486 F.3d 791 (3rd Cir. 2007), 05-2553, A.W. v. Jersey City Public Schools

Docket Nº:05-2553.
Citation:486 F.3d 791
Party Name:A.W. v. The JERSEY CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS; New Jersey Department of Education; Jeffrey V. Osowski, former Director, Division of Special Education; Barbara Gantwerk, Director, Office of Special Education Programs; Silvia Elias, former Executive Director of Pupil Personnel Services; Priscilla Petrosky, Associate Superintendent for Special Education; Joh
Case Date:May 24, 2007
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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486 F.3d 791 (3rd Cir. 2007)

A.W.

v.

The JERSEY CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS; New Jersey Department of Education; Jeffrey V. Osowski, former Director, Division of Special Education; Barbara Gantwerk, Director, Office of Special Education Programs; Silvia Elias, former Executive Director of Pupil Personnel Services; Priscilla Petrosky, Associate Superintendent for Special Education; John Iwanowski; Mary Hepburn; Joan Edmiston; Denise Braak; Mary Maceachern; Edward Fauerbach, Learning Disabilities Teacher-Consultants; Norma Chrisomalis; Gwendolyn Jackson; Linda Colon; Ronne Bassman; William Ronzitti; Roxanne Johnson, Supervisors of Special Education; Sharnette Green, Teacher; Melinda Zangrillo, Coordinator of Compliance; Jane Doe and John Doe (1)-(5), all in their official and individual capacities.

New Jersey Department of Education; Jeffrey V. Osowski; Melinda Zangrillo; Barbara Gantwerk, Appellants.

No. 05-2553.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit.

May 24, 2007

Argued July 10, 2006.

Reargued En Banc Feb. 21, 2007.

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Michael C. Walters [argued], Office of Attorney General of New Jersey, Division of Law, Trenton, NJ, for Appellants.

Stephen M. Latimer, Loughlin & Latimer, Hackensack, NJ, Elizabeth A. Athos [argued], Education Law Center, Newark, NJ, Rebecca K. Spar [argued-en banc], Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard, Hackensack, NJ, for Appellee.

Before: SLOVITER, McKEE and RENDELL, Circuit Judges.

Before: SCIRICA, Chief Judge, SLOVITER, McKEE, RENDELL, BARRY, AMBRO, FUENTES, SMITH, FISHER, JORDAN and VAN ANTWERPEN [*], Circuit Judges.

OPINION

RENDELL, Circuit Judge.

In this appeal, we reexamine our holding in W.B. v. Matula, 67 F.3d 484 (3d Cir.1995), that an action can be maintained against school officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. We do so in light of the Supreme Court's reasoning in City of Rancho Palos Verdes v. Abrams, 544 U.S. 113, 125 S.Ct. 1453, 161 L.Ed.2d 316 (2005), regarding the availability of § 1983 to redress violations of federal statutory

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rights and the opinions of our sister courts of appeals that have questioned Matula.

The District Court, relying on Matula, held that the alleged violations of plaintiff's rights were actionable under § 1983 and denied defendants' motion for summary judgment on the ground of qualified immunity, concluding that plaintiff's cause of action could be maintained and there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find that defendants violated clearly established federal law. We will reverse.

I. Background

In January 2001, A.W., a dyslexic former student of the Jersey City Public Schools ("JCPS"), filed this action in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. A.W. alleged that New Jersey officials failed to comply with federal law and, as a result, deprived him of a free, appropriate public education. In addition to suing JCPS and its officials, A.W. also brought claims against Barbara Gantwerk, Director of the Office of Special Education Programs for the New Jersey Department of Education ("NJDOE"), and Melinda Zangrillo, Coordinator of Compliance at NJDOE, in their personal capacities. 1

With respect to Gantwerk and Zangrillo, A.W. asserted that, in response to his December 1997 complaint alleging that he had unidentified and untreated dyslexia, Gantwerk and Zangrillo conducted an inadequate investigation and provided no relief to A.W., despite ample evidence of A.W.'s disability. In A.W.'s amended complaint, 2 he sought to hold Gantwerk and Zangrillo personally liable under § 1983 for violations of A.W.'s rights under the IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act ("Section 504"), 29 U.S.C. § 794.

Following the completion of all discovery other than expert depositions, defendants moved for summary judgment on numerous grounds, including qualified immunity and a challenge to the use of § 1983 to remedy the alleged violations of the IDEA and Section 504. On April 21, 2005, the District Court struck A.W.'s claim for declaratory relief and denied summary judgment to the defendants on all other bases. The Court found that the IDEA could be enforced through an action under § 1983 based on our decision in W.B. v. Matula, 67 F.3d 484, 494 (3d Cir.1995), wherein we specifically reasoned that § 1983 was available to redress a violation of a student's rights secured by the IDEA. The District Court also rejected defendants' argument that individuals could not be sued under § 1983 for alleged violations of the IDEA and Section 504 because these statutes impose liability only on entities that receive federal funding. Finally, the Court denied defendants qualified immunity because A.W. adduced sufficient proof that defendants had violated A.W.'s clearly established rights under the IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act. Gantwerk and Zangrillo now appeal.

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II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

The District Court had subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and § 1343. Its order denying qualified immunity comes to us as a "final" order for review under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. See Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985) (holding denial of claim of qualified immunity is appealable as a "final decision").

We will engage in plenary review of a district court's summary judgment ruling on qualified immunity, Kopec v. Tate, 361 F.3d 772, 775 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 543 U.S. 956, 125 S.Ct. 453, 160 L.Ed.2d 317 (2004), and apply the same summary judgment standard that guided the district court, Rivas v. City of Passaic, 365 F.3d 181, 193 (3d Cir.2004). A party is entitled to summary judgment when it demonstrates that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the evidence establishes its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). In considering a motion for summary judgment, we consider all evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Brewer v. Quaker State Oil Ref. Corp., 72 F.3d 326, 330 (3d Cir.1995).

III. Discussion

A. Qualified Immunity for Statutory Violations

The first issue we confront is whether we should decide the availability of § 1983 relief for the alleged violations of A.W.'s statutory rights as part of the qualified immunity inquiry that is the basis for the appeal before us. We conclude we can, and should.

We have jurisdiction to decide this question because it arises in the course of our analysis of defendants' request for qualified immunity. Under Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001), a court analyzing a claim of qualified immunity must first ask the "threshold" question: whether the facts alleged show that the official's conduct violated a constitutional right. Id. at 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151. If the plaintiff's allegations establish the violation of a constitutional right, the violation is necessarily actionable and the court can then proceed to the second inquiry in the Saucier analysis: whether the right was "clearly established." 3 Id.

Violations of federal statutes, however, are not always actionable. See Davis v. Scherer, 468 U.S. 183, 194 n. 12, 104 S.Ct. 3012, 82 L.Ed.2d 139 (1984) ("[O]fficials sued for violations of rights conferred by a statute or regulation ... become liable for damages only to the extent that there is a clear violation of the statutory rights that give rise to the cause of action for damages." (emphasis added)). Thus, the availability of § 1983 to remedy the alleged violations of A.W.'s statutory rights is part and parcel of our "threshold" inquiry into defendants' qualified immunity defense. 4 This inquiry parallels the constitutional or

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"threshold" inquiry in the Saucier two-part qualified immunity analysis applied to constitutional claims. 5 See Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 198 n. 3, 125 S.Ct. 596, 160 L.Ed.2d 583 (2004) (per curiam) (labeling the first inquiry in Saucier two-step analysis as the "constitutional question").

In fact, we cannot imagine a qualified immunity inquiry involving statutory rights that does not include an inquiry into the availability of relief and the existence of a cause of action along with an inquiry into the existence of the violation itself. This would be a useless act. We cannot conceive of why we should subject the state actors here to a trial when the right of the plaintiff to sue is questionable. It makes little or no sense. 6 The privilege of qualified immunity is "effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial." Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151 (quoting Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985)).

Here, the District Court followed our decision in Matula, where we held that violations of IDEA-created rights are actionable under § 1983. 7 Matula, 67 F.3d at 494. Concluding that it was bound by Matula to so rule, the District Court noted that "only one judicial body is able to overrule Third Circuit precedent, and this Court is not it." A.W. v. Jersey City Pub. Schs., No. 01-140, slip op. at 14 (D.N.J. Apr.21, 2005). In light of the recent, clear guidance provided by the Supreme Court in City of Rancho Palos Verdes v. Abrams, 544 U.S. 113, 125 S.Ct. 1453, 161 L.Ed.2d 316 (2005), regarding the availability of § 1983 to remedy statutory violations, and the well-reasoned opinions of the Courts of Appeals for the Fourth and Tenth Circuits in Sellers v. School Board of Manassas, Virginia, 141 F.3d 524 (4th Cir.1998), and Padilla v. School District No. 1, 233 F.3d 1268, 1273 (10th Cir.2000)...

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