Special Education

High Court Boosts Districts in IDEA Cases

By Andrew Trotter — November 29, 2005 8 min read
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Parents of children with disabilities may be less aggressive in formally challenging school districts over their children’s education plans under the main federal special education law, after a decision last month by the U.S. Supreme Court, several experts said.

The court, in a 6-2 decision on Nov. 14, made it harder for parents to prevail in such cases by holding that whichever party brings a challenge to an individualized education program under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is the one that must prove its case.

School districts would bear the burden in cases in which they challenge an IEP. But Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote the majority opinion, acknowledged that “as a practical matter, it appears that most hearing requests come from parents rather than schools.”

“Absent some reason to believe that Congress intended otherwise, … we will conclude that the burden of persuasion lies where it usually falls, upon the party seeking relief,” Justice O’Connor said.

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, left, of the Montgomery County, Md., school district listens as the district's lawyer, Gregory G. Garre, talks to reporters after arguments on Oct. 5 in a U.S. Supreme Court case on special education.

Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the Montgomery County, Md., school district, which the parents of a special education student had sued in the case, said the ruling in Schaffer v. Weast (Case No. 04-698) was “a victory for special education teachers; they’re the ones who are better off by this decision.”

The ruling means that teachers will ultimately not have to spend as much time on IDEA proceedings as they do now, he said.

John W. Borkowski, a lawyer who works on school law matters for Hogan & Hartson, a Washington firm that represented the Montgomery County district before the high court, said the impact of the case would be limited because only rarely are IDEA cases decided purely on which side has the burden of proof.

“This is the first IDEA case I’ve seen in which the evidence is in equipoise,” he said, referring to when the evidence for both sides has equal weight. Mr. Borkowski noted that he did not work on the Montgomery County school district’s case.

Removing a Lever

Timothy W. Smith, a Memphis, Tenn., lawyer who represents both parents and school districts in IDEA disputes, said he believed the decision will encourage some parents to try harder to come to agreement with their districts in informal meetings and mediation, rather than going to the more formal level of a due-process hearing.

But advocates for families of children with disabilities said the decision removed an important lever for settling disagreements with districts.

“I really feel that this tips the scales in the districts’ favor in terms of motivation to mediate the problem,” said Wendy Byrnes, a parent advocate at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, in Berkeley, Calif.

The parents at the center of the case, Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer, had sought to enroll their son Brian in the 139,000-student Montgomery County district. But they disagreed with the district’s plan to place their son, who had learning disabilities and speech-language impairments, in a middle school setting with classrooms that were larger and with less access to intensive services that they believed Brian needed.

The parents instead placed Brian in a private school and sued the district in 1998. Though they later accepted a placement in a district-run high school with a special learning center, they sought compensation for the private school tuition and related expenses. Their son has since graduated and is enrolled in college. (“Best Evidence,” Sept. 28, 2005.)

A state administrative-law judge in Maryland ruled that the evidence in the case favored both sides equally, so the case hinged on which party had the burden of proof under the IDEA.

A U.S. District Court judge in Greenbelt, Md., ruled that the district bore the burden of proof. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ruled the burden should fall on the party bringing the complaint.

A Court Divided

Lawyers for the Schaffers contended that a family is in a weak position to challenge a district’s stance on a child’s special education services because of the district’s greater access to expertise on disabilities and teaching techniques, as well as legal services.

But in her opinion, Justice O’Connor described the many procedural safeguards established for parents by the IDEA, which guarantees children with disabilities a free, appropriate public education. She observed that the core of the statute is the cooperative process that it established between parents and schools.

See Also

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The Supreme Court and the IDEA

The Schaffers “in effect ask this court to assume that every IEP is invalid until the school district demonstrates that it is not,” Justice O’Connor said. “The [IDEA] does not support this conclusion.”

She noted that Congress clarified in its 2004 reauthorization of the law that school districts may be the ones seeking a due-process hearing over a student’s IEP, such as when they wish to change an existing plan but the parents do not consent, or if parents refuse to allow their child to be evaluated for special education.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, and Clarence Thomas joined Justice O’Connor’s opinion.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent arguing that districts generally have the “bigger guns” in such disputes, in the form of more financial resources and information.

“It bears emphasis that the vast majority of parents whose children require the benefits and protections provided under the IDEA lack knowledge about the education resources available to their child and the sophistication to mount an effective case against a district-proposed IEP,” she said.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer issued his own dissent that said that because the federal special education law was silent on the burden of proof, the issue should be left for each state to decide based on its own laws or rules for due-process hearings.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. did not participate in the case. His former law firm, Hogan & Hartson in Washington, represented the school district.

Speedy Resolution

Michael J. Eig, a lawyer representing the Schaffer family, was disappointed with the ruling.

“This is going to make it a bit more difficult for parents of disabled kids to make a case on behalf of their child,” he said. “As great and significant a justice as O’Connor is and has been, I think she unfortunately didn’t appreciate that the protections she talks about are largely protections that exist before the due-process hearing.”

He said that parents often accept individualized educational programs for their children with disabilities but then change their minds after observing that those plans are not working in the classroom. Under the decision, parents now have an uphill battle to change such plans if districts don’t agree, he suggested.

Naomi Gittens, a lawyer with the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, which filed a brief supporting the Montgomery County district, praised Justice O’Connor’s opinion. Ms. Gittens said the opinion supported the collaborative nature of the task of crafting a plan to educate a child with disabilities and recognized that Congress “took very careful measures to even out the field” for both parents and districts.

The speed of the decision, issued less than six weeks after the case was argued before the justices on Oct. 5, surprised legal observers. Some attributed that dispatch to Justice O’Connor, who is known for her speedy turnaround on opinions that she writes. Justice O’Connor has announced her retirement and plans to leave the court as soon as her successor has been confirmed.

The decision left open the possibility that states could “override the default rule and put the burden always on the school district,” according to the majority opinion.

Justice O’Connor noted that Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, and Minnesota have laws or regulations assigning the burden of proof in IDEA hearings to districts, at least under some circumstances. A report last summer by the National Council on Disability, a federal agency, said that seven states have such statutes or regulations, and that state court rulings in two others have assigned the burden the same way.

Because Maryland has no such rule, Justice O’Connor said the court did not need to decide in Schaffer v. Weast whether states could create their own such rules.

The 59,000-student District of Columbia school system is likely to change its policy, which places the burden of proof on the system, to be aligned with the court ruling, said Roxanne Evans, a spokeswoman for the school district.

Look to Legislatures?

The reaction of the district, which received more than 4,200 requests for due-process hearings in the 2004-05 school year, suggests that some state governments could take the high court ruling as an opportunity to stiffen their defenses to IDEA litigation.

Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools, which submitted a brief in support of the Montgomery County district, said that decisions by the U.S. courts of appeals for the 2nd, 3rd, and 9th circuits have placed the burden of proof in due-process IDEA cases on school districts—a burden that now is shifted, in most cases, because the parents usually are the challengers of the IEP.

“This is very significant for [districts in those jurisdictions],” he said. “However, you may see that disability advocates will begin to look at this opinion and go back to legislatures and state departments of education” and lobby to place the burden on districts.

“We will be advising our school districts to be vigilant” about such attempts, said Mr. Simering, whose Washington-based group represents 66 large urban districts.

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