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Law School Case Brief

Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe - 536 U.S. 273, 122 S. Ct. 2268 (2002)


Whether a statutory violation may be enforced through 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 is a different inquiry than that involved in determining whether a private right of action can be implied from a particular statute. But the inquiries overlap in one meaningful respect. In either case, the court must first determine whether Congress intended to create a federal right. Thus, the question whether Congress intended to create a private right of action is definitively answered in the negative where a statute by its terms grants no private rights to any identifiable class. For a statute to create such private rights, its text must be phrased in terms of the persons benefited. But even where a statute is phrased in such explicit rights-creating terms, a plaintiff suing under an implied right of action still must show that the statute manifests an intent to create not just a private right but also a private remedy.


As a student at petitioner Gonzaga University, a private educational institution in Washington State, respondent planned to become a public elementary schoolteacher in that State after graduation. Washington at the time required all new teachers to obtain an affidavit of good moral character from their graduating colleges. Petitioner League, Gonzaga's teacher certification specialist, overheard one student tell another that respondent had engaged in sexual misconduct. League then launched an investigation; contacted the state agency responsible for teacher certification, identifying respondent by name and discussing the allegations; and, finally, told him that he would not receive his certification affidavit.

Respondent sued Gonzaga and League in state court under, inter alia42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), 20 U.S.C. § 1232g, 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 respondent compensatory and punitive damages on the FERPA claim. The Washington Court of Appeals reversed in relevant part, concluding that FERPA does not create individual rights and thus cannot be enforced under § 1983. Reversing in turn, 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 enforceable under § 1983.


Did the relevant FERPA provisions create personal rights to enforce under § 1983?




The Court concluded that to create new rights enforceable under § 1983, Congress was required to do so in clear and unambiguous terms, i.e., no less and no more than what was required for Congress to create new rights enforceable under an implied private right of action. FERPA's nondisclosure provisions did not create rights enforceable under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 because the provisions contained no rights-creating language, had an aggregate rather than individual focus, and served primarily to direct the United States Secretary of Education's distribution of public funds to educational institutions. Thus, the student's action under FERPA was foreclosed because the relevant FERPA provisions created no personal rights to enforce under § 1983.

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