Money damages, disabilities, and education

One shoe has dropped as a result of the recent en banc Third Circuit Court decision in A.W. v. The Jersey City Public Schools, 341 F.3d 234 (3d Cir. 2007), which ruled that there is no cause of action under Section 1983 for money damages based on a violation of IDEA and or Section 504.   The full court, aligning itself with other circuit courts and Supreme Court precedent, effectively overruled its 1995 decision in W.B. v. Matula, 67 F.3d 484 (3d Cir. 1995) (unfortunately, the court's posted opinion is incomplete).

Basically, the court in A.W. reasoned that both IDEA and § 504 provide comprehensive remedies.  Because neither statute gives a textual indication that Congress sought to provide those comprehensive remedies in addition to a § 1983 remedy, the Sea Clammers doctrine bars any § 1983 cause of action. 

The problem for educational institutions (but to the relief of plaintiffs) is that the A.W. case addresses only one part of the Matula decision and money damages may still be available directly under § 504

(although probably not under IDEA – in addition to the simple fact that the statute does not say so, see the cases and discussions in Ortega v. Bibb County School District, 397 F.3d 1321 (11th Cir. 2005) among others). 

The court in Matula wrote "plaintiffs may seek monetary damages directly under § 504, as well as the § 1983 claim predicated on § 504."  As such, money damages claims directly under § 504, untouched by A.W., appear to still be viable in the Third Circuit.  On this issue, the Third Circuit is out-of-step with the other circuit courts and it is an issue the Third Circuit, if not the Supreme Court, will likely need to address in the future.

When that day comes, the viability of money damages based on a direct § 504 recovery theory is questionable. Because it involves a complex analysis similar to A.W., based on a cross- and back-tracking comparison of intervening Supreme Court, Third Circuit cases, and various anti-discrimination statutes, I will not give great detail. But in Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001), the Supreme Court held that private right of action for money damages requires proof of intentional discrimination, casting doubt on Matula’s reasoning, which was based on earlier Supreme Court cases. Indeed, In Pryor v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, 288 F.3d 548 (3d Cir. 2002), (unfortunately the link appears to be dead) the Third Circuit applied the Alexander evidentiary standard.  Recent cases such as Indiana Area School District v. H.H., 428 F. Supp. 2d 361 (W.D. Pa. 2006), show the need for reexamination of the standards for §504 money damages. At a minimum, direct § 504 money damages claims require proof of intentional discrimination or gross negligence.

One shoe has dropped; eventually, the other will, too.

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