802 F.2d 21 (2nd Cir. 1986), 951, Fay v. South Colonie Cent. School Dist.
|Docket Nº:||951, 1056, Docket 85-9009, 85-9033.|
|Citation:||802 F.2d 21|
|Party Name:||Robert E. FAY, Theresa M. Fay, and Thomas R. Fay, by their natural parent and next friend, Robert E. Fay, Plaintiffs-Appellants, Cross-Appellees, v. SOUTH COLONIE CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, Gordon M. Ambach, as he is the Commissioner of Education, State of New York; and Thomas P. Mitchell, as he is the Superintendent of Schools, South Colonie Central|
|Case Date:||September 24, 1986|
|Court:||United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit|
Argued April 2, 1986.
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
Jerome Aaron, Somerville, Mass., for plaintiffs-appellants, cross-appellees.
Paul J. Laudato, Albany, N.Y. (Tabner and Laudato, Albany, N.Y., of counsel), for defendants-appellees, cross-appellants South Colonie Cent. School Dist. and Thomas P. Mitchell.
Calvin M. Berger, Asst. Atty. Gen., State of N.Y., Albany, N.Y. (Robert Abrams, Atty. Gen. of the State of N.Y., Robert Hermann, Sol. Gen., William J. Kogan, Asst. Sol. Gen., State of N.Y., Albany, N.Y., of counsel), for defendant-appellee Gordon M. Ambach.
Before OAKES, MESKILL and NEWMAN, Circuit Judges.
MESKILL, Circuit Judge:
This is an appeal and cross-appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, Miner, J. The plaintiffs below were Robert E. Fay (Fay) and his children, Theresa M. Fay and Thomas R. Fay. The defendants were the South Colonie Central School District, its superintendent (hereinafter the district and its superintendent are collectively described as "the school district") and the New York Commissioner of Education. The district court partially granted the plaintiffs' summary judgment motion, holding the school district liable under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 (1982) for denying Robert Fay access to his children's education records, see 20 U.S.C. Sec. 1232g(a)(1)(A) (1982), awarding nominal damages for the denial of access to the records and granting injunctive relief on a pendent state law claim for violation of his rights as a parent with joint legal custody of his children. The court dismissed all of the plaintiff's claims against Commissioner Ambach. It also dismissed Fay's claim under section 1983 that the school district violated Fay's due process right to control the upbringing of his children and his right to equal protection of the laws.
For reasons set out below, we conclude that Fay's claim for compensatory damages is barred neither by res judicata nor by the Eleventh Amendment. We affirm the dismissal of the claims against Commissioner Ambach. We also affirm the dismissal of the constitutional claims against the school district, but do so for different reasons than those relied on by the district court. We affirm the portion of the judgment holding the school district liable for denying Robert Fay access to his children's education records but vacate the award of nominal damages for this violation of Robert Fay's federal statutory rights and remand for further proceedings on the issue of damages. Finally, we hold that the district court abused its discretion when it entertained the pendent state law claim and we dismiss the claim.
This suit involves an attempt to have the federal courts resolve a dispute that could be more appropriately resolved either by the state courts or by mediation.
Under a separation agreement Fay and his ex-wife have joint legal custody of their two children. The children live with Fay during the summer and live with their mother during the school year. The separation agreement further provides that the ex-wife
must ... consult with [Fay] concerning ... schooling, relevant to which school [the children] should attend, whether public or private, matters concerning any special education courses which the children may pursue or desire to pursue and further, the [ex-]wife is to provide [Fay] with report cards of the children or photostatic copies thereof....
App. at 179. Fay alleges that his ex-wife has failed to comply fully with this provision.
Dissatisfied with the operation of this aspect of the separation agreement, Fay tried to get information regarding his children's activities and progress directly from the children's schools. In December 1980 Fay sent a letter to the superintendent of the school district demanding such information. Although Fay's original demand was inchoate, it later became clear that he sought information ranging from standardized test results and accident reports to notices about classroom parties and cafeteria menus. Instead of seeking to accommodate any of the demands, the superintendent responded that the school would "provide information to any person or organization whom the courts decide have a legal right to it." App. at 302-A-18.
More letters were exchanged between Fay and the superintendent and in April 1981 the United States Department of Education advised the superintendent of Fay's rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. Sec. 1232g (1982) (FERPA). Thereafter, the school district began mailing copies of the Fay children's education records to Fay. The school district
continued to refuse to mail to Fay duplicates of all school-related notices mailed to his ex-wife or carried home by his children.
In May or June 1981 Fay initiated an appeal of this continuing refusal to the New York Commissioner of Education, Gordon Ambach. See N.Y. Educ. Law Sec. 310 (McKinney 1969 & Supp.1986). In October 1981 Commissioner Ambach invoked a regulation promulgated under his statutory authority "[t]o regulate the practice" in such appeals, N.Y.Educ.Law Sec. 311, subd. 1 (McKinney 1969), which required appeals to be brought within thirty days of "the performance of the act complained of." N.Y.Admin.Code tit. 8, Sec. 275.16 (1986). The Commissioner dismissed Fay's appeal, asserting that the appeal was brought "long after the prescribed time," App. at 155, and refused to excuse the failure to bring a timely appeal because Fay had failed to explain the reasons for the delay. See N.Y.Admin.Code tit. 8, Sec. 275.16 ("The commissioner ... may excuse a failure to commence an appeal within the time specified for good cause shown."). The Commissioner also noted that Fay's ex-wife was a necessary party who should have been joined in the appeal.
The Commissioner did not confine his observations to procedural matters, however. He also stated that Fay's request to receive copies of all communications sent by the school to his ex-wife would place "an unreasonable burden" on the school district. App. at 156.
Fay brought an Article 78 proceeding to annul Commissioner Ambach's ruling. See N.Y.Civ.Prac.Law Secs. 7801-06 (McKinney 1981 & Supp.1986). The New York Supreme Court dismissed the proceeding. The court noted in a brief memorandum decision that it could "not substitute its judgment [for that of the Commissioner] unless it is found that the determination reviewed is unlawful, arbitrary, unreasonable or ... constitutes an abuse of discretion." App. at 161. After citing two New York cases as authority for this standard of review, the court ambiguously concluded: "It is sufficient to here note that the determination of the Commissioner is clearly supported by [a] rational basis." Id. The opinion did not state whether the "rational basis" referred to was the procedural aspect or the substantive aspect of the Commissioner's ruling. In January 1983 the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court dismissed Fay's appeal.
In August 1983 Fay brought this action for damages and injunctive relief on behalf of himself and his children. The complaint alleged that the school district, the superintendent (in his official capacity) and Commissioner Ambach violated Fay's statutory rights under FERPA, his constitutional right to control the upbringing of his children and his constitutional right to equal protection of the laws. The complaint was later amended to include a pendent state law claim against the school district for violating Fay's rights as a joint custodial parent. The complaint did not state what legal theory the Fay children relied on.
When discovery was complete the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. After receiving briefs and hearing argument on the motions, the district court issued a thorough memorandum decision and order dismissing Fay's constitutional claims and granting partial summary judgment to Fay on the other two claims. The court rejected the defendants' argument that this section 1983 action was barred by res judicata and collateral estoppel, reasoning that there had been no adjudication in a state tribunal on the merits of Fay's claims. The court reasoned that Commissioner Ambach relied solely on procedural grounds to dismiss Fay's claims and that the New York Supreme Court simply reaffirmed that procedural dismissal in the Article 78 proceeding.
Treating Commissioner Ambach's brief discussion of the merits of Fay's administrative appeal as "the equivalent of obiter dicta," App. at 348, the court concluded that the Commissioner's procedural dismissal had not established a substantive state policy on the rights of joint custodial parents to receive school notices. In the absence
of such a policy, which the court saw as the sole basis for Fay's claims against the Commissioner, the court dismissed those claims.
Turning to Fay's due process claim, the district court noted that a parent has a fundamental interest in his child's upbringing. See Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 1212, 31 L.Ed.2d 551...
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