No Nominal Damages Under IDEA, 9th Circuit Rules

By Mark Walsh — May 14, 2012 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It’s only a matter of $1 in nominal damages, but the stakes in a Monday decision by a federal appeals court are much higher for litigation under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled unanimously that nominal damages are not available under the federal special education law. Nominal damages are usually symbolic and typically involve small amounts of money. They are distinct from compensatory damages, which are meant to compensate for specific types of losses. (Sometimes a plaintiff seeks only nominal damages to win such a symbolic victory; other times, plaintiffs may have sought more substantial damages but a court awards only a nominal amount.)

The May 14 decision in Oman v. Portland Public Schools has implications for cases in which students have aged out of public schools and thus could not benefit from “prospective relief” such as court-ordered changes to their education plans.

The 9th Circuit ruled in the case of an Oregon mother, Pat Oman, and her son who was diagnosed with “special learning needs” in 2nd grade and provided an individualized education plan under the IDEA. Years later, the child was rejected for admission to a magnet high school in the Portland district because he was achieving well below grade level. The boy’s mother sought records, including those in the personal possession of his teachers, to determine why the boy had not succeeded in his IEP.

This resulted in a clash with the district, which the 9th Circuit described as quickly going into “litigation mode.”

The mother filed various suits and claims over her son’s education, seeking monetary damages that the 9th Circuit opinion doesn’t detail (though she was likely seeking more than the $1 nominal award).

Most of her claims were dismissed by a federal district court because she was representing him but was not an attorney. However, the district court took up three of the mother’s claims of alleged retaliation by school officials. The court held that the district’s in-house lawyer had acted to discourage the mother from exercising her statutory rights to challenge the boy’s IEP. The district court awarded $1 in nominal damages under the IDEA and Section 1983, a federal statute that allows individuals to assert their civil rights against government actors. (It isn’t clear that the mother only sought nominal damages.)

The school district appealed that ruling. In its decision Monday, the 9th Circuit reversed, holding that “the wording of the IDEA does not disclose a congressional intent to provide ... a remedy for nominal damages.”

The court noted that some parents who sue school districts under the IDEA do so on behalf of children who have already graduated high school, and thus such families are normally not entitled to prospective relief such as court orders.

“Creating a remedy for nominal damages would prevent such cases from becoming moot and would entitle the parents (if successful and if they had attorneys) to attorneys’ fees,” the court said. “As
such, recognizing a cause of action for nominal damages could have considerable impact on the remedial scheme.”

The ruling does not appear to involve one major area of IDEA case law where parents may receive significant compensation. Under decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts, parents in a dispute with a school district over the special education placement of their child may “unilaterally” place that child in a private school and receive a public reimbursement if a court later holds that the public school placement was not appropriate.

On a separate issue, the 9th Circuit on Monday rejected a counter-appeal by the mother over the magnet school’s rejection of her son for admission. Oman brought that claim under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, seeking damages because the school rejected her son based on his disability.

But the 9th Circuit said that the Rehabilitation Act “does not compel educational institutions to disregard the disabilities of handicapped individuals or to make substantial modifications in their programs to allow disabled persons to participate, but merely requires them not to exclude a person who is otherwise qualified based upon his or her disability.”

The court said it was not unreasonable for the magnet school in Portland to require a minimum of 8th grade proficiency, which Oman’s son did not meet.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.