In Barker v. Riverside County Office of Education, (— F.3d —-, C.A.9 (Cal.), October 23, 2009), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit considered whether a teacher had standing to sue her former employer who she alleged retaliated against her after she voiced concerns that her employer was not complying with federal and state law in providing educational services to disabled students.
The Court of Appeals held that the teacher had standing to sue her former employer because the anti-retaliation provisions of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act grant standing to non-disabled people who are retaliated against because of their efforts to protect the rights of the disabled.
Susan Lee Barker (“Barker”) was employed as a Resource Specialist Program teacher by the Riverside County Office of Education (“Riverside”). Barker voiced concerns to her supervisors that the special education services Riverside provided to its disabled students were not in compliance with federal and state law. Barker and her coworker subsequently filed a class discrimination complaint with the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“DOE”). Barker alleges that after her supervisors learned of the complaint they retaliated against her by intimidating her, failing to respond to correspondence, excluding her from important meetings, reducing her caseload, and refusing to allow her to fill in for other teachers. Barker claims that she was constructively terminated because her supervisors subjected her to an intolerable work environment.
Barker filed another complaint with the DOE in which she alleged Riverside retaliated against her for advocating on behalf of disabled students and for filing the previous complaint with the DOE. The DOE found that the preponderance of the evidence showed Riverside had retaliated against Barker in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
Barker filed a lawsuit against Riverside in a federal district court. The district court dismissed Barker’s lawsuit on the ground that she did not have standing to sue under either Section 504 or the ADA.
The Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the district court. The appellate court held Barker had standing to pursue her retaliation claims under both Section 504 and the ADA.
Section 504 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. Section 504 incorporates the anti-retaliation provision of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and extends the protections under the Rehabilitation Act to “any individual who has been intimidated, threatened, coerced, or discriminated against for the purpose of interfering with protected rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act or the Rehabilitation Act.”
The court found Congress did not intend to limit standing to bring a lawsuit under Section 504 to only those individuals with disabilities. Section 504 and it anti-retaliation provision use phrases such as “any person aggrieved” and “any individual” in setting out the rights under the statutes. The statutes do not include any language that limits standing to only those individuals with disabilities. The court concluded Barker has standing to sue Riverside for its retaliatory conduct under Section 504.
The court similarly found Barker has standing to sue Riverside under the ADA. The court rejected Riverside’s argument that Barker did not have standing to sue because she is not a “qualified individual with a disability.” Title II of the ADA prohibits public entities from denying benefits, services, or programs to a qualified individual with a disability. The anti-retaliation provision of Title II prohibits a private or public entity from discriminating against (1) any individual who has opposed any act or practice made unlawful under the act, or (2) any individual who has exercised or enjoyed any right granted by the act. Barker was involved in activities in opposition to Riverside’s special education policies that were allegedly in violation of the ADA. She also alleged she was intimated for her role in advocating for her students. Based on these allegations, Barker has standing to sue under the ADA.
What This Means To You
School districts should be aware that the Ninth Circuit has clarified that any individual who has been aggrieved under the ADA and/or Section 504 may sue under either act and standing is not limited to individuals with disabilities.
If you have any questions concerning the content of this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.
Linda Rhoads Parks | 925.395.2380