Lawsuit Targets Education Department’s Handling of Discrimination Claims

Each year, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) receives tens of thousands of discrimination complaints, of which disability discrimination is by far the largest category. For example, complaints can allege that students with disabilities are not being given accessible textbooks, are being denied necessary services, or were suspended for conduct stemming from their disability.

Although DOE regulations require that it conduct a “prompt investigation” into any complaint indicating a “possible failure” to comply with federal civil rights laws, each presidential administration has instituted procedures to sort out potentially frivolous claims.

In 2015, for example, the Obama administration updated the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights Process Manual to set forth three scenarios where the DOE has discretion to reject complaints out of hand. Specifically, the Manual authorized dismissal where the complaint fails to state a claim for a violation of a federal civil rights law, fails to “provide sufficient detail” for the DOE to infer discrimination, or is too “speculative, conclusory or incoherent.”

The Manual also obligates the DOE to issue a “letter of findings” when it dismisses a complaint and informing claimants that they have a right to appeal the decision.

Recent changes instituted by the Trump administration, however, have attracted a backlash, prompting a federal lawsuit by the NAACP, the National Federation of the Blind, and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.

Under a new provision to the Manual that took effect March 05, 2018, the DOE must dismiss a complaint “where it is part of a series of complaints by a single complainant or group of complainants against multiple recipients, even if it alleges different factual and legal violations.” The lawsuit alleges that this change unfairly targets individuals and organizations that regularly bring claims and contradicts the DOE’s obligation to investigate all potentially legitimate complaints.

The revised Manual also requires the DOE to dismiss a complaint where it is a “single complaint against multiple recipients that, when viewed together, places an unreasonable burden on [the Department's resources].” The lawsuit alleges that the term “unreasonable burden” is ambiguous and similarly contradicts the DOE regulations. The Manual states that those making complaints have no right to appeal dismissals made under either of these grounds.

The lawsuit also alleges that the DOE could not legally institute these new changes without first going through a notice and comment process.

Elizabeth Hill, a DOE spokesperson, defended the changes as a way to better prioritize complaints. “This provision is intended to permit [the office] to remain active in every type of discrimination subject matter while retaining discretion to engage in technical assistance efforts where appropriate,” Hill told the Washington Post.

NAACP General Counsel, Bradford M. Berry, countered that the DOE “has decided to abandon” its obligations to enforce federal civil rights laws.

“By summarily changing policies to allow for the dismissal of civil rights complaints and the ability of organizations to appeal their rulings, (DOE Secretary Betsy) DeVos is basically saying protecting civil rights and the rights of those with disabilities no longer matter at the Department of Education,” Berry said in a news release.

To read the full complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland on May 31, 2018, click here.

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