Federal Appeals Court Rejects Special Education Class Action

By Mark Walsh — February 09, 2012 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has thrown out a class action on special education in the Milwaukee school district, holding that the lawsuit didn’t meet federal rules on defining a class of plaintiffs with common interests.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, also threw out a settlement negotiated between a disability-rights group and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction after a federal district court found the Milwaukee district liable for systemic violations of federal special education law.

The ruling stems from a 2001 lawsuit alleging problems with the way the Milwaukee district identified students eligible for special education services. The district judge approved a class covering those students in the Milwaukee system who were eligible for special education but were denied or delayed in gaining access to the process for developing individualized education plans, or IEPs.

The judge found the district liable for violating the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s “child find” provision, which requires that districts identify children with suspected disabilities and refer them for evaluation on a timely basis.

The liability decision prompted settlement talks between the state Department of Public Instruction and the class represented by Disability Rights Wisconsin. The state agreed to order Milwaukee Public Schools to meet certain compliance benchmarks and agree to an independent monitor.

This led to a 2009 district court order establishing a court-monitored remedial plan for identifying specific members of the class. The cost of the plan for the Milwaukee district was estimated between $11 million and $40 million.

The school district appealed, and in a Feb. 3 decision in Jamie S. v. Milwaukee Public Schools, the 7th Circuit panel ruled unanimously for the district on some issues and 2-1 for rejecting the class.

On the class-certification issue, the court cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes, which rejected a large class of female employees who alleged sex discrimination at the retail chain.

The 7th Circuit panel said the class certified in the Milwaukee case was too broad and ill-defined, in violation of federal civil rules.

“That all the class members have suffered as a result of disparate individual IDEA child-find violations is not enough,” the appeals court majority said. “It does not establish that the individual claims have any question of law or fact in common.”

Judge Ilana Rovner dissented on that issue, saying that while she shared some concerns of the majority, “I believe that notwithstanding the inherently child-specific nature of child-find inquiries, a class action based on a truly systemic child-find failure may be viable.”

The panel was unanimous in ruling that the settlement negotiated by the state education agency trampled on the rights of the school district. The Department of Public Instruction “cannot unilaterally force [Milwaukee Public Schools] to take specific remedial action,” the court said, and the settlement “attempts to do exactly that.”

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports on the decision here.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.