Gonzaga University v. Doe

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


Doe was a student at Gonzaga University and studying to become a teacher. The State of Washington requires an affidavit of good moral character to 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 an individual to sue under Section 1983. The trial court found in favor of the Doe, and on appeal to the state appellate court, The Washington State appellate court reversed it, and the Washington State Supreme Court reversed the appellate Court. Gonzaga appealed to the United States Supreme Court.


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


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


Section 1983 provides for the enforcement of rights by individuals that are “rights secured….by the Federal constitution and laws”. FERPA is not one of these laws. FERPA requires 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 the aggregate performance of organizations, not individual treatment. They further point to the remedies provision in FERPA at Section 1232(g) as 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 under FERPA did not create transparent 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 spending laws generally created no individually enforceable rights under Section 1893 unless those rights were expressly noted and very clearly attenuated.

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

The dissent, written by Justice Stevens and joined by Justice Ginsburg, notes that the legislation is noted with “Rights” in the title and expressly uses the term “right” throughout the statute. They note that while the legislation creates an aggregating standard, as noted by the majority, the statute’s language coveys individual rights. 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 create an enforcement nightmare if the remedy is to the courts.


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