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HERRERA v. RILEY

May 1, 1995

MARIA HERRERA, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
RICHARD W. RILEY, Secretary, United States Department of Education, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROYCE C. LAMBERTH

 This lawsuit is brought by several migrant farmworkers on behalf of themselves and their minor children, and as representatives of a proposed class of similarly situated persons. Plaintiffs seek an order from this court compelling the Secretary of Education ("Secretary") to reverse his decision to terminate the Migrant Student Record Transfer System ("MSRTS"), a federally funded databank which was designed to facilitate the collection and transfer of school and health records of children of migrant farmworkers. Plaintiffs argue that the Secretary's decision to discontinue the MSRTS program in the absence of an equally effective alternative system violates the Secretary's alleged statutory duty to ensure continuity in the transfer of migrant student records and is arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 701 et seq.

 I. Facts

 In 1966, Congress established the Migrant Education Program ("MEP") through an amendment to Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, 20 U.S.C. §§ 2701, et seq.1 The MEP is a state grant program under which the federal government provides funds to state educational agencies and local school districts to help address the special problems and needs of the children of migrant workers. Of particular consequence to this litigation are the difficulties faced by migratory children in moving from school to school, often several times during the academic year. In order to ensure some measure of educational continuity, it is necessary for these childrens' school records to be immediately available when they enter a new school. In an effort to ameliorate these problems, Congress has authorized the Secretary to reserve annually at least $ 6 million, but not more than five percent of all funds appropriated for the MEP, to pay for the costs of special grants or contracts which seek to improve interstate and intrastate coordination of programs for migratory children. Since 1972, the Secretary has used this money to fund a program called the Migratory Student Record Transfer System.

 The MSRTS program was designed to permit the electronic transfer of school and health records of migratory children, many of whom must often change school systems on short notice. The MSRTS is a national computer databank which is operated by the Arkansas Department of Education pursuant to a contract awarded each year by the Secretary. Once a student is identified as being eligible for the MSRTS system, he or she is assigned an MSRTS identification number and an initial record is generated for that student. From then on, the various schools attended by the child provide the MSRTS with updated information concerning the child's records. When the child arrives at a new school, administrators can request a copy of the child's health and educational records directly from the MSRTS.

 The parties disagree over the actual utility of the MSRTS in facilitating the transfer of migratory students' records. The Secretary contends that, contrary to the description proffered by the plaintiffs, the system is complicated, expensive and inefficient. The Secretary cites several studies which have highlighted numerous shortcomings of the MSRTS system. Indeed, a study specifically commissioned by Congress concluded that, as a result of various problems associated with the MSRTS, "a significant number of migrant children now receive little or no direct benefit from the system despite its sophistication and cost." National Commission on Migrant Education, Keeping up with Our Nation's Migrant Students: A Report on the Migrant Student Record Transfer System (MSRTS) 2 (September, 1991). For a period of time, the Secretary considered recompeting the MSRTS contract in the hopes of improving the system. After further analysis and consideration, however, the Secretary determined that even a reconfigured records transfer system would not be cost-effective, and he decided to terminate the system altogether. Although it is still in the process of winding down operations, the MSRTS ceased transferring migrant student records on February 14, 1995. Plaintiffs concede that the MSRTS is imperfect. Indeed, paraphrasing Churchill, they state that "the MSRTS may be the worst method of records transfer -- except for every other method that currently is available." Plaintiffs' Reply Mem. at 8. Nevertheless, plaintiffs contend that defendants have overstated the shortcomings of the MSRTS and that the system does play a vital role in facilitating the collection and transfer of records for numerous migrant students. Whatever shortcomings the system may have, plaintiffs maintain that the MSRTS is much more effective in ensuring the continuity of migrant student records transfers than any other system now in existence. Plaintiffs allege that without the MSRTS, the transfer of migratory students' records will be performed in an unsystematic and ultimately less effective manner, and that this will result in substantial harm to many migratory children. Accordingly, plaintiffs seek an order from this court enjoining the Secretary from discontinuing the MSRTS until such time as the states are able to "effectively" assume responsibility for record transfers "without unacceptable disruptions." Compl. at 18.

 II. Analysis

 Injunctive relief is an extraordinary remedy, and the party seeking it bears a substantial burden. In determining whether to grant such relief, the court must apply the following four-part inquiry: 1) Has the plaintiff demonstrated that there is a substantial likelihood that it will prevail on the merits of its claim? 2) Will the denial of injunctive relief result in irreparable harm to the plaintiff? 3) Would the issuance of an injunction substantially harm other parties interested in the proceedings? 4) Where lies the public interest? Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Comm'n v. Holiday Tours, Inc., 182 U.S. App. D.C. 220, 559 F.2d 841, 843 (D.C. Cir. 1977). It is clear that the likelihood of success on the merits and the degree of irreparable injury are the most important of these factors. The case law in this circuit makes clear that the test is not a wooden one, and the party seeking injunctive relief is not required to demonstrate a mathematical probability of success on the merits. Injunctive relief may be granted "with either a high probability of success and some injury, or vice versa." Cuomo v. United States Regulatory Comm'n, 772 F.2d 972, 974 (D.C. Cir. 1985); National Football League Players Ass'n v. Pro-Football, Inc., 849 F. Supp. 1, 2 (D.D.C. 1993). Nevertheless, the party seeking preliminary injunctive relief clearly bears the burden of making "a substantial case on the merits." Holiday Tours, 559 F.2d at 843 (emphasis supplied).

 A. Likelihood of Success on the Merits

 As noted above, plaintiffs argue that the Secretary is obligated by law to ensure continuity in migrant student record transfer, and that this obligation prohibits the Secretary from terminating the MSRTS in the absence of some alternative system which is at least as effective as the MSRTS in facilitating the transfer of migrant student records. By contrast, defendants maintain that, whatever the Secretary's obligations with respect to ensuring continuity of records transfer might be, the statutory language relied upon by the plaintiffs clearly commits to the Secretary's discretion the decision whether to continue or to terminate the MSRTS. Counsel for both sides have favored the court with forceful and articulate arguments in support of their respective positions. However, as the parties seem to agree, this case involves a straightforward question of statutory interpretation. Upon reviewing the applicable statutes, the court concludes that plaintiffs' chances of prevailing on the merits are quite slim.

 The statutory scheme governing educational programs for migrant children is part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, 20 U.S.C. §§ 2701, et seq., and is set forth at 20 U.S.C. §§ 2781-2783. Section 2781 provides for a program whereby state educational agencies ("SEA"s) may apply to the Secretary for grants "to establish or improve, either directly or through local educational agencies, programs of education for migratory children...which meet the requirements of section 2782 of this title." Section 2782, in turn, sets forth a number of criteria which any state seeking a grant from the Secretary must meet in order to receive federal funds under this program. Specifically, § 2782 states that

 
the Secretary may approve an application submitted [by a state] under section 2781(a) of this title only upon a determination...that payments will be used for programs and projects...which are designed to meet the special educational needs of migratory children...and to coordinate such programs and projects in other States, including the transmittal of pertinent information with respect to school records of such children... . *fn2"

 Section 2783 is entitled "Coordination of migrant education activities," and it is part (a) of this section upon which plaintiffs primarily rely. Section 2783(a)(2)(A), originally enacted by Congress in 1978 as Pub. L. No. 95-261, provides that

 
the Secretary is also authorized to enter into contracts with State educational agencies to operate a system for the transfer among State and local educational ...

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