Rendell-Baker v. Kohn
457 U.S. 830 (1982)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Rendell-Baker v. Kohn, 457 U.S. 830 (1982)

Rendell-Baker v. Kohn

No. 80-2102

Argued April 19, 1982

Decided June 25, 1982

457 U.S. 830

Syllabus

Respondent school is a privately operated school for maladjusted high school students. In recent years, nearly all of the students have been referred to the school by city school committees under a Massachusetts statute or by a state agency. When the students are referred to the school by the city committees, these cities pay for the students' education. The school also receives funds from a number of state and federal agencies. Public funds have recently accounted for at least 90% of the school's operating budget. To be eligible for tuition funding under the state statute, the school must comply with a variety of state regulations, but these regulations impose few specific personnel requirements. Similarly, the school's contracts with the State and the city committees generally do not cover personnel policies. Petitioners, a former vocational counselor and teachers at the school, brought separate actions in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that they had been discharged by the school in violation of their First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The court dismissed the counselor's action but denied a motion to dismiss the teachers' action, reaching conflicting conclusions as to whether the school had acted under color of state law so as to be subject to liability under § 1983. On appeal the cases were consolidated, and the Court of Appeals held that it was error to conclude that the school acted under color of state law, since, although regulated by the State, it was not dominated by the State, especially with respect to decisions involving discharge of personnel.

Held: Respondent school did not act under color of state law when it discharged petitioner employees, and hence petitioners have not stated a claim for relief under § 1983. Pp. 457 U. S. 837-843.

(a) The ultimate issue in determining whether a person is subject to suit under § 1983 is the same question posed in cases arising under the Fourteenth Amendment: is the alleged infringement of federal rights fairly attributable to the State? Pp. 457 U. S. 837-838.

(b) The school's receipt of public funds does not make the discharge decisions acts of the State. Cf. Blum v. Yaretsky, post, p. 457 U. S. 991. The school is not fundamentally different from many private corporations whose business depends primarily on contracts with the government, and whose acts do not become acts of the government by reason of their

Page 457 U. S. 831

significant or even total engagement in performing public contracts. The decision to discharge petitioners was not compelled or even influenced by any state regulation, and the fact that the school performs a public function in educating maladjusted high school students does not make its acts state action. Moreover, since the school's fiscal relationship with the State is not any different from that of many contractors performing services for the government, there is no "symbiotic relationship" between the school and the State. Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, 365 U. S. 715, distinguished. Pp. 457 U. S. 839-843.

641 F.2d 14, affirmed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 457 U. S. 843. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 457 U. S. 844.

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Primary Holding

Even when a private school is substantially funded and regulated by the state, it is not a state actor if it is not exercising state prerogatives.

Facts

A private high school known as the New Perspectives School was designed for maladjusted high school students, most of whom were referred to the school by the state. The school operated under significant state regulations and received most of its funding from public sources. During a policy dispute, Kohn, the director of the school, fired Rendell-Baker, a teacher. Other teachers later were fired for supporting Rendell-Baker in the policy dispute. They sued the school under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, arguing that their due process rights had been violated because they were fired for exercising their First Amendment rights. On the question of whether their termination was state action, the lower courts disagreed.

Opinions

Majority

  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor

Actions of private contractors like the school cannot be attributed to the state simply because they have contracts with the government. State regulations did not form the basis for firing the teachers, and in general the school handled its personnel matters without intrusion from the state. The public function served by the school has not been traditionally within the exclusive control of the state. This means that its actions are not state action.

Dissent

  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.

The school is so closely linked to the state through its use of public funding and the regulations controlling it that its actions can be interpreted as state action. The state essentially delegated its duty to provide education to the school, and it is not a private contractor because it is under a much greater level of oversight from the state and is performing a duty that is normally performed by the state.

Concurrence

  • Byron Raymond White (Author)

Case Commentary

If the guidelines for its operation are general, the state cannot be held accountable for running a school on the basis of funding alone. The school retained independent authority over its operational decisions on a day-to-day basis.

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