Eastman v. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Decision Date06 August 1991
Docket NumberNo. 90-1453,90-1453
Citation939 F.2d 204
Parties56 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. 717, 56 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 40,875, 60 USLW 2079, 68 Ed. Law Rep. 995 Ann H. EASTMAN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. VIRGINIA POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE AND STATE UNIVERSITY; the Board of Visitors of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; William E. Lavery, Chancellor; Paul M. Gherman, Director of Libraries, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

John Adrian Gibney, Jr., Shuford, Rubin, Gibney & Dunn, Richmond, Va., argued (Jane Chittom, Shuford, Rubin, Gibney & Dunn, Richmond, Va., on the brief), for plaintiff-appellant.

Richard Croswell Kast, Asst. Atty. Gen., Richmond, Va., argued (Jerry D. Cain, Sp. Asst. Atty. Gen. and Gen. Counsel, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va., on the brief), for defendants-appellees.

Before HALL and NIEMEYER, Circuit Judges, and KISER, District Judge for the Western District of Virginia, sitting by designation.

OPINION

K.K. HALL, Circuit Judge:

Ann H. Eastman appeals the order dismissing as time-barred her action for damages under Sec. 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. Sec. 794. 732 F.Supp. 665. We affirm, but for different reasons than those relied on by the district court.

I.

Eastman was employed by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University ("VPI") from 1978 through January 1, 1989. In June, 1986, she was transferred from her job in the office of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to one in the VPI library. She suffers from a variety of handicaps that make even simple movements difficult, and she claims that VPI officials assured her that she would receive assistance in moving to her new office. She alleges that she in fact received very little assistance and experienced "great pain and suffering" as a result. Eastman also alleges that VPI officials promised, but did not provide, various accommodations to her handicaps during the remainder of her employment, and that this lack of assistance also caused her to suffer and led to a deterioration of her physical condition. She retired on a disability pension effective January 1, 1989.

On April 20, 1988, Eastman filed a complaint claiming violations of Sec. 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. She sought a declaration that her rights had been violated, compensatory damages of $200,000, punitive damages of $100,000, and costs and attorney's fees. Named as defendants were VPI, its governing body, the university chancellor, and the director of libraries.

By order entered March 8, 1990, the district court ruled that Eastman's cause of action accrued no later than the fall of 1986. Borrowing Virginia's one-year statute of limitations from that state's Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, Va.Code Sec. 51.5-46 (1988), the court ruled that Eastman's Sec. 504 claim was time-barred. Accordingly, summary judgment was granted to the defendants. Eastman appeals. 1

II.

Defendants contend that the Rehabilitation Act does not permit an award of compensatory damages for pain and suffering. They argue that, because Eastman makes no claim for back pay or injunctive relief, the dismissal of the Sec. 504 claim may be affirmed unless the monetary remedy she seeks is available to her. See Davis v. Passman, 442 U.S. 228, 244, 99 S.Ct. 2264, 2276, 60 L.Ed.2d 846 (1979) (despite the existence of a cause of action, a complaint may be dismissed under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) if no judicial relief is available). This defense was raised below but not ruled on by the district court. This issue offers a single, comprehensive basis for our decision, and we affirm because Eastman's claim fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 475 n. 6 90 S.Ct. 1153, 1156 n. 6, 25 L.Ed.2d 491 (1970) ("The prevailing party may, of course, assert in a reviewing court any ground in support of his judgment, whether or not that ground was relied upon or even considered by the trial court."); see also Charbonnages de France v. Smith, 597 F.2d 406, 416 (4th Cir.1979).

A.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, codified at 29 U.S.C. Sec. 794(a) (1991 Supp.), provides:

No otherwise qualified individual with handicaps ... shall, solely by reason of his or her handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance....

Defendants argue that, even if Eastman has properly alleged a violation of Sec. 504, her retirement in 1989 extinguished any remaining viable claims for relief. A claim for back pay was not made, inasmuch as the discrimination charged by Eastman did not deprive her of employment opportunities. Similarly, her retirement obviates the need for declaratory relief. 2 We need only consider whether compensatory damages for "pain and suffering" may be awarded under Sec. 504.

Section 505(a)(2) of the Rehabilitation Act provides that "the remedies, procedures, and rights set forth in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964" are available to persons aggrieved by violations of Sec. 504. 29 U.S.C. Sec. 794a(a)(2) (1982). Title VI prohibits discrimination on the ground of race, color or national origin in federally assisted programs. 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000d (1981). The specific extent and nature of recoverable damages under these statutes, however, have not yet been definitively decided by the Supreme Court or by this Court; other circuit and district courts, moreover, are divided on the question. 3

We begin with what clearly is recoverable in a Sec. 504 or a Title VI action. Section 504, at least in a case of intentional discrimination, "authorizes ... an equitable action for back pay." Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Darrone, 465 U.S. 624, 630, 104 S.Ct. 1248, 1252, 79 L.Ed.2d 568 (1984) (Sec. 504). Likewise, injunctive and declaratory relief (including reinstatement) aimed at rectifying a discriminatory practice may be ordered. See, e.g., Drayden v. Needville Indep. School Dist., 642 F.2d 129, 132-33 (5th Cir.1981). The Rehabilitation Act provides explicit authority for an award of attorney's fees. 29 U.S.C. Sec. 794a(b). The gray area is "compensatory damages" as that term is understood to encompass damages for physical and mental suffering.

Our analysis of the extent of "the remedies ... set forth in Title VI" requires an exploration of the murky waters of Congressional intent. The Supreme Court made some halting steps in this regard in Guardian's Assoc. v. Civil Service Comm. of City of N.Y., 463 U.S. 582, 103 S.Ct. 3221, 77 L.Ed.2d 866 (1983). For our purposes, Guardian's provides a starting point to the extent that a majority of the Court agreed, albeit by varying rationales, that intentional discrimination is a prerequisite to an award of any sort of "compensatory damages" to a private litigant in a Title VI case. See id., at 607 n. 27, 103 S.Ct. at 3235 n. 27. The term "compensatory damages," however, was used in a limited sense to describe only retrospective equitable relief of the type available under Title VII (42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000e et seq.). "Compensatory" relief in Guardian's encompassed only equitable monetary relief, i.e. back pay, and injunctive relief, and the Justices used the term in discussing the distinction between retrospective and prospective relief. See Guardian's, 463 U.S. at 600-607, 103 S.Ct. at 3231-35 (White, J., announcing judgment of the Court); 463 U.S. at 624-633, 103 S.Ct. at 3244-49 (Marshall, J., dissenting); 463 U.S. at 636-638, 103 S.Ct. at 3250-51 (Stevens, J., dissenting). Guardian's, then, should be read to authorize the recovery of only equitable back pay damages.

We will assume that Eastman's allegations of broken promises and repeated failures to accommodate her suffice to set forth a claim of intentional discrimination. We proceed, then, to first review how the courts have addressed the parameters of allowable "compensatory damages" recoverable in an action to redress violations of Sec. 504 or Title VI.

B.

The leading case espousing the view that Sec. 504 does permit recovery of a broad range of "compensatory damages" is Miener v. State of Missouri, 673 F.2d 969 (8th Cir.), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 909, 103 S.Ct. 215, 74 L.Ed.2d 171 (1982). Proceeding from the general propositions that "[t]he existence of a statutory right implies the existence of all necessary and appropriate remedies" and that "the right to seek money damages for civil rights violations is an accepted feature of the American judicial system," id. at 977 [citations omitted], the Eighth Circuit reasoned that the vindication of the injured individual's rights may often only be accomplished by a money award. The nature and extent of such damages, however, were not clearly explained, and there was little more than a nodding reference to legislative intent. 4 The general rule that "a federal court may use any available remedy to afford full relief ... yields where necessary to carry out the intent of Congress...." Guardian's, 463 U.S. at 595, 103 S.Ct. at 3229.

Some courts have read Miener to sanction the entire panoply of tort-style money awards in Sec. 504 cases. See Kling v. County of Los Angeles, 769 F.2d 532, 534 (9th Cir.), rev'd on other grounds, 474 U.S. 936, 106 S.Ct. 300, 88 L.Ed.2d 277 (1985); Hurry v. Jones, 560 F.Supp. 500, 511 (D.R.I.1983) (compensatory damages for pain and suffering caused by Sec. 504 violations allowed); aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds, 734 F.2d 879 (1st Cir.1984); see also Bachman v. American Soc. of Clinical Pathologists, 577 F.Supp. 1257, 1262 (D.N.J.1983); Patton v. Dumpson, 498 F.Supp. 933, 937-39 (S.D.N.Y.1980); Glanz v. Vernick, 750 F.Supp. 39, 42 (D.Mass.1990) (assuming, without deciding, that compensatory damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress were available in a Sec. 504 action). District courts...

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