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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,
January 29, 1998
Decided: April 13, 1998
WILKINSON, Chief Judge, PHILLIPS, Senior Circuit Judge,
and VOORHEES, United States District Judge for the Western District
of North Carolina, sitting by designation.
by published opinion.
Chief Judge Wilkinson wrote the opinion, in which Senior Judge Phillips
and Judge Voorhees joined.
ARGUED: Paul S. Dalton, DALTON & DALTON, P.C., Annandale, Virginia,
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
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.
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
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.
now appeal the dismissal of their IDEA, Rehabilitation Act, and
section 1983 claims.1
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
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.
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 circuit precedent.
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 public education.
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).
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
the Rehabilitation Act are different statutes. Whereas IDEA affirmatively
requires participating States to assure disabled  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 added).
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).
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:
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 Rehabilitation Act.
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
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 IDEA violations.
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.
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).
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 Act.
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.
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 Report:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 386-87 (same).
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 claims.
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
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).
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.
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.
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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