High Court Rejects Students’ Right to Sue Under Privacy Law

By Mark Walsh — June 20, 2002 5 min read
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In what is seen as a victory for school districts and colleges, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the federal law that guarantees the privacy of student records may not be enforced through private lawsuits.

Read the majority opinion, delivered by Chief Justice Rehnquist, in Gonzaga University v. Doe, from Findlaw. Also read the concurrence, by Justices Breyer and Souter. And, read the dissent, from Justices Stevens and Ginsburg.

The court ruled 7-2 on June 20 that individual parents or students may not go to court to enforce the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, or FERPA, which requires schools and colleges that receive federal funds to protect the educational records of students from unauthorized disclosure.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in a majority opinion signed by four other justices, said that Congress did not unambiguously confer individual rights in FERPA that could be enforced in court through the use of a broader federal civil rights statute, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which is known as Section 1983.

“FERPA’s provisions speak only to the secretary of education, directing that no funds shall be made available to any educational agency or institution which has a prohibited policy or practice,” the chief justice said. “This focus is two steps removed from the interests of individual students and parents and clearly does not confer the sort of individual entitlement that is enforceable under Section 1983.”

The majority opinion in Gonzaga University v. Doe (Case No. 01- 679) was joined by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in a concurrence joined by Justice David H. Souter, said he did not fully agree with some of the chief justice’s general legal analysis for determining whether a federal law confers rights that can be enforced in court. But he agreed that “Congress did not intend private judicial enforcement actions here.”

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a dissent that was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He said FERPA does indeed create individual rights, such as the right of parents to inspect and review the educational records of their children. And he said the administrative enforcement mechanism authorized by the law, in which an office in the federal Department of Education resolves FERPA complaints, falls “far short” of what is needed to enforce the law.

Case Background

The case stems from charges by a former education student at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit institution in Spokane, Wash., that university officials violated FERPA when they passed along unsubstantiated allegations that he had sexually assaulted a classmate. The student has been widely identified in some press accounts but has been identified in Supreme Court papers only as John Doe.

Gonzaga made the disclosure to the office of the Washington state superintendent of public instruction. Mr. Doe then failed to get the state certification he needed to become a teacher. He sued the university and one of its officials for defamation, the FERPA violation, and other claims.

A jury awarded him $1.1 million, of which $450,000 was based on the violation of FERPA. The Washington Supreme Court upheld the verdict last year. The U.S. Supreme Court decision means that Mr. Doe will not receive the $450,000 in damages based on FERPA.

Lower federal courts have issued conflicting rulings on whether FERPA may be enforced through private lawsuits, and the Supreme Court granted review of the Gonzaga case to settle the issue. In another FERPA case decided in its current term, the high court ruled that the practice of assigning students to grade each other’s papers in class did not amount to a violation of the privacy law. The justices assumed for the sake of that case, Owasso Independent School District v. Falvo, that the Oklahoma mother who challenged the peer- grading practice had the right to file a lawsuit under FERPA.

Based on the ruling in Gonzaga, parents and students will no longer be able to resort to litigation if they believe a school or college has illegally released their education records. Their sole avenue of complaint will be the Family Policy Compliance Office in the Education Department.

Beth S. Brinkmann, who argued on behalf of Mr. Doe in the Supreme Court, said while students or parents can file FERPA complaints with the federal office, they will not be able to get remedies such as monetary damages or injunctions to prevent specific practices.

“The Family Policy Compliance Office has no authority to order a school not to release a particular record,” she said. “It has no authority to compensate a student for an injury he has suffered. This opinion means there is no means for individual parents or students to enforce the statute.”

Chief Justice Rehnquist said in his opinion that the conclusion that FERPA does not confer enforceable rights “is buttressed by the mechanism that Congress chose to provide for enforcing” the law.

He said Congress authorized the secretary of education to “deal with violations” of the law and to establish a review board to investigate and adjudicate violations. The Family Policy Compliance Office acts as that review board under federal regulations.

The chief justice noted that Congress amended FERPA shortly after its passage in 1974 to bar the department’s regional offices from enforcing the statute so as to avoid “multiple interpretations” of it.

“It is implausible to presume that the same Congress nonetheless intended private suits to be brought before thousands of federal- and state-court judges, which could only result in the sort of ‘multiple interpretations’ the act explicitly sought to avoid,” the chief justice wrote.

The decision was welcomed by advocates for schools and colleges.

“If you allow private actions, you will get conflicting opinions, and schools would just not know what to do,” said Julie Underwood, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association. “If we have consistent rules coming out of one place, then educators have a better chance of being in compliance with FERPA.”


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