U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights Issues New Rule Requiring Dismissal of Allegations Filed as Part of Bulk or Mass Complaints

On March 5, 2018, the U.S. Department of Education issued a new version of the Office for Civil Rights’ Case Processing Manual. This is the first revision of the manual under the Trump administration, and first revision since 2015. The new manual makes several changes, primarily aimed at reducing a backlog of complaints and narrowing the scope of investigations. The new manual is available at https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/ocrcpm.pdf

The new manual aims to ensure cases are handled in a timely manner, improving efficiency, effectiveness and clarity. One area in which OCR hopes to achieve this goal is in the manual’s instruction that OCR “will” dismiss bulk or mass complaints—complaints that are “a continuation of a pattern of complaints previously filed with OCR by an individual or group against multiple recipients or a complaint is filed for the first time against multiple recipients that, viewed as a whole, places an unreasonable burden on OCR’s resources.”

This new rule targets “mass filers,” as OCR has noted that just three people accounted for 23 percent of complaints filed in 2017, and 41 percent of complaints filed in 2016. Many California school districts were targets of these mass filed complaints, including complaints filed regarding school website accessibility standards. School districts defending website accessibility complaints may find the new rule quite helpful, as it has already resulted in the dismissal of over 500 mass-filed complaints. Districts facing a mass-filed complaint may be able to obtain dismissal based on this new rule.

This is not the only change in the new manual. The new rules also seek to narrow the scope of investigations, removing references to “systemic” investigations—the prior practice of requesting years of data to determine whether problems extended beyond a specific complaint. Instead, investigators are instructed to focus only on the specific allegations contained in the filed complaint.

For school agencies, this means that investigations moving forward are likely to be less costly in terms of time, work-hours, and expense. Under the new rule OCR will no longer make broad, wide-ranging requests of multiple years of student data—instead, OCR is likely to focus their requests on the student(s) and the time period directly involved in the complaint. It may also result in resolutions more directly tailored to the individual allegations in the complaint, instead of system-wide changes. However, OCR has stated that it will open investigations into broad, long reaching issues where warranted, citing the Title IX investigation into “systemic issues” around Michigan State University’s handling of reports of sexual violence against Larry Nassar.

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