Disability Discrimination Claims Under the ADA and Section 504 - School District May be Found Liable for Actions of its Employees Even if Unaware of the Conduct

On November 8, 2016, in K.T. v. Pittsburg U.S.D., District Court for the Northern District of California refused to dismiss a student’s claim for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  The District Court denied the school district’s motion to dismiss because its employees allegedly engaged in discriminatory conduct based on the student’s disability, and under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, a public entity is responsible for the acts of its employees.


K.T. is a 10 year old elementary school student who has been diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and an intellectual disability.  K.T. understands when spoken to, but has difficulty expressing herself and often puts inedible items in her mouth.  K.T. had a one-on-one instructional aide in a general education classroom.

K.T. and her parents alleged that her general education teacher and her one-on-one aide engaged in repeated acts of physical and verbal abuse.  These acts included grabbing K.T. roughly, pushing and pulling her, and even “slap[ping] her across the face and kick[ing] her buttocks.”  K.T. also alleged that at one point The acts were witnessed by several individuals on at least four occasions.  When the abuse was reported, the district placed the aide on administrative leave.  Upon being questioned, school staff, including the aide, said that K.T.’s disability justified their behavior towards her.

Since the abuse occurred, K.T. has “regressed verbally and behaviorally,” “fears going to school,” and engages in self-harming behavior.  K.T. and her parents brought suit, alleging (among other claims) that the school district discriminated against her because of her disabilities.


To establish a disability discrimination claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must plausibly allege that she is a “qualified individual with a disability” and that the District denied her benefits or services “by reason of” her disability.  The standard is the same under Section 504, except that a plaintiff must allege that the denial of benefits or services was “solely by reason” of her disability.

Here, the District Court denied the school district’s motion to dismiss K.T.’s disability discrimination claims under the ADA and Section 504.  Although the school district argued that “no one high enough in the chain of command knew about the abuse and failed to act” and therefore it “was not deliberately indifferent to K.T.’s rights,” the District Court stated this was not the applicable test.  The District Court found that under the ADA and Section 504, the school district was liable for the actions of its employees, and that K.T. need only allege (at this point) and show (at trial) that the school district’s employees—the teacher and the instructional aide—“knew about K.T.’s disability but. . . still went forward with the alleged abuse.”  Because the abusive conduct


  • While the conduct alleged in this particular matter may be extreme, it is nonetheless illustrative of the fact that a school district may be found liable for the conduct of its employees in a disability discrimination claim under the ADA and Section 504.
  • The fact that the administration was unaware of the allegedly abusive conduct was not enough to eliminate the district’s liability under the ADA and Section 504.
  • The fact that the school district immediately placed the instructional aide on leave when the inappropriate conduct was reported also did not absolve the district of its liability.

For more information about how to avoid disability discrimination and learn best practices regarding this topic, don’t miss GIRARD, EDWARDS, STEVENS & TUCKER LLP’s upcoming Special Educational Legal Seminar to be held on Monday, February 27, 2017 from 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. in Sacramento, CA. Registration information can be found at www.regonline.com/GESTspedlegalseminar.

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