Gonzaga University v. Doe

PETITIONER: Gonzaga University
LOCATION: Los Angeles City Hall

DOCKET NO.: 01-679
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Washington Supreme Court

CITATION: 536 US 273 (2002)
ARGUED: Apr 24, 2002
DECIDED: Jun 20, 2002

John G. Roberts, Jr. - argued the cause for petitioners
Aaron H. Caplan - for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance
Beth S. Brinkmann - Argued the cause for the respondent
Jordan Gross - for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance
Patricia A. Millett - Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners
Steven R. Shapiro - for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance

Facts of the case

A student at Gonzaga University planned to become a public elementary school teacher in Washington, which required all new teachers to obtain an affidavit of good moral character from their graduating colleges. Gonzaga's teacher certification specialist overheard one student tell another that the student had engaged in sexual misconduct, contacted the state agency responsible for teacher certification, and discussed the allegations, identifying the student by name. Ultimately, the student was told that he would not receive his certification affidavit. The student sued Gonzaga in state court, alleging a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), which prohibits the federal funding of schools that have a policy or practice of permitting the release of students' education records without their parents' written consent. A jury awarded the student compensatory and punitive damages. Ultimately, the State Supreme Court acknowledged that FERPA does not give rise to a private cause of action, but reasoned that the nondisclosure provision creates a federal right that is enforceable.


May a student sue a private university for damages to enforce provisions of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974?

Media for Gonzaga University v. Doe

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 24, 2002 in Gonzaga University v. Doe

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 20, 2002 in Gonzaga University v. Doe

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 01-0679 Gonzaga University versus John Doe.

John Doe, a respondent here studied elementary education at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

Before he graduated, he learned that Gonzaga disclosed false and defamatory allegations about him to officials of the State of Washington.

He sued under State Court claiming tort and contract violations under state law and appending federal violation of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, the acronym for which is FERPA.

The basis for the FERPA claim was section 1983 which provides a cause of action to enforce federal rights against state actors.

A jury awarded him not only compensatory but punitive damages on both his state and federal claims.

Gonzaga appealed.

It argued that FERPA creates no federal rights and therefore cannot be enforced.

The Washington Supreme Court affirmed.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we reverse the Washington Supreme Court.

Section 1983 provides the means for enforcing individual rights that are secured by the constitution and laws of the United States.

The question presented here is whether FERPA confers upon the respondent an individual right to be enforced under this section.

We find that it confers no such right.

We begin by noting that our opinions in this area suggested inconsistent standards for determining whether a federal statute is enforceable by 1983.

But we hold today that a federal statute is enforceable by section 1983 only if it clearly and ambiguously confers right upon a class of persons that includes the plaintiff bringing suit.

This standard is the same as that used to determine whether a statute confers with federal rights in the context of suits brought against private parties under an implied right of action.

Both inquiries simply require courts to determine whether Congress unambiguously confer to federal rights.

FERPA's confidentiality provisions clearly lack the sort of rights creating language critical to showing the required legislative intent to create new rights.

Unlike the anti-discrimination provisions of Title VI and IX which focus directly on the individual to be protected and thus, confirm individual rights, FERPA merely instructs the Secretary of Education how to distribute federal funds.

The operative language of the statute, for example, says no fund shall be made available to schools or institutions that have a policy of practice of disclosing private information.

This language is far removed from the sort of language required to confer a new federal right.

Accordingly, we hold FERPA provides no basis for a private lawsuit brought under section 1983.

Justice Breyer has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Justice Souter joins; Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Ginsburg joins.