Law & Courts

High Court to Decide Who Must Prove Case in Special Ed. Disputes

By Caroline Hendrie — March 01, 2005 7 min read
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When it comes to the legal fight over special education that they have waged for the past seven years, Joceyln S. and Martin P. Schaffer and their Maryland school district don’t agree on much.

But the two sides do see eye to eye on this: With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week to review the Schaffers’ case, the dispute suddenly has the potential to shape the outcome of clashes over special education between parents and public schools across the nation for years to come.

At issue before the high court in Schaffer v. Weast (Case No. 04-698) is which side bears the legal burden of proof when parents and school districts disagree over the services or placement that children with disabilities require. With the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act silent on that question, judges in federal and state courts repeatedly have come down on opposite sides.

“I never imagined it would go this far,” Ms. Schaffer said after the Supreme Court agreed on Feb. 22 to consider the family’s appeal of a lower-court decision in favor of the Montgomery County, Md., school system. But she and her husband aim to see the case through even though the boy at the center of the case graduated from high school in 2003.

“It really isn’t about Brian right now,” Ms. Schaffer said of her son, who was in 7th grade when the conflict began over what setting was appropriate to accommodate his learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “What this is about is providing a child who has special needs with the services he needs. It’s the principle.”

Officials with the 139,000-student district say they too are pursuing the case because of the principles at stake.

“We have chosen to defend the public’s interest,” Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the suburban Washington district, said in a statement. “Educational services should be decided in an appropriate way based on the educational needs of the student, not the whim of a lawyer.”

Statutory Silence

Under the IDEA, parents and school officials must be included on teams that craft individualized education programs for children with disabilities. But the law does not specify which side should bear the burden for proving its claims in an administrative hearing when they disagree over the specifics of those federally required plans, known as IEPs.

All but a few of the federal appeals courts around the country have weighed in on the subject. For example, the appellate courts based in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco, and the District of Columbia have held or recognized that school districts bear the burden of proof.

But the appeals courts based in New Orleans, Cincinnati, Denver, and Richmond, Va., have held that parents bear the burden of proof when they are the parties challenging IEPs, which is the case in the vast majority of such disputes.

The Schaffers appealed a ruling by that Richmond-based court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. In a 2-1 decision last July, a panel of the court held that the burden of proof fell on whichever party challenged an IEP, which in this case was the Schaffers.

In papers filed with the Supreme Court, the family says the 6.5 million children who receive special education services under the IDEA deserve national uniformity. “Simply put, children and parents in some states have fewer or less effectual rights than their counterparts in other states, even though all were intended to be beneficiaries of the same national law,” their brief argues.

William H. Hurd, a former state solicitor general for Virginia who now represents the family as a private lawyer, said he hoped the high court would eliminate those disparities.

“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,” he said. “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.”

But the Montgomery County district takes the stance that national uniformity is unnecessary. In court papers urging the high court to let the 4th Circuit court’s decision stand, the district notes that Congress did not address the burden-of-proof issue when it reauthorized the IDEA late last year. That was the case even though that legislation included provisions aimed at reducing legal conflicts between parents and districts.

“Instead, Congress elected to allow the states to decide how the burden of proof should be allocated in administrative hearings,” the district’s brief to the Supreme Court says. “Accordingly, it would be improper for this court to usurp the states’ authority by imposing a blanket rule in this matter.”

13 States’ Brief

But imposing a blanket rule is exactly what 13 states asked the high court to do in a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Schaffers’ bid for Supreme Court review. The states do not express an opinion on how the justices should resolve the confusion among the courts, just that they should do so.

Arguing that the inconsistency “has enormous practical consequences,” the brief says that complying with the IDEA, “both financially and otherwise,” may be easier for states in some federal judicial circuits than others. The issue affects not only the estimated 3,000 administrative hearings held each year under the IDEA, the states argue, but also the process of crafting the IEPs that are at the center of those disputes.

“Knowledge that parents will bear the burden of proof, if no agreement can be reached, gives school districts in some circuits a more advantageous posture than their counterparts in circuits where the school districts must bear that burden,” the states’ brief says. It was submitted by Virginia, along with the attorneys general of Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, and West Virginia.

In addition to discrepancies between federal courts, the states say, the lack of national uniformity means that state and federal courts within the same states may take opposite stances on which side bears the burden of proof in conflicts over special education.

Going further than the states, the Clinton administration weighed in on the dispute in 2000 to urge a ruling that school districts bear the burden of proof.

That makes sense, the Department of Justice’s friend-of-the-court brief argued, given that districts are assumed under the IDEA to take the lead in drafting educational plans for children with disabilities. Requiring districts to defend those plans gives school officials “an additional incentive” to propose good plans, argued that brief, which was filed during the first of the case’s two stops before the 4th Circuit court.

The executive branch has not participated in the case since President Bush took office in 2001. But lawyers for the Schaffers said they have received no indication that the government’s position has changed.

Process Called Daunting

In their own brief to the Supreme Court, the Schaffers say many parents find the process of pursuing administrative hearings “too daunting and simply capitulate.” They cite a 2003 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the audit arm of Congress, that said that more than 11,000 hearings were requested in 2000, but that only 3,000 were held.

“Placing the burden on the parents significantly strengthens the hand of often-intransigent school district bureaucracies,” the parents’ brief says.

But the district says people who sue under federal statutes that prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, and age must bear the burden of proof, and it is reasonable for parents of children with disabilities to meet a similar legal standard.

“It is highly unlikely that a parent who believes that his or her child is not receiving sufficient services will forgo a challenge merely because of an evidentiary rule that is common to most litigants,” the district’s brief says.

The Montgomery County district also rejects the family’s arguments that low-income parents are especially harmed by having to bear the legal burden of proof. Under the IDEA, the district says, school systems are required to inform parents of any free or low-cost legal services available in their local areas.

In its July ruling, the 4th Circuit panel majority said Congress recognized that districts have advantages over parents in resources and expertise. The majority said the IDEA contains many procedural safeguards designed to offset those advantages.

But the judge who dissented in the 4th Circuit ruling argued that districts should have to prove that the plans they propose are appropriate: “Parents 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.”

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Montgomery County case in its 2005-06 term, which begins in October.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as High Court to Decide Who Must Prove Case In Special Ed. Disputes

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