensive scheme as the remedy for violations of that Act.
The Sellers nevertheless attempt to supplement,
and thereby evade, the limited textual command of section 1415(f) by relying
on the legislative history of the 1986 amendments. Even if the text were
not the sole authoritative source of section 1415(f)’s meaning, the legislative
history would still fail to support the proposition that Congress intended
that plaintiffs be able to sue under section 1983 for IDEA violations.
The Sellers first rely on the following excerpt from the House Committee
In sum, since 1978, it has been Congress’
intent to permit parents or guardians to pursue the rights of handicapped
children through EHA, section 504, and section 1983.. . . Congressional
intent was ignored by the U.S. Supreme Court when, on July 5, 1984,
it handed down its decision in Smith v. Robinson. H.R. Rep. No.
99-296, at 4 (1985). The Sellers also support their argument with a
brief excerpt from the House Conference Report, which states: “It is
the conferees’ intent that actions brought under 42 12 U.S.C. 1983 are
governed by this provision.” H.R. Conf. Rep. No. 99- 687, at 7 (1986),
reprinted in 1986 U.S.C.C.A.N. 1807, 1809.
Nothing in these portions of the legislative history contradicts our construction,
grounded in the text of section 1415(f). The House Reports indicate
a legislative intent that disabled children be able to protect their rights
through IDEA, the Rehabilitation Act, other states protecting the rights
of disabled children, and the Constitution itself. The Reports naturally
refer to section 1983, as it supplies disabled children and their parents
or guardians with a private right of action for constitutional violations.
Again, however, even when read in the light most favorable to the Sellers’
claims, these portions of the House Reports fail to indicate any legislative
intent with respect to section 1983 claims premised on IDEA violations.
When construed in their most natural form, the excerpts demonstrate the
unremarkable proposition that Congress intended section 1415(f) to restore
the ability of disabled children and their parents or guardians to utilize
section 1983 to protect constitutional rights.
Our interpretation of section 1415(f) is
also shaped by rules of construction reserved for federal statutes placing
funding conditions on the States. IDEA is a joint federal-state program
enacted under Congress’ spending power. See Virginia Dep’t of Educ.
v. Riley, 106 F.3d 559, 566-68 (4th Cir. 1997) (en banc). In return
for federal funds to aid the education of disabled children, participating
States must meet certain statutory requirements. See 20 U.S.C. §
1412 (“In order to qualify for assistance . . . , a State shall demonstrate
to the Secretary that the following conditions are met: . . . .”). In
Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1,
17 (1981), the Supreme Court announced an interpretive rule for statutes
like IDEA enacted pursuant to the spending power. Because these statutes
operate much like contracts between the federal and state governments,
“[t]he legitimacy of Congress’ power to legislate under the spending power
thus rests on whether the State voluntarily and knowingly accepts the
terms of the contract.” Suter v. Artist M. , 503 U.S. 347, 356
(1992) (quoting Pennhurst, 451 U.S. at 17) (internal quotation
marks omitted). States cannot knowingly accept federal funding conditions
unless they are accurately apprised of the requirements being imposed
by the federal government. Thus, “if Congress desires to condition the
States’ receipt of federal funds, it ‘must do so unambiguously . . . .’”
South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203, 207 (1987) (quoting Pennhurst,
451 U.S. at 17); see also Blessing v. Freestone, 117 S. Ct. 1353,
1359 (1997); Suter, 503 U.S. at 356.
The Court held in Smith that EHA’s
comprehensive remedial scheme demonstrated Congress’ intent that both
EHA and equal protection claims to a free appropriate public education
proceed solely through EHA’s remedial mechanisms. 468 U.S. at 1013. States
deciding whether to subject themselves to the statute’s funding conditions
therefore understood, after Smith, that their school boards and
officials would not be subject to liability under section 1983 for EHA
violations. Because IDEA is enacted pursuant to the spending power, Congress’
statutory response to the Smith decision must be subjected to Pennhurst’s
clear statement rule. If Congress intended section 1415(f) to permit plaintiffs
to sue under section 1983 for IDEA violations, and thereby overrule Smith
in that respect, it had to speak with clarity.
Section 1415(f) lacks that clarity. The provision
fails to state, or even imply, that section 1983 suits may be brought
for IDEA violations. Instead, it pointedly omits 42 U.S.C. § 1983
from its list of statutes. This omission is significant. Permitting the
recovery of general damages through section 1983 for IDEA violations would
subject school boards to damages exponentially greater than the tuition
reimbursement they currently face under IDEA itself. Section 1415(f)’s
vague language surely did not place States on notice of such sweeping
and open-ended liability. If we were to permit section 1983 claims like
the Sellers’ to proceed, we would effectively blindside States with large
and unanticipated penalties. Accordingly, we hold that section 1415(f)
fails to express unambiguously a congressional intent that IDEA violations
also be remedied by section 1983.5
For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the judgment
of the district court.
In light of the Court’s holding in Smith,
section 1415(f)’s effect on that decision, and the spending power concerns
implicit in this question of interpretation, we hold that the Sellers
cannot sue under section 1983 for alleged IDEA violations.6
As a result, we reject their attempt to recover compensatory and punitive
damages unavailable in an action directly under IDEA. We note that our
conclusion is consistent with at least two other circuits that have
held compensatory and punitive damages are not available through the
alternate route of a section 1983 claim for violations of IDEA. See
Heidemann, 84 F.3d at 1033 (general damages unavailable in section
1983 claim for alleged IDEA violations); Crocker, 980 F.2d at
1 The Sellers also presented due
process and equal protection claims in their complaint. The district court
dismissed these claims in its memorandum opinion. In their brief on appeal,
the Sellers do not contest the district court’s dismissal of the constitutional
2 Congress recently amended IDEA.
See Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, Pub.
L. No. 105-17, 111 Stat. 37 (1997). All of the conduct in this case occurred
prior to the enactment of these amendments. We note that several other
courts have declined to apply the amendments to conduct occurring before
their enactment. E.g., Heather S. by Kathy S. v. Wisconsin, 125 F.3d 1045,
1047 n.1 (7th Cir.1997); Cypress Fairbanks Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Michael
F., 118 F.3d 245, 247 n.1 (5th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 118 S. Ct. 690
(1998). While the amendments recodified several provisions of the IDEA
to which we refer, we cite those provisions as codified prior to the enactment
of the amendments. In all events, the amendments would make no difference
to the outcome of this case.
3 This carefully crafted statutory
scheme, primarily concerned with the provision of special education and
related services, overcomes a “presumption in favor of any appropriate
relief for violation of a federal right.” Franklin v. Gwinnett County
Pub. Sch. , 503 U.S. 60, 73 (1992).
4 We note that even were we applying
IDEA after its amendment in 1997, our analysis would remain the same.
Congress amended section 10 1415(f) overrules much of Smith’s holding.
The amendment specifically rejects the Smith Court’s interpretation
of EHA as precluding claims under the Constitution or the Rehabilitation
Act that are virtually identical to EHA claims. But while section 1415(f)
explicitly preserves remedies under the Constitution, the Rehabilitation
Act, and specified “other” statutes, it simply fails to mention section
1983. The reference to “other” statutes protecting the rights of disabled
children cannot naturally be read to include 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a
statute which speaks generally and mentions neither disability nor youth.
By preserving rights and remedies “under the Constitution,” section 1415(f)
does permit plaintiffs to resort to section 1983 for constitutional violations,
notwithstanding the similarity of such claims to those stated directly
under IDEA. But section 1415(f) does not permit plaintiffs to sue under
section 1983 for an IDEA violation, which is statutory in nature. See
Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1, 4 (1980). Nothing in section 1415(f)
overrules the Court’s decision in Smith to he extent it held that Congress
intended IDEA to provide the sole remedies for violations of that same
statute. If Congress meant to overrule Smith on this significant
point, it certainly chose an oblique and essentially implausible means
of doing so.
5 The Sellers argue that Wright
v. Roanoke Redevelopment & Housing Authority, 479 U.S. 418 (1987),
should alter our conclusion. The Court did find that the Housing Act conferred
benefits that were delineated specifically enough “to qualify as enforceable
rights under Pennhurst.” Id. at 432. This finding, however,
did not signify that Pennhurst’s rule of statutory construction was in
any way relaxed. Moreover, on the question of whether the Housing
Act’s remedial scheme foreclosed reliance on section 1983, the Wright
Court explicitly cited Smith for its holding that EHA’s provision of a
private judicial remedy did evidence a congressional intent to preclude
reliance on section 1983. 479 U.S. at 427. Wright, in other words,
actually confirmed the very point at issue in this case.
6 Because the Sellers do not contend
that the defendants failed to abide by a final administrative order, their
case is not controlled by our decision in Robinson v. Pinderhughes,
810 F.2d 1270 (4th Cir. 1987). In Pinderhughes, we found an exception
to the Court’s holding in Smith solely with respect to EHA’s enforcement
mechanism because it was not sufficiently comprehensive to preclude reliance
on section 1983. Id. at 1274. The Sellers’ complaint, however,
is based on the more general denial of a free appropriate public education
and is therefore squarely controlled by Smith.
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