First Circuit Decision Underscores Importance Of Effective Enrollment Agreements And Student Handbooks
In a case recently decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Schwartz Hannum PC successfully defended an independent school in a lawsuit alleging that a student experienced physical ailments caused by the School’s wireless Internet network.
The First Circuit’s decision, G. v. The Fay School et al., No. 18-1602 (1st Cir. July 17, 2019), highlights the critical nature of the written enrollment agreement between a school and a student’s parents or guardians, particularly in relation to the school’s student handbook. In affirming the District Court’s dismissal of the parents’ claims, the First Circuit held that the student handbook provisions relied upon by the plaintiffs in support of their breach-of-contract claim did not create legally enforceable obligations. In reaching this conclusion, the First Circuit cited the enrollment agreement signed by the parents, which specifically stated that the student handbook was not a contract.
On another issue of potential significance for independent schools, the First Circuit also ruled that a plaintiff cannot seek monetary damages as part of a retaliation claim brought against a public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
The dispute arose when the student and his parents sought accommodations for the student’s alleged electromagnetic hypersensitivity (“EHS”), claiming that the student was experiencing headaches, nausea, dizziness, and other symptoms due to the school’s Wi-Fi network. The proposed accommodations would have required the school to replace its Wi-Fi network with Ethernet access to the Internet.
The school declined to replace the Wi-Fi network, because the parents had provided no medical evidence of a causal connection between the school’s Wi-Fi network and the student’s symptoms, and because removing the Wi-Fi network would have gone beyond the scope of any potential accommodation obligation under the ADA by fundamentally altering the school’s academic program.
The student’s parents then filed suit on their child’s behalf in federal court, alleging a failure to accommodate and retaliation in violation of the ADA. The parents also asserted common law claims, including for breach of contract and misrepresentation, based on language in the school’s student handbook under which, according to the parents, the school promised to provide a safe and healthy environment for its students.
The Legal Battle
The litigation involved extensive discovery, including a nine-day court hearing on proposed expert testimony relating to the student’s alleged EHS and its source. Following that hearing, the District Court disqualified two of the parents’ intended expert witnesses on the grounds that their proposed testimony was not scientifically reliable, and awarded summary judgment to the school on all of the parents’ claims except for their ADA retaliation claim.
Subsequently, the school filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings as to the parents’ ADA retaliation claim, arguing that this claim was moot because the school extends only through ninth grade and the student had commenced ninth grade at another school. The District Court granted this motion, thereby dismissing the lawsuit in full.
The parents then appealed the District Court’s dismissal of their claims of breach of contract, misrepresentation, and ADA retaliation.
First Circuit’s Decision
Affirming the District Court’s grant of summary judgment on the parents’ claims for breach of contract and misrepresentation, the First Circuit rejected the parents’ argument that the student handbook was contractually binding. The First Circuit held that the handbook language cited by the parents was not sufficiently definite to form the basis of a claim for breach of contract or misrepresentation. In further support of this conclusion, the First Circuit pointed out that one of the terms and conditions of the enrollment agreement was that the student handbook “does not constitute a contract.”
Finally, the First Circuit rejected the parents’ argument that monetary damages are available under the anti-retaliation provision of the ADA in the context of a public accommodation claim. Rather, the First Circuit held that a plaintiff’s only remedy for such a claim is injunctive relief -- meaning that a public accommodation may be ordered to comply with the ADA but cannot be held liable for monetary damages.
Implications For Independent Schools
As the First Circuit’s decision underscores, it is crucial for independent schools to ensure that their enrollment agreements and student/parent handbooks are carefully drafted – and regularly reviewed and updated – with the guidance of experienced school counsel.
In particular, a school’s enrollment agreement should explicitly state that the enrollment agreement is the sole contract between parents and the school, and that the student/parent handbook is purely informational, does not form the basis of a contract, and is subject to change at any time. Schools should also be cautious of including language in the enrollment agreement that incorporates the student/parent handbook into its terms and conditions.
To complement the enrollment agreement on this crucial point, the student/parent handbook should include a disclaimer specifically stating that the handbook is not contractual in nature. In addition, the policies in the student/parent handbook should avoid language that can be construed as a promise or guarantee, and build in discretion for the school’s leadership to handle situations on a case-by-case basis.
By taking such steps, a school can minimize its risk of being held contractually bound to statements contained in its student/parent handbook.
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If you have any questions about the First Circuit’s decision or need assistance with updating your school’s student/parent handbook, enrollment agreement, or other essential documents, please feel free to contact one of the Firm’s education attorneys.