Smith v. Robinson

Decision Date05 July 1984
Docket NumberNo. 82-2120,82-2120
Citation468 U.S. 992,82 L.Ed.2d 746,104 S.Ct. 3457
PartiesThomas F. SMITH, Jr., et al., Petitioners v. William P. ROBINSON, Jr., Rhode Island Associate Commissioner of Education, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court


1. Petitioners were not entitled to attorney's fees under § 1988. Pp. 1006-1016.

(a) The fact that petitioners prevailed on their initial claim that the School Committee violated due process by refusing to grant petitioners a full hearing before terminating funding of petitioner child's special education program does not by itself entitle petitioners to attorney's fees for the subsequent administrative and judicial proceedings. That due process claim was entirely separate from the claims made in the subsequent proceedings, and was not sufficiently related to petitioners' ultimate success to support an award of fees for the entire proceeding. Pp. 1008-1009.

(b) As to petitioners' claim that the child was being discriminated against on the basis of his handicapped condition, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is apparent that Congress intended the EHA to be the exclusive avenue through which such a claim can be pursued. The EHA is a comprehensive scheme to aid the States in complying with their constitutional obligations to provide public education for the handicapped. Allowing a plaintiff to circumvent the EHA's administrative remedies by relying on § 1983 as a remedy for a substantial equal protection claim would be inconsistent with that scheme. Pp. 1009-1013.

(c) Even if petitioners' due process challenge to the partiality of the state hearing officer who reviewed the School Committee's decision might be maintained as an independent challenge, petitioners are not entitled to attorney's fees for such claim. That claim had no bearing on the substantive claim, on which petitioners prevailed, that the School Committee, as a matter of state and federal law, was required to pay for petitioner child's education. Where petitioners presented different claims for different relief, based on different facts and legal theories, and prevailed only on a non-fee claim, they are not entitled to a fee award simply because the other claim was a constitutional claim that could be asserted through § 1983. Pp. 1013-1016.

2. Nor were petitioners entitled to attorney's fees under § 505 of the Rehabilitation Act. Congress struck a careful balance in the EHA between clarifying and making enforceable the rights of handicapped children to a free appropriate public education and endeavoring to relieve the financial burden imposed on the agencies responsible to guarantee those rights. It could not have intended a handicapped child to upset that balance by relying on § 504 for otherwise unavailable damages or for an award of attorney's fees. Where, as here, whatever remedy might be provided under § 504—which prevents discrimination on the basis of a handicap in any program receiving federal financial assistance—is provided with more clarity and precision under the EHA, a plaintiff may not circumvent or enlarge on the remedies available under the EHA by resort to § 504. Pp. 1016-1021.

703 F.2d 4 (CA1 1983), affirmed.

E. Richard Larson, New York City, for petitioners.

Forrest L. Avila, Providence, R.I., for respondents.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents questions regarding the award of attorney's fees in a proceeding to secure a "free appropriate public education" for a handicapped child. At various stages in the proceeding, petitioners asserted claims for relief based on state law, on the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA), 84 Stat. 175, as amended, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., on § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 87 Stat. 394, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 794, and on the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit concluded that because the proceeding, in essence, was one to enforce the provisions of the EHA, a statute that does not provide for the payment of attorney's fees, petitioners were not entitled to such fees. Smith v. Cumberland School Committee, 703 F.2d 4 (1983). Petitioners insist that this Court's decision in Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 100 S.Ct. 2570, 65 L.Ed.2d 653 (1980), compels a different conclusion.


The procedural history of the case is complicated, but it is significant to the resolution of the issues. Petitioner Thomas F. Smith III (Tommy), suffers from cerebral palsy and a variety of physical and emotional handicaps. When this proceeding began in November 1976, Tommy was eight years old. In the preceding December, the Cumberland School Committee had agreed to place Tommy in a day program at Emma Pendleton Bradley Hospital in East Providence, R.I., and Tommy began attending that program. In November 1976, however, the Superintendent of Schools informed Tommy's parents, who are the other petitioners here, that the School Committee no longer would fund Tommy's placement because, as it construed Rhode Island law, the responsibility for educating an emotionally disturbed child lay with the State's Division of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals (MHRH). App. 25-26.

Petitioners took an appeal from the decision of the Superintendent to the School Committee. In addition, petitioners filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island against the members of the School Committee, asserting that due process required that the Committee comply with "Article IX—Procedural Safeguards" of the Regulations adopted by the State Board of Regents regarding Education of Handicapped Children (Regulations) 1 and that Tommy's placement in his program be continued pending appeal of the Superintendent's decision.

In orders issued in December 1976 and January 1977, the District Court entered a temporary restraining order and then a preliminary injunction. The court agreed with petitioners that the Regulations required the School Committee to continue Tommy in his placement at Bradley Hospital pending appeal of the Superintendent's decision. The School Committee's failure to follow the Regulations, the court concluded, would constitute a deprivation of due process.

On May 10, 1978, petitioners filed a first amended complaint. App. 49. By that time, petitioners had completed the state administrative process. They had appealed the Superintendent's decision to the School Committee and then to the State Commissioner of Education, who delegated responsibility for conducting a hearing to an Associate Commissioner of Education. Petitioners had moved that the Associate Commissioner recuse himself from conducting the review of the School Committee's decision, since he was an employee of the state education agency and therefore not an impartial hearing officer. The Associate Commissioner denied the motion to recuse.

All the state officers agreed that, under R.I.Gen.Laws, Tit. 40, ch. 7 (1977), the responsibility for educating Tommy lay with MHRH.2 The Associate Commissioner acknowledged petitioners' argument that since § 40.1-7-8 would require them to pay a portion of the cost of services provided to Tommy,3 the statute conflicted with the EHA, but concluded that the problem was not within his jurisdiction to resolve.

In their first amended complaint, petitioners added as defendants the Commissioner of Education, the Associate Commissioner of Education, the Board of Regents for Education, and the Director of MHRH. They also specifically relied for the first time on the EHA, noting that at all times mentioned in the complaint, the State of Rhode Island had submitted a plan for state-administered programs of special education and related services and had received federal funds pursuant to the EHA.4 In the first count of their amended complaint, petitioners challenged the fact that both the hearing before the School Committee and the hearing before the Associate Commissioner were conducted before examiners who were employees of the local or state education agency. They sought a declaratory judgment that the procedural safeguards contained in Article IX of the Regulations did not comply with the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or with the requirements of the EHA, 20 U.S.C. § 1415, and its accompanying regulations. They also sought an injunction prohibiting the Commissioner and Associate Commissioner from conducting any more hearings in review of decisions of the Rhode Island local education agencies (LEA's) unless and until the Board of Regents adopted regulations that conformed to the requirements of § 1415 and its regulations. Finally, they sought reasonable attorney's fees and costs.

In the second count of their amended complaint, petitioners challenged the substance of the Associate Commissioner's decision. In their view, the decision violated Tommy's rights "under federal and state law to have his LEA provide a free, appropriate educational placement without regard to whether or not said placement can be made within the local school system." App. 61. They sought both a declaratory judgment that the School Committee, not MHRH, was responsible for providing Tommy a free appropriate education, and an injunction requiring the School Committee to provide Tommy such an education. They also asked for reasonable attorney's fees and costs.

On December 22, 1978, the District Court issued an opinion acknowledging confusion over whether, as a matter of state law, the School Committee or MHRH was responsible for funding and providing the necessary services for Tommy. Id., at 108. The court also noted that if the Associate Commissioner were correct that Tommy's education was governed by § 40.1-7, the state scheme would appear to be in conflict with the requirements of the EHA, since §...

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