Supreme Court to Hear Case on Burden of Proof in IDEA Disputes

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In a case with a potentially far-reaching impact on the administration of the nation’s main special education law, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether parents or school districts should bear the burden of proof in disputes over services provided to children with disabilities.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that parents and school officials be included on teams that craft individualized education plans for children with disabilities, but does not specify which side should be responsible for proving its case in an administrative hearing when they disagree over those plans. As a result, lower federal courts and state courts across the country have been split over the issue.

In a 2-1 decision last July, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., held that the burden of proof fell on Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer in their dispute with the Montgomery County, Md., school system over the education of their son Brian.

The Schaffers appealed, and on Feb. 22, the justices agreed to review the case, known as Schaffer v. Weast (Case No. 04-698). A lawyer for the Schaffers said he was delighted by the news.

“We believe that the court took this case in order to establish a uniform national rule on what we regard as an important civil rights issue,” said William H. Hurd, a former state solicitor general for Virginia who is now in private practice in Richmond.

“There are 6.5 million children who receive services under the IDEA, which is a huge number,” Mr. Hurd continued. “When parents sit down and negotiate the terms of a child’s educational plan, it is very important to know who will have the burden of proof when they come to an impasse.”

Statutory Silence

But a lawyer for the 139,000-student Montgomery County district said the majority of the 4th Circuit appeals court panel was right to conclude that parents challenging an IEP should have the burden of showing that it is insufficient.

“The IDEA is silent on who bears the burden of proof, so where the statute is silent, there’s no reason to deviate from the general rule that the party seeking relief has the burden of showing that they are entitled to relief,” said Eric Brousaides, who helped represent the Maryland district in opposing the Schaffers’ bid to get the high court to take the case.

In its July ruling, the majority of the 4th Circuit panel said Congress clearly understood that school districts have advantages over parents in resources and expertise in disputes involving special education services. But the panel majority said the IDEA contains many procedural safeguards designed to help level the playing field. Moreover, the majority held, Congress could have explicitly put the burden of proof on districts but declined to do so.

The judge who dissented in the 4th Circuit ruling argued that districts should be obligated to prove that the plans they advocate are appropriate, given that “[p]arents simply do not have, and cannot easily acquire, the cumulative, institutional knowledge gained by representatives of the school district from their experiences with other, similarly disabled children.”

Congress late last year passed a long-overdue reauthorization of the IDEA that includes several provisions aimed at reducing legal conflicts between parents and school districts over special education services. But the revised law did not address the question of burden of proof in IEP administrative hearings. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Montgomery County case in its 2005-06 term, which begins in October.

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