Federal Rehabilitation Act Is Potent Weapon For Disabled Students Because It Authorizes Damages, While IDEA Statute Is Restricted to Injuncitve Relief

When it comes to disabled students, there are two potent weapons for parents in the form of the Federal Rehabilitation Act (29 USC § 794) and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA,” 20 USC § 1400, et seq.).  The Rehabilitation Act forbids organizations that receive federal funding, including public schools, from discriminating against people with disabilities.  Thus, section 504 of the Act states that “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 29 U.S.C. § 794(a); see also 34 C.F.R. § 104.4.

The IDEA statute provides similar rights, but is specifically tailored to education.  The IDEA law provides that each public school district shall provide a “free appropriate public education” (commonly referred to as a “FAPE”) to each student. If a person is diagnosed with specific learning disabilities, an individualized education plan (“IEP”) may be required. 

But the two statutes are different when it comes to remedies, as explained by the Ninth Circuit in Mark H. v. Hamamoto. The IDEA statute entitles an aggrieved plaintiff to injunctive relief; that is, to a court order that the school district comply with the legal mandate to provide a FAPE. The Rehabilitation Act, in contrast, provides more expansive remedies, including damages in appropriate cases.

But in order to claim damages under the Rehabilitation Act, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the school district acted with “deliberate indifference” to his/her rights. Thus, “[i]f an organization that receives federal funds violates Rehabilitation Act § 504 intentionally or with deliberate indifference, it may be liable for compensatory damages.”

How does one prove deliberate indifference?  There must be a showing that the defendant “had knowledge that a harm to a federally protected right is substantially likely, and . . . failed to act upon that likelihood.”

For your convenience, a complete copy of the court’s ruling is attached.

Slote & Links regularly advises public and private school administrators, teachers, parents and students on a variety of legal issues relating to education.  If you have questions about your rights with respect to any aspect of public or private school administration, please feel free to consult our office.

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