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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. Muth also sought reimbursement for Alex's private school tuition as well as attorney's fees.

The district court found in favor of the Muths, agreeing that the EHA abrogated Pennsylvania's eleventh amendment immunity from suit. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed. In order to resolve a conflict among the circuits, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

In holding that Congress failed to make it "unmistakably clear" in the language of the EHA that it intended to subject the states to suit in federal court, and thus abrogate eleventh amendment immunity, the majority rejected arguments that EHA's frequent references to the states, as well as its emphasis on the states' important role in establishing educational opportunities for handicapped children, amount to an authorization for suit in the federal court. Notwithstanding the states' vital role in securing appropriate educational programs for the handicapped, the majority argued, Congress did not explicitly direct that the states be answerable for violations of the EHA in federal court. Since the language of the statute does not even refer to the eleventh amendment or to the states' sovereign immunity from suit, the Court refused to substitute its judgment for that of the Congress.

In dissent, Justice Brennan argued that, since the EHA imposes substantial obligations upon the states, as well as on local educational authorities, Congress intended that disabled students have an enforceable substantive right to a public education. Federal financial assistance is expressly conditioned upon a state's compliance with the various substantive and procedural requirements of the EHA. Therefore it makes sense to believe that Congress intended the states to be subject to suit in the federal court for violations of the EHA. Indeed, wrote Brennan, a contrary interpretation renders substantive rights under the EHA unenforceable in cases where a state forum is unavailable.

Congress may have the final word in this area. After the Supreme Court held in Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234 (1985) that [section] 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. [section] 794, contained no "unmistakable language" abrogating the states' constitutional immunity from suit, Congress amended the statute. It did so, Justice Brennan maintains (perhaps as an invitation to Congress to once again overrule the Court), because "tilt would be inequitable ... to mandate state compliance with its provisions and yet deny litigants the right to enforce their rights in Federal courts when State or State agency actions are in issue."
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Title Annotation:Education of the Handicapped Act
Publication:Developments in Mental Health Law
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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