Case Law

There is a large amount of case law regarding the IDEA. The following cases are among the most cited and the most meaningful.

Payne v. Peninsula School District (2011)
J.D.B. v. North Carolina (2011)
C.B. v. Garden Grove Unified School District (2011)
Sumter County School District v. Heffernan (2011)
Forest Grove School District v. T.A. (2009)
Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F. (2009)
Draper v. Atlanta (2007) (2008)
Winkelman v. Parma City School Dist. (2007)
Arlington Central School Dist. Bd. of Ed. v. Murphy (2006)
Florence County School District Four v. Carter (1993)
Burlington School Comm. v. Mass. Dept. of Ed. (1985)

Payne v. Peninsula School District
Published Opinion
July 29, 2011

Important recent case heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court decided to rehear this case en banc to clarify under what circumstances the IDEA's exhaustion requirements bars federal or state law claims. In this instance, the court found that Payne's non-IDEA federal and state law claims are not subject to the IDEA's exhaustion requirement. In essence, the Payne's will not be forced to exhaust the administrative process before bringing their claims to federal or state court if their claims cannot be satisfied by a remedy provided under the IDEA.

This is a reversal of the court's previous decision which prevented the Payne's from bringing their claims regarding violations of the child's rights protected under the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments into federal court.

These violations consisted of, according to Judge Noonan, a 7 year-old autistic child being locked "into an unventilated, dark space the size of a closet for indeterminate amounts of time, causing D.P.  to become so fearful that he routinely urinated and defecated on himself." The treatment of the child was described as "Dickensian" by Judge Noonan in his eloquent dissenting opinion when this case was formerly dismissed under a summary judgment. 

J.D.B. v. North Carolina
Published opinion and related amicus briefs.
June 16, 2011

This recent Supreme Court decision revolved around the questioning of a 13 year-old, seventh grade student by police in a closed conference room after having been removed from his social-studies class. The student was questioned regarding two home break-ins without having been Mirandized or given the option of contacting his grandmother, his legal guardian.

Justice Sotomayor, writing for the majority, held that a child's age is a relevant factor to consider in determining whether the child is "in custody" for purposes of Miranda v. Arizona

C.B. v. Garden Grove Unified School District
Published opinion.
March 28, 2011

This recent 9th Circuit decision was heard on appeal and reaffirmed the lower court's holding. C.B. was eligible for special education services under the IDEA. The Garden Grove Unified School District failed to provide a FAPE for C.B. and C.B. was removed by his guardian and placed in a private school. Despite progressing significantly in this new school, C.B.'s guardian was only partially reimbursed for the cost of the placement.

The 9th Circuit reaffirmed the lower court's holding that even though the private school could not provide the student with all of the services needed, everything that the private school provided was proper and appropriate and therefore "the district court did not abuse its discretion by awarding full reimbursement..."

Sumter County School District v. Heffernan
Published Opinion.
April 27, 2011

The 4th Circuit Court Appeals affirmed the lower court's decision. The court held that the district's failure to implement a significant portion of T.H.'s IEP amounted to a denial of FAPE. T.H.was supposed to receive 15 hrs. per week of ABA therapy but was only receiving 7.5 of those hours. T.H. did not do well and began exhibiting "self-stimulating" behaviors. T.H.'s parents removed him from school and began homeschooling him.  The Court also reaffirmed the district court's decision that the home placement program established by T.H.'s parents to educate him at home was appropriate.

Forest Grove School District v. T.A.
Published opinion.
June 22, 2009

Another important Supreme Court case. Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, clarifies the situations under which a school district may be required to reimburse parents for unilaterally enrolling their special needs child in a private school. The question in this case is whether there is a categorical ban prohibiting reimbursement to the parents for the cost of a private education if a child has not "previously received special education and related services under the authority of a public agency." This language being analyzed is from Section 1412(a)(10)(c)(ii) of the IDEA.

In this instance, the parents of T.A. (a high school student struggling with paying attention in class), had their son privately evaluated and diagnosed with ADHD after the school district had evaluated T.A. and found no learning disabilities or impairments that would qualify him for special education services. The parents, under the advisement of a private specialist, enrolled T.A. in a private facility.

The parents challenged the school district's eligibility determination through due process. The school district would not offer T.A. special education services because they determined that his "ADHD did not have a sufficiently significant adverse impact on his education performance." The hearing officer determined that T.A.'s ADHD did adversely affect his educational performance and the school district had failed in not identifying T.A. as a student eligible for special-education services.  The school district was ordered to reimburse T.A.'s parents for the private-school tuition.

The school district argued that because Section 1412(a)(10)(C) only discusses reimbursement for children who have previously received special-education services through the public school, IDEA only authorizes reimbursement in that circumstance. Justice Stevens succinctly states that "The clause says nothing about the availability of reimbursement when a school district fails to provide a FAPE." He continues his analysis, "Indeed by immunizing a school district's refusal to find a child eligible for special-education services no matter how compelling the child's need, the School District's interpretation of Section 1412(a)(10)(C) would produce a rule bordering on the irrational."

The Court concluded that the "IDEA authorizes reimbursement for the cost of private special-education services when a school district fails to provide a FAPE and the private-school placement is appropriate, regardless of whether the child previously received special education or related services through the public school."

This is the National Disability Rights Network's (NDRN) Amicus Brief offered in support of Respondent. Justice Stevens refers to this brief in his opinion when addressing the cost of reimbursing parents for unilateral placement of  their child in a private school. According to this brief, the incidence of reimbursement being ordered by the Court is quite small and, in some cases, the cost of placing a child in a private school is less than attempting to provide a FAPE in a public school. If you are curious and have a moment, this is an easily accessible brief and well-worth the read.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the district court for reconsideration in light of the factors set forth in their decision. The District Court held that the parents were not entitled to reimbursement. The parents appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The 9th Circuit would not reverse the lower court's decision and affirmed. Read the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision here.

The rationale behind this decision centers around the reason for T.A.'s parents enrolling him in private school. The school district contends that the main reason for T.A.'s enrollment at a private school was to address T.A.'s non-disability related behavior problems. T.A. had been experimenting with marijuana, become defiant towards his parents and runaway from home. The 9th Circuit, reviewing the lower court's decision for abuse of discretion standard, found that the district court had not abused its discretion and that there was "sufficient evidence in the record to support the district court's factual determination that T.A.'s parents enrolled him at Mount Bachelor solely because of his drug abuse and behavioral problems."

In a pointed dissent, Judge Graber finds herself at a "loss" in understanding the majority's decision. Judge Graber summarizes:

"Everyone agrees that the School District denied T.A. a free appropriate public education; everyone agrees that T.A.'s placement at Mount Bachelor Academy was proper; and everyone agrees, as the district court found, that many equitable factors support reimbursement. Indeed, the district court denied complete reimbursement only because of its view that the parents' reasons for enrollment was the "decisive factor." Because the district court's analysis of that factor is clearly incorrect, no equitable factors support the complete denial of reimbursement. T.A.'s parents are entitled to reimbursement. The majority's sanctioning of the contrary result under the guise of deferential review is deeply disappointing."

We will be watching this case for future updates. 

Additional articles documenting this landmark Supreme Court decision:
Court Ruling Helps Special Needs Students
By Zach Miners, U.S. News
June 24, 2009
Supreme Court victory for parents of disabled students
By David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times
June 23, 2009
Court Affirms Reimbursement for Special Education
By Tamar Lewin, New York Times
June 22, 2009

Additional articles documenting the remanding of this Supreme Court decision:
Judge says Forest Grove family doesn't qualify for special needs reimbursement
By Wendy Owen, The Oregonian
December 14, 2009

Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F.
Published opinion.
March 3, 2009

In this Supreme Court Decision, Justice Stevens, once again writing for the majority, clarifies the term "related services" in the IDEA. The question presented in Cedar Rapids is "whether the definition of 'related services' requires a public school district to provide a ventilator-dependent student with certain nursing services during school hours."

The district contended that a multi-factor test should be used to determine whether the school district need provide services in any particular case. The test included the following factors, "[1]whether the care is continuous or intermittent, [2]whether existing school health personnel can provide the service, [3]the cost of the service, [4]the potential consequences if the service is not properly performed."

Justice Stevens noted that "the District's multi-factor test is not supported by any recognized source of legal authority." He also dismissed the district's broader financial concerns, stating that adopting a cost-based standard for determining the scope of the services would "require us to engage in judicial lawmaking without any guidance from Congress." The proposed multi-factor test is, in the end, a cost-based test because the concerns raised are all related to the potential cost for extra school personnel, adequate training, ongoing v. intermittent care and the consequences if these services are not funded.

In a seven to two decision the Court reaffirmed its support of the "bright-line rule" outlined in Irving Independent School District v. Tatro. The "bright line rule" states that only 'medical services' that need be provided by a physician are not covered by the 'related services' which a school district must provide under the IDEA.

The Court held that, "Under the statute, our precedent, and the purposes of the IDEA, the District must fund such 'related services' in order to help guarantee  that students like Garret are integrated into public schools."

Additional articles regarding this decision:
Disabled Pupils Win Right to Medical Aid
By Joan Biskupic, Washington Post
March 4, 1999

Draper v. Atlanta Independent School System
Published opinion.
March 19, 2007

Draper v. Atlanta Independent School System
Published opinion.
March 6, 2008

After receiving an initial assessment at the age of seven by the school district, Jarron Draper was misdiagnosed as intellectually disabled when he was actually hampered by dyslexia, a specific learning disability. The school district refused to re-evaluate Jarron when his family requested that he be re-evaluated and also failed to re-evaluate him, as required by law, every three years. Jarron was reading at a third-grade level when he was in the eleventh-grade.

In Draper v. Atlanta
March 19, 2007

The district court awarded Jarron with compensatory education at a private special education school or until he graduated with a regular high school diploma, whichever happened first.

In Draper v. Atlanta,
March 6, 2008

The 11th Circuit held that Draper did not have to prove that it was impossible to receive a compensatory education from the school that had already failed him significantly before enrolling in a private school and receiving compensation for the cost of that private school placement.

Winkelman v. Parma City School Dist.
Published Opinion
May 21, 2007

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court in which Roberts, C.J., and Stevens, Souter, Ginsberg, Breyer and Alito, JJ. joined. Scalia filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, in which Thomas, J., joined.

The parents of a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and thereby covered under the IDEA worked with Parma City School District to develop an IEP. The parents alleged that the resulting IEP was deficient and proceeded to challenge the efficacy of the IEP through the IDEA's administrative review process. The IDEA administrative review process provides for an "impartial due process hearing." The Winkelman's were unsuccessful in the administrative review process and filed a federal court complaint on their own behalf and their son's behalf. They federal court complaint was filed without counsel.

The Winkelman's were unsuccessful in District Court and proceeded to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals which entered an order dismissing the Winkelman's appeal. The 6th Circuit, relying on common law precedent, concluded that the IDEA does not allow non-lawyer parents to proceed pro se in federal court because
a)the right to a free appropriate public education belongs only to the child, and
b) the IDEA does not abrogate the common-law rule prohibiting nonlawyer parents from representing minor children.

Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court, concluded that:
 a)the IDEA grants parents independent, enforceable rights which encompass the entitlement to a free appropriate public education, and
b)the IDEA grants parents enforceable rights at the administrative stage which persist into the adjudication stage of federal court because it would be "inconsistent with the statutory scheme to bar parents from continuing to assert these rights in federal court."

Performing a careful reading of the statute, Justice Kennedy asserts, "We instead interpret the statute's references to parents' rights to mean what they say: that IDEA includes provisions conveying rights to parents as well as to children." Consequently, the Court stated that the Court of Appeals erred when it dismissed the Winkelman's appeal for lack of counsel and concluded that "parents enjoy rights under IDEA; and they are, as a result, entitled to prosecute IDEA claims on their own behalf."

The judgment of the Court of Appeals was reversed and remanded.

Arlington Central School Dist. Bd. of Ed. v. Murphy
Published Opinion
June 26, 2006

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court in which Roberts, C.J., and Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ joined. Ginsburg, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Souter, J. filed a dissenting opinion. Breyer, J. filed a dissenting opinion in which Stevens and Souter, JJ joined.

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court in this decision as to whether the "fee-shifting provision" in the IDEA authorizes prevailing parties to recover fees for services rendered by experts. The specific "fee-shifting" language in question is found in Section 1415(i)(3)(B) which states that a court may "award reasonable attorney's fees as part of the costs to the parents" who are prevailing parties. The six justices referenced above hold that Section 1415(i)(3)(B) does not allow prevailing parties to recover fees for services rendered by experts under IDEA actions. Essentially, parents are responsible for compensating expert witnesses in IDEA actions even when the parents are ultimately the prevailing party.

Alito puts forth the following reasons, addressed in Breyer's dissenting opinion, to support this opinion:

1)State's are not given fair-warning or "clear notice", a requirement outlined in caselaw interpreting the Spending Clause, that they may be liable for the cost of expert witnesses. Had states been given clear notice they might have chosen not to accept funding from the federal government with this condition for compliance.

2)The word "costs" is a "term of art" and is generally not meant to include expert witness fees and had Congress wished to include expert witness fees under this term they would have spoken clearly.

Breyer's dissent includes the statement, "I can find no good reason for this Court to interpret the language of this statute as meaning the precise opposite of what Congress told us it intended." Breyer continues, "There are two strong reasons for interpreting the statutory phrase to include the award of expert fees. First, that is what Congress said it intended by the phrase. Second, the interpretation furthers the IDEA's statutorily defined purposes."

Breyer challenges the majority opinion that the Spending Clause requires "clear notice" to States regarding  their acceptance of funding. Instead, Breyer opines, the question should be whether States would have "accepted Federal Government's funds had they only known the nature of the accompanying conditions?"

Breyer also looks to caselaw that further explains this clear notice requirement which is commonly known as  Pennhurst's requirement. He counters, "...we have held that Pennhurst's requirement that Congress 'unambiguously' set out a 'condition on the grant of federal money' does not necessarily apply to legislation setting forth 'the remedies available against a non-complying state." Breyer is stating that the reimbursement of expert's fees in an IDEA action is a remedy available to parents under the IDEA and therefore should fall outside of Pennhurst's requirement.
Relying on Legislative History to ascertain the meaning of the word "costs", Breyer posits that the word was not intended to be a "work of art" but, rather, was very clearly defined and its definition was understood and unchallenged by either party in its passage. As evidence, Breyer points to the accompanying Conference Report, agreed to with a voice vote of both parties in the House and Senate. The Conference Report states in pertinent part:

"The conferees intend that the term "attorney's' fees as part of the costs' include reasonable expenses and fees of expert witnesses and the reasonable costs of any test or evaluation which is found to be necessary for the preparation of the parent or guardian's case in the action or proceeding, as well as traditional costs incurred in the course of litigating a case."

According to Breyer, both Houses of Congress voted to adopt the statutory text currently being debated and the Conference Report which clearly embraces expert fees as being covered by the term "costs."

Breyer than analyzes the IDEA's basic purpose which he believes supports the provision's language regarding expert witness fees. The IDEA guarantees a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Breyer recognizes that a parent being required to spend hundreds on expert witness fees in an effort to obtain an appropriate education for their child undermines the IDEA's promise of a FAPE.

The IDEA Fairness Restoration Act which is making its way through Congress would authorize reimbursement for expert witness fees to the prevailing party under IDEA actions. If this were passed by Congress there would be no mistaking Congressional intent. Courts would be unequivocally authorized by Congress to reimburse the prevailing party.

Florence County School District Four v. Carter
Published Opinion
November 9, 1993

In a unanimous opinion written by Justice O'Connor, the Supreme Court addressed the question whether parents may be reimbursed for withdrawing their child from a public school that fails to provide an appropriate education under IDEA and placing that child "in a private school that provides an education that is otherwise proper under the IDEA, but does not meet all of Section 1401(a)(18)'s requirements." Requirements under Section 1401(a)(18) include the provision that the education be provided "under public supervision and direction," and that the IEP be designed by "a representative of the local education agency."

The Court clarified this statutory language, stating "Section 1401(a)(18)'s requirements cannot be read as applying to parental placement." Justice O'Connor elaborates on this statement by explaining that imposing such requirements on parents does not make sense when the parents have already rejected the school district's offer. Under such circumstances, the private school placement will not (practically, can not) be under "public supervision and direction." Reading Section 1401(a)(18) as applying to parents would categorically bar parents from placing a child in a private school when they are challenging a FAPE offer.

The Court held that reimbursement was proper under these circumstances. Justice O'Connor pointedly opined that it would be inconsistent with the IDEA to "forbid parents from educating their child at a school that provides an appropriate education simply because that school lacks the stamp of approval of the same public school system that failed to meet the child's needs in the first place."

You can listen to Justice O'Connor read the decision.

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Burlington School Comm. v. Mass. Dept. of Ed.
Published Opinion
April 29, 1985

Supreme Court decision with Chief Justice Rehnquist writing for the majority. Burlington decides whether "the potential relief available under 1415(e)(2) includes reimbursement to parents for private school tuition and related expenses, and whether 1415(e)(3) bars such reimbursement to parents who reject a proposed IEP and place a child in a private school without the consent of local school authorities."

Regarding the first issue, Chief Justice Rehnquist analyzes Section 1415(e)(2), "The Court shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings, shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party, and, basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate." Chief Justice Rehnquist notes that a plain reading of the statutory language provides no other qualification other than "appropriate" which is a broad grant of discretionary authority.

The Chief Justice also analyzes the language within the context of the IDEA and the legislative intent behind the IDEA. Labeling the review process as "ponderous", Chief Justice Rehnquist sympathizes with parents forced to choose between going along with an IEP which they believe to be detrimental to their child or paying for what they consider to be an appropriate placement. Because the IDEA grants a child a free appropriate public education, hampering this guarantee by not reimbursing parents who successfully challenge an IEP would constitute a "hollow victory." In such an instance, the Chief Justice notes, "the child's right to a free appropriate public education, the parents' right to participate fully in developing a proper IEP, and all of the procedural safeguards would be less than complete. Because Congress undoubtedly did not intend this result, we are confident that by empowering the court to grant 'appropriate' relief meant to include retroactive reimbursement to parents as an available remedy in a proper case."

Regarding the second issue, Chief Justice Rehnquist addresses the school district's contention that a violation of section 1415 (e)(3) by the parents constitutes a waiver to any right of reimbursement. Section 1415(e)(3) provides:

"During the pendency of any proceedings conducted pursuant to [1415], unless the State or local educational agency and the parents or guardian otherwise agree, the child shall remain in the then current educational placement of such child..."

The Chief Justice disagrees with the school district's interpretation of the statute, stating, "under the Town's reading of 1415(e)(3), the parents are forced to leave the child in what may turn out to be an inappropriate educational placement or to obtain the appropriate placement only by sacrificing any claim for reimbursement." This dilemma would result in forcing the parent's to choose between a "free" education or an "appropriate" education rather than granting them both which is the main thrust of the free appropriate public education (FAPE) component of the IDEA. Rather, the Court holds that this provision "operates in such a way that parents who unilaterally change their child's placement during the pendency of review proceedings , without the consent of state or local school officials, do so at their own financial risk. If the courts ultimately determine that the IEP proposed by the school officials was appropriate, the parents would be barred from obtaining reimbursement ..." for any period in which the parents were in violation of section 1415(e)(3).

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