v. Kohn

Decision Date25 June 1982
Docket NumberRENDELL-BAKER,No. 80-2102,80-2102
Citation102 S.Ct. 2764,457 U.S. 830,73 L.Ed.2d 418
PartiesSheila, et al., Petitioners v. Sandra KOHN et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Respondent school is a privately operated school for maladjusted high school students. In recent years, nearly all of the students have been referred to the school by city school committees under a Massachusetts statute or by a state agency. When the students are referred to the school by the city committees, these cities pay for the students' education. The school also receives funds from a number of state and federal agencies. Public funds have recently accounted for at least 90% of the school's operating budget. To be eligible for tuition funding under the state statute, the school must comply with a variety of state regulations, but these regulations impose few specific personnel requirements. Similarly, the school's contracts with the State and the city committees generally do not cover personnel policies. Petitioners, a former vocational counselor and teachers at the school, brought separate actions in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that they had been discharged by the school in violation of their First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The court dismissed the counselor's action but denied a motion to dismiss the teachers' action, reaching conflicting conclusions as to whether the school had acted under color of state law so as to be subject to liability under § 1983. On appeal the cases were consolidated, and the Court of Appeals held that it was error to conclude that the school acted under color of state law, since, although regulated by the State, it was not dominated by the State, especially with respect to decisions involving discharge of personnel.

Held : Respondent school did not act under color of state law when it discharged petitioner employees, and hence petitioners have not stated a claim for relief under § 1983. Pp. 837-843.

(a) The ultimate issue in determining whether a person is subject to suit under § 1983 is the same question posed in cases arising under the Fourteenth Amendment: Is the alleged infringement of federal rights fairly attributable to the State? Pp. 837-838

(b) The school's receipt of public funds does not make the discharge decisions acts of the State. Cf. Blum v. Yaretsky, 457 U.S. 991, 102 S.Ct. 2777, 73 L.Ed.2d 534. The school is not fundamentally different from many private corporations whose business depends primarily on contracts with the government, and whose acts do not become acts of the government by reason of their significant or even total engagement in performing public contracts. The decision to discharge petitioners was not compelled or even influenced by any state regulation, and the fact that the school performs a public function in educating maladjusted high school students does not make its acts state action. Moreover, since the school's fiscal relationship with the State is not any different from that of many contractors performing services for the government, there is no "symbiotic relationship" between the school and the State. Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, 365 U.S. 715, 81 S.Ct. 856, 6 L.Ed.2d 45, distinguished. Pp 839-843.

641 F.2d 14 (C.A.1 1981) affirmed.

Zachary R. Karol, Boston, Mass., for petitioners.

Matthew H. Feinberg, Boston, Mass., for respondents.

Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to decide whether a private school, whose income is derived primarily from public sources and which is regulated by public authorities, acted under color of state law when it discharged certain employees.


Respondent Kohn is the director of the New Perspectives School, a nonprofit institution located on privately owned property in Brookline, Massachusetts. The school was founded as a private institution and is operated by a board of directors, none of whom are public officials or are chosen by public officials. The school specializes in dealing with students who have experienced difficulty completing public high schools; many have drug, alcohol, or behavioral problems, or other special needs. In recent years, nearly all of the students at the school have been referred to it by the Brookline or Boston School Committees, or by the Drug Rehabilitation Division of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. The school issues high school diplomas certified by the Brookline School Committee.

When students are referred to the school by Brookline or Boston under Chapter 766 of the Massachusetts Acts of 1972, the School Committees in those cities pay for the students' education.1 The school also receives funds from a number of other state and federal agencies. In recent years, public funds have accounted for at least 90%, and in one year 99%, of respondent school's operating budget. There were approximately 50 students at the school in those years and none paid tuition.2 To be eligible for tuition funding under Chapter 766, the school must comply with a variety of regulations, many of which are common to all schools. The State has issued detailed regulations concerning matters ranging from recordkeeping to student-teacher ratios. Concerning personnel policies, the Chapter 766 regulations require the school to maintain written job descriptions and written statements describing personnel standards and procedures, but they impose few specific requirements.

The school is also regulated by Boston and Brookline as a result of its Chapter 766 funding. By its contract with the Boston School Committee, which refers to the school as a "contractor," the school must agree to carry out the individualized plan developed for each student referred to the school by the Committee. See n. 1, supra. The contract specifies that school employees are not city employees.3

The school also has a contract with the State Drug Rehabilitation Division. Like the contract with the Boston School Committee, that agreement refers to the school as a "contractor." It provides for reimbursement for services provided for students referred to the school by the Drug Rehabilitation Division, and includes requirements concerning the services to be provided. Except for general requirements, such as an equal employment opportunity requirement, the agreement does not cover personnel policies.

While five of the six petitioners were teachers at the school, petitioner Rendell-Baker was a vocational counselor hired under a grant from the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, whose funds are distributed in Massachusetts through the State Committee on Criminal Justice. As a condition of the grant, the Committee on Criminal Justice must approve the school's initial hiring decisions. The purpose of this requirement is to insure that the school hires vocational counselors who meet the qualifications described in the school's grant proposal to the Committee; the Committee does not interview applicants for counselor positions.


Rendell-Baker was discharged by the school in January 1977, and the five other petitioners were discharged in June 1978. Rendell-Baker's discharge resulted from a dispute over the role of a student-staff council in making hiring decisions. A dispute arose when some students presented a petition to the school's board of directors in December 1976, seeking greater responsibilities for the student-staff council. Director Kohn opposed the proposal, but Rendell-Baker supported it and so advised the board. On December 13, Kohn notified the State Committee on Criminal Justice, which funded Rendell-Baker's position, that she intended to dismiss Rendell-Baker and employ someone else. Kohn notified Rendell-Baker of her dismissal in January 1977.

Rendell-Baker then advised the board of directors that she had been discharged without due process because she exercised her First Amendment rights. She demanded reinstatement or a hearing. The school agreed to apply a new policy, calling for appointment of a grievance committee, to consider her claims. Rendell-Baker also complained to the State Committee on Criminal Justice, which asked the school to provide a written explanation for her discharge. After the school complied, the Committee responded that it was satisfied with the explanation, but notified the school that it would not pay any backpay or other damages award Rendell-Baker might obtain from it as a result of her discharge. The Committee told Rendell-Baker that it had no authority to order a hearing, although it would refuse to approve the hiring of another counselor if the school disregarded its agreement to apply its new grievance procedure in her case. At this point Rendell-Baker objected to the composition of the grievance committee, and its proceedings apparently never went forward. Rendell-Baker filed this suit in July 1977 under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that she had been discharged in violation of her rights under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

In the spring of 1978, students and staff voiced objections to Kohn's policies. The five petitioners other than Rendell-Baker, who were all teachers at the school, wrote a letter to the board of directors urging Kohn's dismissal. When the board affirmed its confidence in Kohn, students from the school picketed the home of the president of the board. The students were threatened with suspension; a local newspaper then ran a story about the controversy at the school. In response to the story, the five petitioners wrote a letter to the editor in which they stated that they thought the prohibition of picketing was unconstitutional. On the day the letter to the editor appeared, the five teachers told the president of the board that they were forming a union. Kohn discharged the teachers the next day. They brought suit against the school and its directors in December 1978. Like Rendell-Baker, they sought relief under § 1983, alleging that their...

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