States Are Held Immune From Spec.-Ed. Suits

By Tom Mirga — June 21, 1989 5 min read

Washington--Lawsuits seeking damages from states for alleged violations of the federal special-education law are prohibited under the 11th Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week.

Acting in a case brought by the parents of a learning-disabled Pennsylvania boy, the Court ruled 5 to 4 that in passing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, pl 94-142, the Congress failed to use “unmistakably clear” language that it intended to abrogate states’ 11th Amendment immunity from federal lawsuits alleging violations of the act.

Way eased for suits claiming’reverse discrimination.’ Page 15.

The 11th Amendment bars states from being sued in federal courts unless they give their consent to be sued. The Court, however, has ruled previously that the Congress can eliminate states’ immunity from such suits by passing laws to enforce the equal-protection and due-process clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy held that language in pl 94-142 that might indicate an intent to withdraw states’ immunity “appears ambiguous at best.”

“In our view,” he wrote, “it cannot be said with perfect confidence that Congress in fact intended ... to abrogate sovereign immunity, and imperfect confidence will not suffice given the special constitutional concern” for the balance of power between the federal and state governments.

Several school-law experts said last week that under other Court precedents, the decision in Dellmuth v. Muth (Case No. 87-1855) will not prohibit handicapped students from filing suits against local education agencies and officials. They disagreed, however, on whether the ruling bars all suits against states, or only those that seek damages.

In addition, staff members of the House and Senate committees that oversee special education said last week that the panels, which are preparing legislation to reauthorize pl 94-142, may consider an amendment to make clear that states are not immune from suits.

Last week’s decision stemmed from a dispute in 1983 between the father of Robert A. Muth, who has learning disabilities and associated emotional problems, and the Central Bucks School District over a proposed change in the boy’s individualized education program.

Shortly before an administrative hearing was convened, the father enrolled his son in a private school in Massachusetts. More than a year elapsed between the first hearing and a final decision by the state secretary of education upholding a revised iep for the boy.

While the administrative hearings were under way, the father filed suit against the state and the school district in federal district court, alleging that the iep was improper and that state’s hearing process violated the procedural due-process requirements of the special-education law. He sought injunctive relief, attorney’s fees, and reimbursement for one year of tuition at the private school.

A federal district judge ruled in favor of the family and ordered the district and the state to split the cost of the tuition and legal fees. A federal appeals court affirmed that decision last year.

In his decision reversing the appellate court, Justice Kennedy noted that in prior 11th Amendment cases the Court has “applied a simple but stringent test: Congress may abrogate the states’ constitutionally secured immunity from suit in federal court only by making its intention unmistakably clear in the language of the statute.”

The fact that pl 94-142 “is replete with references to the states,” Justice Kennedy said, is insufficient grounds for a finding that the Congress intended to eliminate their immunity.

Also insufficient, he continued, is the law’s provision “for an administrative hearing with subsequent ju4dicial review.”

“A general authorization for suit in federal court is not the kind of unequivocal statutory language sufficient to abrogate the 11th Amendment,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “We find it difficult to believe that the 94th Congress, taking careful stock of the state of 11th Amendment law, decided it would drop coy hints but stop short of making its intent manifest.”

Justice Kennedy also rejected the argument that the Congress demonstrated such intent regarding the special-education law when it passed legislation in 1986 nullifying the Court’s ruling that states were immune from suits under the Rehabilitation Act.

And he disagreed that such intent was shown when the Congress that same year nullified the Court’s ruling in Smith v. Robinson, which precluded the awarding of attorney’s fees in special-education lawsuits.

“The 1986 amendment to [pl 94-142] deals only with attorney’s fees, and does not alter or speak to what parties are subject to suit,” he wrote.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justices Byron R. White and Sandra Day O’Connor joined in Justice Kennedy’s opinion. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a short concurring opinion.

Writing for the dissenters, Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. argued that “the text and legislative history” of the special-education law “make it unmistakably clear that Congress there intended to abrogate state immunity from suit.”

“To my mind,” he wrote, “immunity is unequivocally ... abrogated when state amenability to suit is the logical inference from the language and structure” of a law’s text.

The majority “reaches the conclusion it does only because it requires more than an unequivocal text,” he continued.

Justice Brennan noted that the test applied by the Court for determining Congressional intent was first announced in a 1985 case, years after pl 94-142 was enacted. “Congress could have anticipated [that standard] only with the aid of a particularly effective crystal ball,” he wrote.

Experts on special-education law agreed that the Court’s decision will make it more difficult for the parents of handicapped students to recover damages for violations of their children’s rights under the law.

They also noted that by eliminating states as potential co-defendants, the decision could place additional financial burdens on local education agencies.

“There’s clearly an adverse effect on litigation by parents and other representatives of handicapped children,” said Martin Gerry, director of the Fund For Equal Access in Society. “The court has gone a little bit overboard, because the legislative history of the statute is fairly clear.”

Mr. Gerry suggested, however, that the Congress would act to remedy the situation.

“The Court has turned the ball back to Congress, which may not be a bad idea,” added S. James Rosenfeld, a lawyer and the founder of Edlaw, Inc., which publishes a special-education database.

Staff Writer Debra Viadero contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 1989 edition of Education Week as States Are Held Immune From Spec.-Ed. Suits