BALTIMORE (CN) — Three civil rights organizations sued Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her Office for Civil Rights, claiming new administrative rules require the Department of Education to dismiss civil rights complaints without investigating them.
The newly revised Office for Civil Rights 2018 Case Processing Manual, which dictates how the Department of Education handles the thousands of civil rights complaints, mandate that the office dismiss cases filed by people or entities that have filed multiple cases already, and eliminates the right to appeal.
“It says that if you file more than one case, they will dismiss your case without investigating it,” said attorney Eve Hill, with Brown Goldstein & Levy, representing The American Federation for the Blind, the NAACP and The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.
The plaintiffs say the Department of Education made the changes without any notification or consultation, in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act.
Hill says she’s never heard of a federal agency ignoring its own law this way. On Friday she said she had not yet decided whether to seek an immediate injunction. The defendants have 60 days to answer the complaint.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said in an email that the department does not comment on pending litigation, but that the new manual “is the product of many months of collaboration among OCR career investigators and career managers reflecting OCR employees’ commitment to robustly investigating and correcting civil rights issues.”
“Case processing procedures in the new CPM allow OCR to better accomplish this critical mission by improving OCR’s management of its docket, investigations, and case resolutions. The new case processing manual now says that OCR will dismiss complaints if they’re part of a pattern of similar complaints filed by an individual or a group. This provision is intended to permit OCR to remain active in every type of discrimination subject matter while retaining discretion to engage in technical assistance efforts where appropriate. OCR continues to accept all complaints including those from third-party advocacy organizations that file discrimination complaints on behalf of students.”
The revised manual requires that a complaint be dismissed in the “evaluation stage” if it is “a continuation of a pattern of complaints previously filed with OCR by an individual or group against multiple recipients or a complaint(s) is filed for the first time against multiple recipients that, viewed as a whole, places an unreasonable burden on OCR’s resources.”
The new procedures, which took effect in March, had by April 20 resulted in the dismissal of more than 500 disability rights complaints, The New York Times reported.
“It’s capricious,” attorney Hill said, as the office already had the power dismiss frivolous cases if the filer had engaged in a pattern of filing meritless complaints.
“This is just an effort for them to say, ‘We’re not going to look at these cases even though yours were meritorious,’” Hill said.
She said if the office were unreasonably burdened by its caseload, it should have requested more money from Congress — not the $10 million cut it did request. Hill said the office actually got an $8.5 million budget increase this year despite its request for a cut.
The National Federation for the Blind has filed complaints with the Office of Civil Rights on behalf of its members for years, and has cases pending. Under the new rule, any new filings would be thrown out, according to the complaint.
The federation filed several lawsuits in 2009 regarding the use of Amazon Kindles by colleges and universities. It reached agreements with several schools, prohibiting them from requiring, purchasing or incorporating inaccessible book readers in their curricula. “However, the 2018 OCR Manual, by its terms, would have mandated that OCR reject this ‘pattern’ of complaints and would prevent investigation of such a ‘pattern’ of complaints if they were filed today,” the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment, an injunction and costs of suit.