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Guidance Issued By The Department Of Education In Dear Colleague Letters Is Not Binding
Csutoras, who has attention deficit disorder, transferred to Paradise High School during his freshman year. Csutoras requested two accommodations pursuant to a Section 504 plan. The school granted his requests and allowed him extra time to complete work when necessary and assistance to review his notes to help keep him organized.
Csutoras was assaulted and seriously injured by another student at a high school football game. The assault was not connected to Csutoras’s attention deficit disorder. The school was unaware that Csutoras was harassed or bullied prior to the assault. Csutoras sued the school, seeking damages, alleging the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act by failing to satisfy several Dear Colleague Letters issued by the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services between 2000 and 2014. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the school, determining the Dear Colleague Letters were not binding. Csutoras appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Csutoras argued that the Ninth Circuit should adopt a four-factor test set out in the 2014 Dear Colleague Letter to determine whether certain conduct is a disability-based harassment violation under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. The 2014 Letter states the Office of Civil Rights may seek enforcement against a claim violation when: (1) a student is bullied based on a disability; (2) the bullying is sufficiently serious to create a hostile environment; (3) the school officials knew or should have known about the bullying; and (4) the school does not respond appropriately.
The Ninth Circuit rejected Csutoras’s argument and declined to extend the four-factor test to private suits for damages. The ADA and the Rehabilitation Act set a higher bar for plaintiffs seeking damages by requiring that plaintiffs establish the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff on the basis of their disability or were deliberately indifferent to the disability. Additionally, the Dear Colleague Letters themselves acknowledge that the four-factor test is limited to administrative enforcement actions and suits for injunctive relief, and explicitly state the Letters do not apply to private suits for damages like Csutoras’s claim.
The Ninth Circuit also rejected Csutoras’s argument that the Dear Colleague Letters provide notice to schools that all disabled students need social accommodations, even if never requested, in order to prevent bullying and harassment. The Ninth Circuit found Csutoras’s interpretation of the Dear Colleague Letters “stretch[es] them far afield from what they actually say.” The Court reiterated that the law requires plaintiffs to establish deliberate indifference in private lawsuits for damages, meaning “the school’s response to the harassment or lack thereof was clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.” The Court also noted the school’s response to the assault was reasonable, as it conducted a prompt investigation into the investigation and suspended Csutoras’s assailant.
After rejecting Csutoras’s arguments, the Ninth Circuit held that the Dear Colleague Letters lack the force of law. The Letters themselves disclaim that they hold binding authority and explicitly state they do not apply to private lawsuits for money damages, which was the suit that Csutoras brought. Additionally, the Letters use language like “encourage[ing] schools to “consider” some of the Department of Education’s recommendations, which suggest the Letters are non-binding guidance that do not change the elements plaintiffs need to establish in private suits.
The Ninth Circuit also held that Csutoras failed to establish a claim under both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. To establish a claim under either statute, Csutoras must show that (1) he is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) he was denied a reasonable accommodation that he needs in order to enjoy meaningful access to the benefits of public services; and (3) the program providing the benefit receives federal financial assistance. Because Csutoras never requested social-related accommodations, the Court held Csutoras cannot establish the second element.
Additionally, because Csutoras is a private plaintiff seeking money damages, he must prove the school intentionally discriminated against him by failing to accommodate him. This can be demonstrated if the school was deliberately indifferent to his disability. To show deliberate indifference, Csutoras must establish the school was on notice of the need for an accommodation.
Because Csutoras never requested any accommodations related to social interactions, bullying, or harassment, the Court held that Csutoras failed to establish the school was on notice for his need for social-related accommodations. The Court also rejected Csutoras’ argument that the Dear Colleague Letters made his need for social accommodations ‘obvious” and the school’s failure to enact the Letters’ recommendations was deliberate indifference. The Court stated the Letters cannot by themselves establish Csutoras’s burden to demonstrate the school had actual notice of his need for reasonable accommodations, because whether the need for accommodations was “obvious” is a factual determination.
Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s ruling in favor of the school.
Csutoras v. Paradise High School (9th Cir. 2021) 12 F.4th 960.