States Cannot Be Sued for EHA Violations

Developments in Mental Health Law, July-December 1989 | Go to article overview

States Cannot Be Sued for EHA Violations


Dellmuth v. Muth, --U.S.--, 109 S.Ct. 2397, (1989).

The United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that the state of Pennsylvania is immune from a tuition reimbursement suit in federal court under the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA), 84 Stat. 175, as amended, 20 U.S.C. [section] 1400 et. seq. (1982 ed. and Supp. V).

Writing for the court, Justice Kennedy did not take issue with the broad purposes of the EHA, which enacts a comprehensive scheme to assure that handicapped children may receive a free public education appropriate to their needs. Rather, the majority found that EHA was not intended to abrogate the state's eleventh amendment immunity from being sued in the federal courts. Justice Kennedy argued that Congress may set aside a state's immunity from suit only when it makes its intent to do so "unmistakably clear" in the language of the statute.

The EHA authorizes federal financial aid "to assist States and localities to provide for the education of all handicapped children." 20 U.S.C. [section] 1400(c). To be eligible for such aid, a state must develop a plan for the education of all handicapped students, and establish certain procedural protections, including giving parents the right to participate in the development of an "individualized education program" (IEP) for their child. In addition, parents may challenge the IEP in an administrative hearing with subsequent judicial review.

Russell Muth requested such an administrative hearing on behalf of his son Alex, who is handicapped by a language learning disability and related emotional problems. Alex was enrolled in public school in Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania from 1980 to 1983. In the summer of 1983, Russell Muth challenged the School District's IEP for Alex, but shortly before the hearing, enrolled the child in a private school for learning disabled children for the coming school year.

The administrative hearing examiner found that Alex's IEP was deficient in several respects. Both the Muths and the School District appealed the decision to the State Secretary of Education, as provided under Pennsylvania law. The Secretary remanded the case with instructions to the School District to revise Alex's IEP. The District did so, and the revised IEP was approved shortly thereafter.

While the administrative proceedings were underway, Russell Muth filed suit in federal court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against the School District and the Secretary of Education. The complaint alleged that the IEP was inappropriate and that Pennsylvania had violated the EHA in several respects. …

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