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Money damages are not available under a federal statute that requires schools to provide educational services to disabled students, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. Endorsing the conclusion of several district courts in the circuit as well as other circuit courts that have considered the issue, the 2nd Circuit said plaintiffs can recover only nominal damages for the cost of obtaining the remedy they sought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. The decision in Polera v. The Board of Education of the Newburgh Enlarged School District, 01-7400, was the first time the court said it had “squarely confronted” the issue of money damages under the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. � 1400. The case came to the 2nd Circuit from Magistrate Judge Mark D. Fox of the Southern District of New York, who found that a school district intentionally discriminated against Santina Polera, a visually impaired high school student who claimed that the district failed to provide her with a free, appropriate public education. Despite repeated notices from the district to Polera’s mother concerning administrative remedies to address her concerns, mother and daughter filed suit directly in the Southern District, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act. Magistrate Judge Fox found that it would be futile for Polera to exhaust her remedies under the IDEA, and went on to grant her claims for intentional discrimination under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. He also awarded her $30,000 in damages for emotional distress. On the appeal, the school district claimed the magistrate judge lacked subject matter jurisdiction because of the requirement that administrative remedies under the IDEA be exhausted first. Writing for the 2nd Circuit, Judge Chester J. Straub said the IDEA “provides that potential plaintiffs with grievances related to the education of disabled children must exhaust their administrative remedies before filing suit in federal court, even if their claim is formulated” under another statute such as the ADA. IDEA requires that parents of a disabled child and educators meet to jointly develop an “individualized educational program” for the child. The act also contains a number of procedural safeguards. Polera had sought both compensatory and punitive damages under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, and while Straub said that IDEA “is silent as to the availability of damages,” he said the 2nd Circuit agreed with “the prevailing opinion of the other Circuits and the district courts in our Circuit.” “The purpose of the IDEA is to provide educational services, not compensation for personal injury, and a damages remedy — as contrasted with reimbursement of expenses — is fundamentally inconsistent with this goal,” Straub said. “The availability of damages also would undercut the IDEA’s carefully structured procedure for administrative remedies, a mechanism that encourages parents to seek relief at the time a deficiency occurs and that allows the educational system to bring its expertise to bear in correcting its own mistakes,” he said. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCESS Turning to the question of whether Polera was required to exhaust her administrative remedies even though damages are not recoverable under the act, Straub answered in the affirmative. “The IDEA’s exhaustion requirement was intended to channel disputes related to the education of disabled children into an administrative process that could apply administrators’ expertise in the area and promptly resolve grievances,” he said. He added later that “[t]he administrative process would have been particularly valuable here because, as the record reveals, the [individualized programs] prepared for Polera were vague and generalized at best, in some cases offering little detail beyond a requirement that the school district provide a ‘curriculum’ to Polera.” The court then rejected Polera’s contention that going through the administrative process would have been futile, and dismissed her claim because of the district court’s lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Senior Judge Roger J. Miner joined in the decision. Judge Barrington D. Parker Jr. recused himself and did not participate in the ruling. Alex Smith and Robert N. Isseks of Middletown, N.Y., represented Santina Polera. Mark C. Rushfield of Shaw & Perelson in Highland, N.Y., represented the school district. Jay Worona of Albany filed an amicus brief for the New York State School Boards Association Inc.

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