Do Courts Require a Heightened, Intent Standard for Students' Section 504 and ADA Claims against School Districts?

By Zirkel, Perry A. | Journal of Law and Education, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Do Courts Require a Heightened, Intent Standard for Students' Section 504 and ADA Claims against School Districts?


Zirkel, Perry A., Journal of Law and Education


In a recently published nuanced analysis, Professor Mark Weber argued against applying an intent requirement for non-employment § 504 and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claims against governmental entities.1 Professor Weber made clear that his argument applies "particularly" but not exclusively to claims for "monetary relief,"2 extending to "any intent requirement either for liability or monetary relief."3

The purpose of this brief article is to provide a comprehensive yet concise canvassing of the case law specific to student § 504 and ADA claims against school districts to determine whether courts require a heightened, intent standard.4 The purpose, in contrast to Professor Weber's stimulating analysis, is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Moreover, in light of the school district context and systematic outcomes focus of this analysis, the treatment of § 504 and the ADA is on a joint basis,5 with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) serving as a relatively remote backdrop.6

The first part of this article provides an overview of the various elements of such claims, including the heightening hurdle of the various forms of what Professor Weber referred to as an intent requirement.7 The second part provides the scope, including exclusions, of the analysis. The third and primary part presents a circuit-by-circuit chart of the current case law. The final part provides a brief discussion of the results, including recommendations for follow-up analyses.

I. OVERVIEW OF THE BASIC ELEMENTS OF STUDENT SECTION 504 AND ADA CLAIMS

Within the aforementioned8 context and beyond the threshold hurdles,9 courts generally agree that the prima facie case consists primarily of the following elements: (1) student meets definition of disability and is otherwise qualified; (2) exclusion, benefit denial, or other discrimination; and (3) causal link between disability and discrimination.10 Although not necessarily applied in a flowchart-type sequence, the first element11 or the third element12 has been fatal in various court decisions, whereas the focus here is on the ultimate application of the second element.13

II. SCOPE OF THE ANALYSIS

Within the K-12 public school student context,14 the boundaries for this circuit-by-circuit analysis are (1) broadly FAPE-related, peer harassment, and staff abuse cases,15 and within this relatively broad subject matter, (2) the various theories except the one definitionally obverse to intent-disparate impact.16 The time period is the most recent fifteen years. Moreover, although the coverage within these boundaries is relatively comprehensive, the focus of the citations is on fairly recent federal appeals court decisions, with older appellate decisions and recent lower court decisions only included in the absence of such authority. Finally, although most student suits under § 504/ADA seek monetary damages, which generally are not available under the IDEA,17 the coverage here is not limited to this form of relief.

III. TABULAR ANALYSIS OF THE CASE LAW

Table 1 synthesizes the applicable case law within the stated scope of analysis. The entries for each circuit are in response to the focal question-do courts require a heightened, intent standard for student § 504/ADA claims? The columns for each jurisdictional row represent an approximate typology of relief: (1) money damages where the plai_72.tiff clearly sought this form of relief and the court seemed to limit its answer to this remedy; (2) unclear form of relief or its limitation was not readily discernable; and (3) where the court addressed one or more of the equitable remedies that not only are often associated with the IDEA18 but also are within the broad range of relief available under § 504/ADA,19 such as tuition reimbursement or compensatory education. Finally, the footnoted citations include parentheticals that ide_72.tify the variation, or proxy, for intent to the extent that the court required such a heightened standard. …

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