Gonzaga University v. Doe

Gonzaga University v. Doe, 536 US 273 (2002)

Facts

Doe was a student at Gonzaga University and studying to become a teacher. The State of Washington requires an affidavit of good moral character be filed by the university certifying official as part of the teacher certification process. The certifying official overheard that Doe had committed sexual misconduct. Following an investigation, the certifying official refused to issue the affidavit and notified the state agency. Doe asserted a violation of FERPA and sued for damages. Gonzaga argued that FERPA does not create individual rights and does not allow for an individual to sue under Section 1983. Trial court found in favor of the Doe, and on appeal to state appellate court, it was reversed, and the Washington State Supreme Court reversed the appellate court. Gonzaga appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Issues

Whether FERPA creates an individual federal enforceable right under Section 1983’s nondisclosure provisions.

Held

7-2 for Gonzaga. FERPA is a Federal funding mechanism and does not create or convey individual enforcement rights.

Reasoning

Section 1983 provides for enforcement of rights by individuals that are “rights secured….by the Federal constitution and laws”. FERPA is not one of these laws.  FERPA is a requirement for an educational institution to receive Federal funding but does not serve to convey individual rights to students, regardless of the title. Citing two cases, Suter v. Artist M. (503 US 347(1992)) and Blessing v. Freestone (520 US 329 (1997)) the Court noted that these spending laws were directed at aggregate performance of organizations, not individual treatment. They further point to the remedies provision in FERPA at Section 1232(g) as further proof that there was no intent to convey individual rights under the statute.  

Opinion and Comments

The majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice Rehnquist, and joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, O’Connor and Kennedy noted that the remedies provided for under FERPA did not create clear and unambiguous rights of individual enforcement outside of administrative processes for handling complaints under Section 1983. The majority opinion was somewhat sweeping in noting that generally spending laws created no individually enforceable rights under Section 1893 unless those rights were specifically noted and were very clearly attenuated.

Justice Breyer authored an opinion, joined by Justice Souter which concurred in the judgement but had some differing rationale. They took a more moderating approach by looking at legislative intent in addition to the letter of the law and noted that administrative regulations administered by the agency in the enabling legislation was the proper and intended remedy for the individual as opposed to creating an individually enforceable federal right under Section 1983.

In the dissent, written by Justice Stevens and joined by Justice Ginsburg, notes that the legislation is noted with “Rights” not only in the title, but expressly uses the term “right” throughout the statute.  They go on to note that while the legislation creates an aggregating standard as noted by the majority, the language of the statute coveys individual rights on its face, and the one – an aggregating standard with remedies for enforcement of that standard – does not necessarily preclude the other – the conveyance of individual rights enforceable under Section 1983.

Ultimately, I believe the majority opinion won out on practicality concerns. The ambiguity of the language and the millions of persons covered creates an enforcement nightmare if the remedy is to the courts.