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Supreme Court Declines Case on Damages Claim Over Placement

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Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined, without comment, to allow a claim for damages under federal civil-rights laws for harm allegedly caused to a handicapped child by school officials' placement decisions.

The Justices had been asked by the child's parents to refine their 1984 decision in Smith v. Robinson, in which a divided Court ruled that P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, is the appropriate vehicle for challenging alleged discrimination against the handicapped in education and that the statute does not provide for the awarding of legal fees. (See Education Week, Aug. 22, 1984.)

The Congress is currently considering legislation that would permit parents to win legal fees in cases brought under P.L. 94-142.

Damages and Fees Sought

In last week's case, the parents of Amy Austin--who was 13 when the suit was filed in 1981--asserted that the placement decisions of local school officials hindered the development of their daughter, who was diagnosed as "severely retarded," according to court papers.

They claimed that P.L. 94-142--the legal route prescribed in Smith--could not "provide the necessary relief" for the injuries suffered by Amy. Thus, they sought compensatory and punitive damages and legal fees under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

School officials had asked the Justices not to consider the appeal, arguing that "the decision of this Court in Smith should be left undisturbed." They also argued that Amy's parents had failed to demonstrate that school officials' placement decisions had done injury to the girl.

The parents initially filed suit in December 1981 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Ohio following administrative proceedings at the local and state levels. The federal court, concurring with school officials, ruled that the parents could not bring suit under Section 504 and Section 1983. Last October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit cited Smith in affirming the lower court's ruling.

The name of the case was Austin v. Brown County Board of Education (Case No. 84-1470).--jh

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