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Media Alerts - S.H. v. Lower Merion School District - Third Circuit
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September 10, 2013
  S.H. v. Lower Merion School District - Third Circuit
Headline: Third Circuit Holds That the IDEA Does Not Protect Children Who Are Misidentified as Disabled

Area of Law: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and § 202 of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Issues Presented: (1) Whether the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act covers those mislabeled as having a disability? (2) Whether the summary judgment was improperly granted?

Brief Summary: S.H. attended school in the Lower Merion School District ("School District"). S.H. and her mother ("Plaintiffs") filed a claim in the District Court under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act ("RA"), and § 202 of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") after S.H. was mislabeled as disabled and placed in special education classes for several years. The District Court dismissed the IDEA claim and granted summary judgment to the School District for the RA and ADA claims. On appeal, the Court determined that IDEA did not cover S.H. because it only protected children with disabilities. The plain language of the statute did not cover S.H.'s situation, where she was misidentified as disabled despite not actually having any learning disability. Then the Court determined that summary judgment was properly granted to the School District. It first determined that in order to recover compensatory damages under the ADA and RA, intentional discrimination was needed. The Court then determined that deliberate indifference, and not discriminatory animus, was sufficient for intentional discrimination. In this case, there was no issue of fact as to whether S.H. was intentionally discriminated against or not.

Significance (if any):

Extended Summary: Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Lower Merion School District ("School District") claiming that it violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act ("RA"), and § 202 of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). Plaintiffs allege that the School District wrongly diagnosed S.H. and is liable for compensatory education and damages. S.H. began attending elementary school in the School District during the 2000-2001 school year. She was placed in a program that would help improve her academic performance called Title I. S.H. continued to receive Title I services in the 2nd grade. During the 3rd and 4th grades, S.H. scored lower than the benchmark on certain standardized tests. After receiving consent from S.H.'s mother, the School District evaluated S.H. in order to determine if she was eligible for special education services. As a result, S.H. was placed in special education classes even though she expressed that she did not belong in those classes. For her 5th grade year, S.H. was placed in special education classes. She then scored above-grade level on a reading test. During her 6th to 8th grade years, S.H. received accommodations for standardized testing and had a team of people select classes for her. S.H.'s mom expressed concern that her reading scores were below average and requested for a reading specialist when S.H. was in the 7th grade. Because of S.H.'s schedule, she did not have time to take Spanish or science classes.
When S.H. entered high school, S.H.'s mother had the option of changing S.H.'s course schedule but did not do so. In early 2009, the School District again evaluated S.H. in order to determine if she still needed special education and concluded that she consistently scored below average on standardized math and reading tests. The evaluation also concluded that S.H. had a disability but did not identify the disability. In late 2009, S.H.'s mom requested an Independent Education Evaluation ("IEE"), which the School District agreed to. The doctor who conducted the IEE concluded that S.H. had an average IQ of 100 and was scoring average in certain test areas but below average in reading. More importantly, the doctor concluded that S.H. did not have a learning disability and that the School District had erroneously labeled her. S.H.'s mom then requested that she be removed from special education services, which the School District granted. S.H. did not receive special education for her junior and senior years.
After S.H. was removed from the special education program, the School District moved to dismiss S.H.'s mom's Due Process Complaint from late 2009 because it no longer had the ability to hear it. In November 2010, Plaintiffs filed claims against the School District under the IDEA for violating its duty to identify children with disabilities, § 504 of the RA for discriminating against S.H., and § 202 of the ADA for the same reasons. Plaintiffs claimed that the special education services prevented her from enjoying regular-curriculum classes, such as foreign language class. Plaintiffs requested $127,010 in damages. On June 30, 2011, the District Court dismissed the IDEA claim and on July 19, 2012, it granted summary judgment to the School District on the remaining claims. Plaintiffs then appealed.
Plaintiffs first argued that the District Court wrongly dismissed the IDEA claim because it was intended to cover not only children with disabilities but children who were misidentified as disabled. This required the Court to interpret the IDEA statute. The Court first looked at the plain meaning of the statute. The language of the IDEA protected "children with disabilities." The Court interpreted this statute as covering only children with disabilities, not children who were mislabeled as disabled but were in fact not disabled. The Plaintiffs attempted to use legislative history to support their claim arguing that the purpose of the IDEA was to protect minority children from being mislabeled as having a learning disability. However, because the plain language of the statute did not contain ambiguous terms, the Court decided that it did not need to look at the legislative history. The Plaintiffs then argued that the IDEA's Child Find Provision which included "matter relating to identification" language indicated that they had standing to bring a claim under the IDEA. However, the Court rejected this argument because the plain meaning of the statute only included children with learning disabilities. Therefore, Plaintiffs did not have a claim under the IDEA because it only allows children with a disability to bring a claim.
Plaintiffs next argued that the School District discriminated against S.H. under the RA and ADA and that summary judgment was improperly granted. The School District argued that to recover compensatory damages, Plaintiffs needed to prove that there was intentional discrimination. To bring successful ADA and RA claims, Plaintiffs have to show that: (1) S.H. has a disability; (2) S.H. was otherwise qualified to participate in a school program; and (3) S.H. was denied benefits of the program or was subject to discrimination because of her disability. Relying on Guardians Assoc. v. Civil Serv. Comm'n of New York, a Supreme Court case that held compensatory damages required intentional discrimination, the Court determined that the RA and ADA also required intentional discrimination in order to recover compensatory damages. This determination was consistent with the Court's sister circuits.
Following the majority of courts that have addressed the issue, the Court determined that deliberate indifference was enough to satisfy intentional discrimination. Deliberate indifference requires: (1) knowledge that a federally protected right is substantially likely to be violated and (2) failure to act. The Court reasoned that this standard fit better with the remedial purposes of the RA and ADA and was consistent with contract law principles while still protecting the disabled. The Court then addressed Plaintiffs' claim that there was an issue of fact as to the School District's knowledge of S.H.'s misidentification. The Court determined that the School District did not have knowledge of the wrong diagnosis prior to the evaluation in 2009. In particular, S.H.'s test scored and grades taken as a whole was not enough to put the School District on notice that she did not have a learning disability. As a result, the Court affirmed the District Court.

To read the full opinion, please visit

Panel (if known): Rendell, Greenaway, Jr., Circuit Judges, and Rosenthal, District Judge

Argument Date: May 23, 2013

Argument Location: Philadelphia, PA

Date of Issued Opinion: September 5, 2013

Docket Number: No. 12-3264

Decided: affirmed

Case Alert Author: Kathleen D. Tran

Counsel: Sonja D. Kerr, Esq., Counsel for Plaintiffs; Michael D. Kristofco, Esq., ShaVon Y. Savage, Esq., Jenna B. Berman, Esq., and Amy T. Brooks, Esq., Counsel for Appellee

Author of Opinion: Judge Greenaway, Jr.

Circuit: 3rd Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mary E. Levy

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 09/10/2013 01:13 PM     3rd Circuit  

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