Hall v. Knott County Bd. of Educ.

Decision Date06 September 1991
Docket NumberNo. 89-5888,89-5888
Citation941 F.2d 402
Parties69 Ed. Law Rep. 242 Shirlene HALL, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. KNOTT COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

William L. Turner (argued), Springfield, Ky., for plaintiff-appellant.

Robert L. Chenoweth (argued), Bryan, Fogle & Chenoweth, Frankfort, Ky., Alva A. Hollon, Jr., Hollon, Hollon & Hollon, Hazard, Ky., defendants-appellees.

Before GUY and NELSON, Circuit Judges, and EDWARDS, Senior Circuit Judge.

DAVID A. NELSON, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from the dismissal of an action for damages allegedly sustained as a result of violations of the Education of the Handicapped Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq., and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794.

The plaintiff, who is blind, received home instruction from the defendant board of education beginning in 1972, when she was 11 years old. The home instruction was continued beyond her 21st birthday, and she received a high school diploma at the age of 22. This lawsuit was filed five years later, when the plaintiff was 27. The principal issue on appeal, which is linked to the type of relief available, is whether the action was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. Concluding that it was, we shall affirm the dismissal.


The pleadings tell us that the plaintiff, Shirlene Hall, is a resident of Knott County, Kentucky. Born on April 18, 1961, she first enrolled in the Knott County schools in August of 1967. She was subsequently permitted to withdraw, doubtless because of her vision problem, but she re-enrolled in the school system in August of 1972. A physician's statement prepared at that time said that the child had a visual loss, caused by congenital cataracts, for which the prognosis was poor. The physician said that the child should not attend regular school. He recommended home instruction for an indefinite period, certifying that the child was "mentally able to profit from home instruction."

The Education of the Handicapped Act (or, for simplicity, "the Education Act") required the Knott County Board of Education to make an "appropriate" education available to handicapped children beginning, for those in the plaintiff's age group, not later than September 1, 1978. See 20 U.S.C. § 1412(2)(B). The Education Act contemplated that "to the maximum extent appropriate, handicapped children ... [would be] educated with children who are not handicapped...." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(5). The appropriate course of instruction for a particular handicapped child was to be spelled out in an "individualized education program" (or "IEP") developed, with parental input, at the start of each school year. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(a)(5). The IEP was to include a statement of the child's present level of performance, goals for the future, specific educational services to be provided, a timetable for providing them, and criteria for measuring achievement of the objectives. 20 U.S.C. § 1401(19). The provisions of the individualized program were supposed to be reviewed at least once a year, with revisions being made as appropriate. Parents dissatisfied with the IEP or other aspects of their handicapped child's education could "present complaints" and obtain "an impartial due process hearing" before an agency designated by state law, with a right of administrative appeal and, ultimately, a right to bring a civil action "with respect to the complaint presented pursuant to this section." 20 U.S.C. § 1415. We can assume, for present purposes, that no IEP was prepared for plaintiff Hall until more than four years after the 1978 deadline.

Ms. Hall attained the age of 21 in April of 1982. Although the board of education had no legal obligation to furnish instruction after that time, it continued to provide home instruction for Ms. Hall through the 1982-83 school year.

On May 5, 1983, according to the pleadings, a conference was held (presumably with the plaintiff and/or her parents) for the purpose of developing an IEP for Ms. Hall. This is alleged to have been the only such conference held in conformity with the Education Act.

Ms. Hall was graduated from Knott Central High School on May 30, 1983, a few weeks after the conference. Her records show that at the time of her graduation she ranked 19th in a class of 192. She requested permission to participate in the public graduation exercises, but her request was denied.

On May 26, 1988, Ms. Hall commenced the present action by filing a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. No administrative complaint was referred to, although the only jurisdictional statute cited was 20 U.S.C. § 1415. Named as defendants were the Knott County Board of Education, the board's superintendent, and the six elected members of the board.

The complaint summarized the Education Act provisions cited above, along with § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794. (The latter provision, which is comparable to other anti-discrimination laws, declares that no otherwise qualified individual with handicaps shall, solely by reason of the handicap, be excluded from participation in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.) The complaint went on to say that the defendants had violated one or more of these statutory provisions by failing to establish an individualized education program for the plaintiff with respect to any of the four school years prior to 1982-83; that no conference on such a program was held until May 5, 1983; that the plaintiff's handicap would not have prevented her from being educated with non-handicapped children; that through lack of due diligence and failure to follow statutorily mandated procedures, the defendants had failed to discover that the plaintiff was capable of learning "sighted reading" with the aid of specialized equipment; that the defendants had made no attempt to teach her sighted reading; and that the plaintiff had been refused permission to participate in her high school's graduation exercises. Alleging that the plaintiff's earning power had been impaired by a deficient education, the complaint prayed for entry of a money judgment covering both an asserted loss of wages and the cost of appropriate remedial education. 1

The defendants promptly moved for dismissal. They argued that the plaintiff had failed to exhaust the administrative remedies available to her under 20 U.S.C. § 1415; that she had received all the education to which she was entitled; that money damages were not available for violations of the statutes in question; and that in the absence of a federal statute of limitations, the action should be deemed untimely under Ky.Rev.Stat. § 413.140(1)(a), a one-year statute of limitations applicable to personal injury actions. Incorporated in the defendant's motion were copies of the 1972 physician's statement and a record showing the plaintiff's high school grades and her class standing at graduation.

The plaintiff filed a responsive brief in which she argued that money damages were indeed available; that the applicable limitations period was that prescribed by Ky.Rev.Stat. § 413.120, which allows five years for bringing "[a]n action upon a liability created by statute, when no other time is fixed by the statute creating the liability;" that this limitations period did not begin to run until the plaintiff's graduation from high school on May 30, 1983; and that exhaustion of administrative remedies was not required, because resort to such remedies had become futile and because the plaintiff and her parents, impoverished residents of rural Appalachia, had been without access to legal counsel and had not known of any right to administrative review.

No affidavits were filed by either side, and no hearing was held. In due course, however, the district court issued a scholarly and very comprehensive opinion and order granting the motion to dismiss. Taking the allegations of the complaint as true, and giving them a liberal construction, the district court concluded as far as the Rehabilitation Act was concerned that, apart from any statute of limitations bar, the plaintiff could recover damages only if she could allege and prove that the defendants' refusal of permission to attend the graduation exercises represented "intentional discrimination;" that the limitations period for an action under the Rehabilitation Act should be determined by reference to Kentucky's one-year personal injury statute of limitations; and that because the exclusion from the graduation ceremonies had occurred more than one year before the filing of the complaint, any claim for damages in this regard would be barred even if the complaint were amended to allege intentional discrimination.

As to the Education Act, the court concluded that the plaintiff's right to a court order requiring the board of education to furnish her an appropriate individualized education program had been lost by reason of the passage of time and her graduation from high school; that although money damages, as such, may not be awarded for violations of the Education Act, trial courts do have equitable power to order, as appropriate, either reimbursement of tuition costs already incurred by the parents of a handicapped child or payment of the prospective cost of compensatory educational services; and that although the plaintiff had stated a justiciable claim for prospective compensatory education costs, she was estopped to make the claim because she and her parents had failed to assert their rights at a time when the defendants could still have complied with the Act.

The court went on to hold, in the alternative, that under the logic of Janzen v. Knox Co. Bd. of Educ., 790 F.2d 484 (6th Cir.1986), the limitations period for Education Act claims should be determined by reference to Kentucky's...

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