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Brantley v. District of Columbia

April 7, 1994


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Richard S. Salzman, Trial Judge)

Before Steadman, Schwelb, and Sullivan, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb

SCHWELB, Associate Judge: Melissa Annette Brantley, now fourteen years of age, is a learning-disabled student in the District's public school system. In the suit which is the subject of this appeal, Melissa's mother sought monetary damages on her behalf from the District, claiming that public school officials neglected to evaluate Melissa's learning disabilities in proper and timely fashion, as required by applicable regulations, and that they consequently failed to place her promptly in an appropriate school setting. The complaint also alleges that school authorities lost Melissa's records, and that they deliberately post-dated a document in order to cover up their failure to comply with a regulation requiring prompt referral for evaluation. It is alleged that Melissa "was deprived of a publicly supported education suited to her needs," that she "suffered shame, embarrassment, humiliation, severe mental anguish and severe emotional distress," and that she "was deprived of two productive years of her life." Characterizing the action as one based on alleged "educational malpractice," the trial Judge dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

If the allegations of the complaint are true, then the neglect of Melissa's needs was truly shameful. Nevertheless, we are constrained to agree with the trial Judge, and with the virtually unanimous authorities from other jurisdictions upon which the Judge relied, that an action for damages will not lie to compensate Melissa for her claimed injuries. Accordingly, we affirm.


According to the allegations of the complaint, which must be accepted as true for the purpose of the District's motion to dismiss, see Gray v. Citizens Bank of Washington, 602 A.2d 1096 (D.C. 1992), Melissa was enrolled in the second grade at Cleveland Elementary School during the 1987-88 school year. She attended summer school and was retained in the second grade at the Conclusion of the summer, and again at the Conclusion of the 1988-89 school year. At the beginning of the 1989-90 school year, she was enrolled in the second grade for the third time, now at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School.

The complaint alleges that Melissa's academic records were lost or misplaced by District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) officials, apparently in connection with her transfer, and that these records were not forwarded to Bruce-Monroe. Consequently, according to Melissa, personnel at Bruce-Monroe were unaware that she had already been retained in the second grade for two consecutive years. In spite of the provisions of 5 DCMR § 2201.6 (1993), which required school authorities to refer her for assessment and evaluation as soon as it became apparent that she might not be promoted after the first semester of the 1988-89 school year, *fn1 Melissa was not so referred until 1990, and then only after Melissa's mother and her attorney intervened.

On February 15, 1990, Melissa's mother signed documents requesting that her daughter, who had now been in the second grade for two and a half years, be referred for assessment and evaluation. Under the time frame set forth in the order of the United States District Court in Mills v. District of Columbia Bd. of Educ., 348 F. Supp. 866, 878 (D.D.C. 1972), which has been incorporated in pertinent part into the applicable regulations, see 5 DCMR § 3010.1 (1993), DCPS officials were obliged to complete an evaluation of Melissa within twenty days after February 15, 1990, and to effect an appropriate placement within thirty days of that date. The complaint alleges that DCPS did not comply with these requirements. Instead, in order to conceal their noncompliance, DCPS employees post-dated the February 15 documents to make it appear that they had been executed on March 26, 1990. *fn2

On June 25, 1990, more than 130 days after Melissa's mother had signed the required documents, DCPS proposed a special education placement in one of its public schools. Melissa's mother and counsel objected, and the complaint was referred for an administrative hearing. On August 1, 1990, at the beginning of that hearing, DCPS agreed to place Melissa at the Lab School of Washington, a private school for children with learning disabilities. Melissa's attorney acknowledges that this was an appropriate placement, but seeks monetary damages on Melissa's behalf for the emotional distress and lost earnings allegedly resulting from the District's wrongful conduct.


In her complaint, as we have seen, Melissa alleges a variety of negligent or otherwise wrongful acts on the part of the District, including noncompliance with applicable regulations relating to Melissa's assessment and placement, the failure to forward her academic records to her new school, and the post-dating of documents in order to conceal noncompliance by DCPS with its legal obligations. All of these alleged acts and omissions, however, are said to have contributed to, and constitute evidence of, one single alleged wrong, namely, the alleged failure of DCPS to assign Melissa in timely fashion to an appropriate school and to provide her with an education suitable to her needs. The harm of which Melissa complains is that, allegedly as a result of the District's tortious conduct, she was compelled to spend three years in the second grade, and that she was not assigned to an appropriate school until the 1990-91 school year. All of the claimed individual negligent or wrongful acts are alleged to have contributed to the single injury resulting from her allegedly unsuitable assignment.

Under these circumstances, we agree with the trial Judge that, regardless of the phrasing of Melissa's pleadings, the gravamen of her complaint is that DCPS officials have engaged in "educational malpractice." The trial Judge held, in conformity with the great weight of authority, that no such tort exists, and that conduct of the kind alleged in Melissa's complaint cannot be redressed by a civil suit for damages. We conclude that the Judge's decision was correct.

With but a single exception, the courts which have addressed the issue here presented have declined to entertain actions for educational malpractice. See, e.g., Ross v. Creighton University, 957 F.2d 410, 414-15 (7th Cir. 1992) (applying Illinois law); *fn3 Doe v. Board of Educ. of Montgomery County, 295 Md. 67, 453 A.2d 814, 817-20 (Md. 1982); Hunter v. Board of Educ. of Montgomery County, 292 Md. 481, 439 A.2d 582, 583-86 (Md. 1982); D.S.W. v. Fairbanks N. Star Borough Sch. Dist., 628 P.2d 554, 555-57 (Alaska 1981); Hoffman v. Board of Educ. of the City of New York, 49 N.Y.2d 121, 400 N.E.2d 317, 319-20, 424 N.Y.S.2d 376 (N.Y. 1979); Donohue v. Copiague Union Free Sch. Dist., 47 N.Y.2d 440, 391 N.E.2d 1352, 1354-55, 418 N.Y.S.2d 375 (N.Y. 1979), Peter W. v. San Francisco Unified Sch. Dist., 60 Cal. App. 3d 814, 131 Cal. Rptr. 854, 857-61 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 1976); Annotation, Tort Liability of Public Schools and Institutions of Higher Learning for Educational Malpractice, 1 A.L.R. 4th 1133 (1980 & 1993 Supp.); but cf. B.M. v. State, 200 Mont. 58, 649 P.2d 425, 427-28 (Mont. 1982). *fn4 Some of these cases have involved allegations of negligent failure to educate a student in basic academic skills. See, e.g., Ross, Donohue, Peter W. In others, however, the allegations were similar to those presented here, and included failures properly to test the student or to classify or assign him or her correctly. See, e.g. Doe, Hoffman, D.S.W. There is thus overwhelming judicial authority for the proposition that public school authorities' failure to educate students, or to assign them to the correct school or program, does not give rise to a suit for money damages.

In its persuasive opinion in Ross, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit identified several reasons articulated by the courts for not entertaining claims of educational malpractice. These reasons have included (1) the lack of a satisfactory standard of care, (2) the "inherent uncertainties" about the cause and nature of damages, (3) the "potential it presents for a flood of litigation against schools," and (4) the threat of "embroiling the courts into overseeing the day-to-day operations of the schools." 957 F.2d at 414 (citations omitted). Assuming, arguendo, that it would not be unreasonably difficult to fashion a standard of care with respect to some of the underlying allegations in this case (e.g., the alleged failures to evaluate ...

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