Palo Alto Online reports on a lawsuit stemming from allegations that a teacher improperly disclosed a student’s confidential health information to parents of a second student, resulting in the district attempting to place the first student in another district for fear of health concerns for the second student. As a result of the teacher’s actions, the parents sued for embarrassment, humiliation, medical costs incurred, recovery of attorney’s fees to fight the district’s attempt to move their son to another district, and the disruption to their family. Their first lawsuit against the district over moving their son to a school three and half miles away was settled in their favor.
The family had sued last year to block their son’s removal from Jordan Middle School after district officials ordered his transfer, saying his health condition posed a threat to other Jordan students who have cystic fibrosis. In a November 2012 settlement, the Chadams’ son was permitted to stay at Jordan provided protocols to avoid cross-infection among cystic-fibrosis patients are followed.
The Chadams maintained their son had never been clinically diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and that his genetic condition posed no threat of cross-infection to students with the disease.
In the new lawsuit, the Chadams say the school district violated the federal right to privacy and the Americans with Disabilities Act when one of their son’s teachers allegedly passed along private health information about him to another family in September 2012.
Okay, so say the teacher did disclose health information about the Chadam’s son to other parents, believing, perhaps, that Chadam’s son’s health condition posed a health risk to the other parents’ child. What law would that actually violate? FERPA? There’s no private cause of action under FERPA. So on what basis can the parents sue?
I’ve uploaded the complaint here (pdf). In what may be one of the most poorly formulated complaints I’ve read in a long time, the Chadam’s suit alleges (1) Violation of the Americans With Disability Act, (2) Violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1972 (sic); (3) Violation of Federal Right to Privacy [First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States]; (4) Violation of California Constitutional Right to Privacy [Article One, Section 1, Constitution of the State of California]; and (5) Negligence. The teacher is not named as a defendant, and the suit only names the district as defendants.
I’m not a lawyer, but even I can see the problems with some of their claims. If they want to argue that the district violated the ADA and Section 504, then they have to show that their child was a qualified individual under those statutes and then demonstrate that the district discriminated against him on the basis of his disability. Was the child classified under 504 or IDEA at the time? The family had just moved in to the district from Singapore, and it is not clear from court filings whether they had sought evaluation or consideration on the basis of the child’s medical condition. If they had not, then their claims of violation of the ADA and Section 504 are shaky, at best. And to the extent that the district may have attempted to move him to another school on the basis of his diagnosis or medical condition, does that necessarily constitute discrimination? Under some conditions, it might, but since they successfully blocked the move, was the child actually deprived of any services or benefits he was entitled to? Or are they suing for what they view as attempted discrimination?
And what privacy right is embedded in the First Amendment? The complaint asserts that there is one, but wisely, perhaps, avoids citing anything that would speak to that point.
Nor do I think the plaintiffs can show negligence on the district’s part if the teacher felt that the Chadam’s child posed a health risk to another student already in the class. Perhaps the teacher could have handled this all a lot better, but that’s not the same as negligence on the district’s part.
I’ve uploaded the district’s motion to dismiss, here (pdf). A lot of their argument is premised on immunity and the Eleventh Amendment as interpreted in Ninth Circuit precedential cases. Overall, I think they will win dismissal handily.
Sometimes, mistakes are made. The district may not feel that any mistakes were made here, but I suspect that mistakes were made in how this was all handled, including what seems to be a failure to explore less drastic measures before moving a student to a school miles away. But not all mistakes should result in lawsuits, and as upsetting as this experience may have been for the child and/or family, I think this case is a non-starter and a lame attempt to do an end-run around the lack of private cause action under FERPA. Read the complaint and see what you think.