November 3, 2011, School Law Bullet Number 76
Failure To Provide FAPE Not Enough To Warrant Damages
In a welcome decision for school districts, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently determined that parents must prove intentional discrimination by the school district to establish a claim for compensatory damages under Section 504.
Court Grants Summary Judgement In District’s Favor
In the latest court decision regarding a severely disabled student of the School District of Philadelphia, the Eastern District addressed whether the student’s parents were entitled to an award of compensatory (monetary) damages under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or Title II of the ADA where the District failed to provide FAPE over a period of years.
The Court first acknowledged the student’s significant disabilities and the lengthy litigation between the parents and the District over the provision of services. The student, now 25 years old, previously received a substantial compensatory education award based on the school district’s failure to provide related services including speech, occupational and physical therapies.
The Court granted summary judgment in favor of the school district. To reach this decision, the Court addressed the standard of proof that applies to claims for compensatory damages under Section 504.
The Court noted that this issue was not before the Court in Ridgewood. There, the Third Circuit held that proof of intentional discrimination is not necessary to establish a claim for denial of FAPE under Section 504. Here, parents’ claim was for compensatory damages based on alleged discrimination against the student because of her disability. The District acknowledged it had failed to provide FAPE to student.
It is well-established that a denial of FAPE under IDEA also violates Section 504. Under Ridgewood, no discriminatory intent is necessary to establish a denial of FAPE. It is also well-established that compensatory damages are not available under IDEA.
The Court determined that some additional proof besides failure to provide FAPE must be established to make compensatory damages available. The Court determined that plaintiffs must provide proof of intentional discrimination to establish a claim for compensatory damages. The Court then held that because the District’s efforts to provide services were well-documented, it would not be possible for plaintiffs to establish such intent. The Court did not, therefore, determine what level of intent is required to establish a right to relief.
The Court also denied the parents’ request to put into evidence the hearing officer decision that established denial of FAPE under IDEA. The hearing officer decision summarizes the facts that the parents would have to establish at trial on their Section 504 claims. The Court held that, if the case were to proceed, the parents would have to re-try the case before the federal jury to establish their discrimination claims.
Bottom Line for Districts
The decision provides some relief for school districts. Under this decision, a denial of FAPE will lead to an award of compensatory services, but not to an award of monetary damages against school districts that make good faith efforts to provide appropriate services to students with disabilities.
This School Law Bullet is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.