Educational Malpractice in Illinois and Section 1983 Violations

In 1977, the Illinois Supreme Court held that no cause of action existed against a local school district for its refusal to place a learning disabled student in special education classes. Pierce v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, 69 Ill. 2d 89 (1977). The court based its decision on two factors; (1) the plaintiff’s failure to exhaust all administrative remedies; and (2) the local school district was the improper party; rather, the court found that placement of learning disabled students was the duty of the Illinois State Board of Education.

In June of 1990, the United States District Court reaffirmed this position holding that a former athlete did not have the cause of action under Illinois law for educational malpractice or for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiff, in Ross v. Creighton University, 740 F. Supp. 1319 (N.D. Ill. 1990), was a Creighton University athlete who sued for failure to obtain an appropriate education. The court held that educational malpractice is a tort theory that, while beloved by commentators, is not beloved by the courts. In rejecting the plaintiff’s claim for educational malpractice, the court found that imposing a duty of care upon the school would put an onerous burden upon educators, forcing them to litigate every suit claiming negligence in the selection of curriculum, teaching methods, teachers, or extracurricular activities, and that educators cannot be expected to foresee mental injuries arising from education.

The court held that in education, the ultimate responsibility for success always remains with the pupil. While other professions, such as lawyers and doctors, are exposed to malpractice liability, the court found that the nature of education radically differs from other professions:

Education is an intensively collaborative process, requiring the interaction of student with teacher. A good student can learn from a poor teacher; and a poor student can close his mind to a good teacher. Without effort by a student, he cannot be educated.

Noting that the practical impossibility of proving that the alleged malpractice of the teacher proximately caused the learning deficiency of the plaintiff-student due to factors such as the student’s attitude, motivation, temperament, and past experience in the home environment, the court rejected the claim for educational malpractice. Thus, such claims continue to go unrecognized in Illinois and in most states.

Having concluded that Illinois does not recognize a cause of action for educational malpractice, the court stated that if every failed student could seek tort damages against any teacher, administrator or school he feels may have shortchanged him at some point in his education, the courts could be deluged with suits that could result in school shutdowns. In Illinois, therefore, if poor education (or student laziness) is to be corrected, a common law action for negligence is not the proper approach.

NOTE: The Ross opinion is available in its entirety from our office by request.

The reluctance of courts around the country to recognize educational malpractice actions is buttressed by compelling public policy reasons disfavoring such recognition. The public policy reasons include: (1) the lack of a satisfactory standard of care by which to measure an educators conduct; (2) the inherent uncertainty in determining the cause and nature of any damages; (3) the resulting burden that would be placed on schools in a predicted flood of litigation; and (4) such a cause of action would force the courts to blatantly interfere with the internal operations and daily workings of educational institutions. S. Brown & K. Cannon, Educational Malpractice Actions: A Remedy for What Ails Our Schools?, 78 Ed. Law. Rep. at 643 (Jan. 28, 1993).

Only one state, Montana, has found that educators owe a reasonable duty of care in the testing and placement of students. In B.M. by Berger v. State of Montana, 200 Mont. 58, P. 649 2d 425 (1982), the plaintiff’s foster parents filed suit alleging that their child had been negligently misplaced in a segregated classroom for the mentally retarded. Soon after being diagnosed as mentally retarded and being placed in this class, the child’s foster mother claimed that she had witnessed a dramatic worsening of her daughter’s behavior. The court found that the State owed a duty of care to special education students in testing and placements. In a narrow 4-3 decision with two separate dissents filed, the case was remanded to the district court on the issue of damages and appealed to the Montana Supreme Court on the same issue. 215 Mont. 175, 698 P.2d 399 (1985). It should be noted that this case was based on negligent placement of special education student, not negligent teaching.

The issue of educational malpractice in special education cases was recently addressed by the United States Supreme Court in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 112 Sup. Ct. 1028, 117 L. Ed 2d 208 (1992). In Franklin, the Supreme Court recognized monetary damages as a permissible remedy under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 for students who have been intentionally denied their rights under the statute. This ruling may have implications for similar awards for intentional misconduct under other federal statutes including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Individuals With Disabilities Educating Act (“IDEA”). Prior to Franklin, monetary damages were not available to litigants suing under IDEA and the circuits were divided as to the availability under these other Acts. However, if a school has intentionally ignored information that a student protected by one of these statues has been misplaced or misdiagnosed, a student may now be able to sue under one of the above statutes and receive monetary damages without relying on the oft-dismissed and generally maligned theory of educational malpractice.

Courts have continued to rule that a claim for educational malpractice will not prevail in a court of law. Courts still rely on the opinion from Ross v. Creighton University in which the Illinois Supreme Court refused to recognize a claim of educational malpractice for fear it may open the flood gates for litigation. Many courts take the view that where the essence of the complaint is that an educational institution breached its agreement by failing to provide an effective education, the court is asked to evaluate the course of instruction and called upon to review the soundness of the method of teaching that has been adopted by that educational institution and this is a project that the judiciary is ill equipped to undertake.

In Todd v. Elkins School District No. 10, No. 97-3258, 1998 U.S. App. Lexis 8083, (8th Cir. Apr. 27, 1998), that section 504 does not create general tort liability for educational malpractice, but rather requires a showing of either bad faith or gross misjudgment to demonstrate a violation in the context of the education of handicapped children. Therefore, the fact that Jacob’s IEP did not provide for an adult aide, although one was available when he fell from his wheelchair was not enough to sustain a claim of educational malpractice.

Likewise, in K.U. v. Alvin Independent School District, 991 F. Supp. 599 (S. Dist. Tex. Jan. 6, 1998), held that the plaintiff’s had failed to state a claim under 504. The plaintiff’s allegations of discrimination were based mainly on the perception that K.U. suffered retaliation due to the actions of his parents. K.U.’s suspensions and low grades were related to his behavior and failure to do the work not based on some wrongdoing of the teachers or the district. The court stated its role is merely to assure that the school district is providing each student with an educational process that is adapted to that child’s needs, beyond this the court will not venture.

Courts in at least 10 states and the District of Columbia have considered and declined to hold that a claim for educational malpractice is cognizable common-law cause of action. Most of those educational malpractice claims involved direct causes of action brought by a student against an educational institution. Illinois is among those states that still declines to recognize educational malpractice claims.

Other Examples of Cases involving Educational Malpractice

Portland Public School, 20 IDELR 596 (SEA 1993).

The district’s evaluations of a 6-year-old student with Autism, while flawed, were appropriate in determining the student’s special education needs. The student’s IEP was reasonably calculated to provide an educational benefit, and the district’s proposal for an extended school year (“ESY”) program was sufficient to meet the student’s needs in that it continued to implement the goals and objectives of the IEP, was staffed by qualified personnel and offered integration with nondisabled peers. Accordingly, the student’s parents were not entitled to the relief sought, namely, an independent educational evaluation at public expense, reimbursement for a privately obtained ESY program, and compensatory education.

Brantley v. District of Columbia, 21 IDELR 182 (D.C. 1994).

The parent of a student with a learning disability was not entitled to monetary relief on a civil action against a school district for its alleged failure to properly evaluate and place the student. These claims involved educational malpractice and could not be entertained or redressed by a court of law.

Surano v. Hyde Park Cent. Sch. Dist., 21 IDELR 117 (NY App. Div. 1994). Parents sued a school district in negligence on behalf of their son, alleging that it failed to detect and properly treat his purported learning disability. The action was dismissed, since it was determined to be based solely on a theory of educational malpractice, and public policy precluded judicial interference with the judgment of educators.

Ft. Zumwalt Sch. Dist. v. Missouri State Bd. of Educ., 21 IDELR 981 (E.D. Mo. 1994).

The IDEA, Section 504, and the ADA did not entitle the parents of a student with a disability to receive damages for the alleged pain and suffering they experienced due to the district’s failure to provide an appropriate education to the student. Damages for pain and suffering resulting from educational malpractice were not an available remedy under the IDEA. Likewise, such relief was not available under Section 504 or the ADA, as those laws could not be used to obtain remedies which were not available under the IDEA.

Helbig v. City of New York, 22 IDELR 362 (NY App. Div. 1995).

A student with a learning disability who alleged that a former principal altered test answer sheets, thereby denying him access to special education, did not have a cause of action in negligence against the principal or the board. The negligence claim was essentially an educational malpractice claim for which no cause of action was recognized under state law. However, the student’s fraud and intentional wrongdoing claim was actionable if properly pleaded and proven. Since the student failed to plead those allegations with the required specificity, they were dismissed with leave to replead.

Hoekstra v. Independent School District No. 283, 103 F.3d 624 (8th Cir. Dec. 23, 1996).

The IDEA, Section 504, Section 1983, and the ADA did not entitle parents of a child with physical disabilities to judgment against the district for failure to provide a FAPE and a key to the elevator. The district in fact provided extra tutoring service and provided a key when the elevator was safe for operation. The court held the parents did not exhaust their ADA claims under IDEA before bringing suit in Federal Court, and they failed to show the district acted in bad faith by not providing the key sooner.

Clarke v. Trustees of Columbia University of the City of New York, No. 95 CIV 10627(PKL), 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 15620 (S. D. N.Y. Oct. 22, 1996).

A student brought a claim for educational malpractice when the school failed to provide her with a new supervisor when hers became ill and the school failed to adjust her grade to reflect this. The courts in New York do not recognize claims of educational malpractice and refused to, based on public policy, enter the classroom to determine claims based upon educational malpractice. The student’s claims of educational malpractice were therefore dropped from her complaint.

Bell v. West Haven Board of Education, No. CV970300597S, 1997 Conn. Super. Lexis 3430 (Super. Ct. Conn. Dec. 23, 1997).

Where the district employed a teaching program called “Responsive Classroom” that emphasized social skills over discipline and academics, the plaintiffs did not have a valid claim for educational malpractice. The court held that the plaintiffs did not show the defendant’s conduct fell below the minimum standard of care. Accordingly counts 1 through 3 for educational malpractice were struck down.

Doe v. Yale University, No. CV900305365S, 1997 Conn, Super. Lexis 3205, (Super. Ct. Conn. Dec. 1, 1997).

A doctor infected with HIV due to a needle prick during residency was determined not to have a valid claim for educational malpractice, but instead a claim for negligence. His claim was based on Yale’s alleged failure to train him adequately in needle safety and in the performance of the arterial line insertion, not a claim in the defendant’s overall educational program or that education did not equip him to be a good doctor.

Scott v. Montgomery County Board of Education, No. 96-2455, 1997 U.S. App. Lexis 21258 (4th Cir. Aug. 12, 1997).

A parent of a child who committed suicide did not have a valid claim for educational malpractice although the school district failed to provide psychological counseling to her son. The court held that the mother did not present enough evidence to show that the school board’s actions or inactions proximately caused the suicide. The judgment in favor of the board was affirmed.

Doe v. Town of Framingham, 965 F. Supp. 226 (D. Mass. June 4, 1997).

The districts failure to use due care in testing her son and placing him in a special education program was an issue of educational malpractice. However, the Court concluded that Doe’s educational malpractice claim against the Town of Framingham is not recognized under Massachusetts law. Therefore, the defendant’s motion for summary judgment was granted.

Ansari v. New York University, No. 96CV5280(MBM), 1997 U.S. Dist. Lexis 6863, (S. D. N.Y. May 12, 1997).

A dental student’s claim of educational malpractice for failing to provide state-of-the-art- facilities and training stated in the program’s promotional literature was denied because the court held that only one of the promises made could actually fall under the educational malpractice doctrine and require a review. The court declined to “pluck” out the overview claim before discovery had begun.

Gally v. Columbia University, 22 F. Supp. 2d 199 (S.D.N.Y. 1998).
A District Court refused to recognize cause of action under New York law for constructive discharge from education because the court held that such recognition would undermine important policy considerations that would restrain the application of legal rules in disputes within academic community.

Lawrence v. Lorain Cty. Community College, 127 Ohio App. 3d 546, (Ohio 1998).

A student’s bought an action for a substandard education, guidance, and supervision, at a community college’s and that the catalog of course offerings and academic policies constituted contract under which college was to provide him with degree. The court held that the claim amounted to educational malpractice which is not cognizable under state law, in absence of any claim that college failed to provide any courses or services offered in catalog.

Sellers by Sellers v. School Bd. of City of Mannassas,Va., 141 F.3d 524
(Va. 1998).

A high school student Fourteenth Amendment claim of educational malpractice against a school board, superintendent, and school system for failing to identify his learning disabilities was ruled to have been properly dismissed. Compensatory or punitive damages are not available for alleged IDEA violations. IDEA ensures that students with disabilities received a FAPE but it does not allow for a creation of a cause of action for tort-type claims. The failure to diagnose a learning disability was not a claim under Rehabilitation Act.

Smith ex rel. Townsend v. Special School Dist. No. 1, 184 F.3d 764 (Minn. 1999).

A student filed suit against a school district. The Appellant Court reiterated that the ADA, Rehabilitation Act, and Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) do not create an action for general tort liability for educational malpractice. Recovery under these statutes can only be provided if the disabled student demonstrates gross misjudgment or bad faith on part of school officials. The court affirmed the ruling of the district court holding that the student failed to demonstrate bad faith or gross mismanagement necessary to establish claims under ADA, Rehabilitation Act, and MHRA.

Page v. Klein Tools, Inc., 610 N.W.2d 900 (Mich. 2000).

An Apprentice linesman sued a trade school for negligently failing to properly instruct him brining a products liability claim. The Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s decision and held that the plaintiff’s allegations constituted a claim of “educational malpractice,” which the court declined to recognize. Michigan Law does not allow for negligent instruction or educational malpractice claims against either public schools, institutions of higher learning, or private proprietary and trade schools.

Violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 -An Introduction

The first issue in a § 1983 action is whether plaintiff sufficiently alleged a deprivation of any right secured by the Constitution. D.R., 109 F.3d at 1367. There are three claims that can be made in a § 1983 action. First, a special relationship existed between parties. Second, the state created a danger and is liable for the consequences of that danger. Finally, the school deprived the student of a constitutional right by actively or passively promulgating a de facto custom, policy, and/or practice of failing to properly safeguard its students, assuming the unlawful acts alleged were committed under the color of state law.

1. Special Relationship Theory

A claim under the special relationship theory exists where the state enters into a “special relationship” with a particular citizen and fails to protect the health and safety of the citizen to whom it owed an affirmative duty. Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 907 (3rd Cir.1997). A “special relationship” exists only in circumstances where the plaintiff is essentially in the defendant’s custody. Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1150 (3d Cir.1995). There is no affirmative duty on the part of the state to protect individuals against invasion by other parties. The Supreme Court held that there was no denial of constitutional liberty under due process therefore dismissing liability of defendant social services to intervene in a case of child abuse. DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services,
109 S.Ct. 998 (Wis. 1989).

2. D.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational and Technical Sch., 972 F.2d 1364 (3rd Cir. 1991).

In D.R., the Third Circuit Court of Appeals refused to apply the special relationship theory. Students who were sexually abused by other students brought a § 1983 action against their school, school district, and individually named teachers and officials. The circuit court held that this was not a circumstance where the state held the students in custody against their will. The court considered the whether:

1. Parents decide whether their children will be educated in public schools;

2. Parents remain the primary caretakers of their children even when their children are at school;

3. The plaintiffs still resided in their respective homes and therefore had access to sources of assistance other than the state; and

4. The plaintiffs did not depend on the school or the state for the satisfaction of their basic human needs. D.R., 109 F.3d at 1367.

3. State-Created Danger

In Kneipp v. Tedder, a court adopted a four-part test whereby liability may be imposed. Liability was grounded upon the state’s affirmative acts that “work to plaintiffs’ detriment in terms of exposure to danger.” Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1211 (3rd Cir. 1996). The test included that:

1. The harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and fairly direct;

2. The state actor acted in willful disregard for the safety of the plaintiff;

3. There existed some relationship between the state and the plaintiff;

4. The state actors used their authority to create an opportunity that otherwise would not have existed for the third party’s crime to occur. Id. at 1208.

Section 1983 liability under the state-created danger theory is predicated on a state’s affirmative culpable acts that deprive plaintiff of a right protected by substantive due process. D.R., 972 F.2d at 1368. Courts consider whether the involved state actors affirmatively acted to create plaintiff’s danger or to make her more vulnerable to such danger. Id. at 1373.

4. Policy, Practice or Custom

Under the color of state law following established custom, practice, and policy of the defendant must deprive the Plaintiffs of a right secured by the Constitution in violation of §1983. Such policies must also exhibit deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights affected by that policy, custom, or practice. Beck v. Pittsburgh, 89 F.3d 966, 972 (3d Cir.1996).

(a) Elliott V. New Miami Board Of Education, 799 F.Supp. 818 (S.D.Ohio 1992).

A District Court dismissed a § 1983 claim in a case where a high school freshman was repeatedly harassed and assaulted at school. The school principal and teachers witnessed several attacks yet made no effort to stop the harassment.

The court held that the State of Ohio compelled Elliott to attend school, but did not restrict her freedom as in the case of prisoners or patients in mental institutions. The court noted that students return home at the end of the school day and are free to act as people in society, unlike prisoners and patients of mental institutions. The state is not the primary caretaker of school children as in the case of prisoners and patients of mental institutions, therefore there is no special relationship under § 1983.

The court held that since Elliott’s classmates were operating as private actors when they committed the underlying acts and not the state of Ohio, the Court refused to impose liability on the school for its policies, customs, or practices.

(b) Murrell v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado, 186 F.3d 1238 (10th Cir. 1999).

Jones was a student born with spastic cerebral palsy who functioned at the level of a first-grader both intellectually and developmentally. When enrolled in school her mother informed the principal and special education teachers of her vulnerability to assault.

“John Doe,” another special education student who had a history of disciplinary and behavioral problems, including sexually inappropriate conduct, sexually assaulted Ms. Jones on multiple occasions. Although teachers knew Jones had been battered and may have known she was sexually assaulted, they only informed Jones’ mother of the non-sexual battery. Jones began exhibiting self-destructive and suicidal behavior, left school, and entered a psychiatric hospital.

The principal declined to investigate the incident and responded by suspending only Ms. Jones for “[b]ehavior that is detrimental to the welfare, safety, or morals of other pupils or school personnel.” The District neither notified appropriate law enforcement officials nor disciplined Mr. Doe.

The court affirmed the district court’s order dismissing the §1983 equal protection claim against the School District. The court held that the harassment was directed solely at Jones and did not demonstrate a custom or policy of the School District to be deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment as a general matter. See Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York, 436 US 691 (1978).

The court reversed the district court’s order dismissing Ms. Murrell’s Title IX claim, as well as its order dismissing Ms. Murrell’s Section 1983 equal protection claim as to the individual defendants remanding it to the lower court. The court held that Murrell properly alleged that the principal and the teachers in their supervisory role over the students met the harassment with deliberate indifference, and because they were not entitled to qualified immunity.

(c) Stevenson ex rel. Stevenson v. Martin County Board of Education, 243 F.3d 541 (N.C. 2001).

Stevenson alleged that the county board of education violated his liberty interest in bodily integrity and his property interest in a public education when they allowed his classmates to physically assault him at school over a period of several weeks. The United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the federal claims finding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims.

The court rejected all three § 1983 claims; first, that school officials deprived him of his interest in a public education because the continued attacks forced him to leave Williamston Middle School; second, that school officials deprived him of his bodily integrity by failing to stop the attacks by his fellow students; and third, that the Martin County Board of Education contributed to the violence by failing to develop safety plans and training its school personnel in how to respond to violent students. The Court stated that the “failure to protect by itself is not sufficient to trigger constitutional liability in this situation.”