Special Education

Justices Rule Against Parents in IDEA Case

By Mark Walsh — July 11, 2006 4 min read
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In the second victory for school districts on a special education issue in the U.S. Supreme Court term just ended, the court has ruled that the main federal special education law does not authorize parents who win a dispute over their child’s individualized education program to recover expert fees.

The court held 6-3 that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act does not authorize courts to make districts reimburse parents for the fees of experts, such as consultants, even when the parents prevail in disputes.

The state of Connecticut and some legal analysts said the majority’s reasoning may bolster that state’s pending legal challenge to the No Child Left Behind Act. (“Conn. Sees Legal Boost for Its NCLB Suit,” this issue.)

The court on June 26 said Congress, in its original passage and subsequent reauthorizations of the special education law, did not “unambiguously” alert the states that when they accepted federal money under the statute, they or, by extension, their school districts, were obligated to provide compensation for expert fees to parents who win such disputes.

“The terms of the IDEA overwhelmingly support the conclusion that prevailing parents may not recover the costs of experts or consultants,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority in Arlington Central School District v. Murphy(Case No. 05-18).

His opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed her own opinion, concurring with Justice Alito’s opinion in part and concurring in the outcome of the case.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in a dissent joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter, said the legislative history of the IDEA indicates that Congress intended for expert fees to be recoverable, and that such an interpretation furthers the purposes of the special education law.

“The practical significance of the act’s participatory rights and procedural protections may be seriously diminished if parents are unable to obtain reimbursement for the costs of their experts,” Justice Breyer wrote.

Role of Nonlawyers

In November, the high court ruled 6-2 in Schaffer v. Weast that whichever party brings a challenge to an individualized education program, or IEP, under the federal law is the one that must prove its case. Since most challenges to IEPs come from parents, the burden of proof would most often be on them, so the ruling was considered a victory for school districts. (“High Court Boosts Districts in IDEA Cases,” Nov. 30, 2005.)

Education and the Supreme Court:The 2005-06 Term

Marking the U.S. Supreme Court term that ended June 28 were the arrivals of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., succeeding Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died Sept. 3, and of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., replacing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired in January. Two decisions involving the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were among five rulings that were of particular interest to educators during the 2005-06 term.

Schaffer v. Weast (Case No. 04-698) The high court ruled 6-2 in Schaffer v. Weast that the party seeking a due-process hearing under the IDEA is the one that bears the burden of proof. Most hearing requests come from parents challenging their children’s individualized education programs, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted in the majority opinion. “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,” she wrote.

Arlington Central School District v. Murphy (No. 05-18) The court held 6-3 that the IDEA does not authorize parents who win legal disputes over their children’s special education plans to be reimbursed for the costs of experts, such as expert witnesses or nonlawyer consultants who assist them in their dealings with their school districts.

Garcetti v. Ceballos (No. 04-473) The court ruled 5-4 that speech by government employees in the course of their job duties is not protected by the First Amendment from disciplinary action. The majority opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that the decision may not apply “in the same manner” to speech related to “scholarship or teaching.” Education law experts disagreed about whether that caveat applies to K-12 teachers as much as to those in higher education.

Rumsfeld v. FAIR (No. 04-1152) The court voted 8-0 to uphold the constitutionality of the federal Solomon Amendment, which requires that federally funded colleges and universities give U.S. military recruiters access to their students on equal terms to those provided other potential employers. Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the opinion that the law does not restrict the rights of the schools, students, and faculty members to voice their disapproval of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. For K-12 schools, the decision dampened the prospect of a court challenge to a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act that gives military recruiters similar access to public school students.

Burlington Northern v. White (No. 05-259) The court ruled that an employee who claims to have suffered retaliation on the job for complaining about workplace discrimination may sue even if he or she has not suffered an “ultimate employment decision” such as dismissal, a denial of promotion, or a change in compensation. The opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer said that retaliation, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, can include reassignment to a less attractive job, a temporary suspension without pay, and acts by the employer outside the workplace.

SOURCE: Education Week

In the Arlington Central case, Pearl and Theodore Murphy, whose son has multiple disabilities, won their original suit against the 10,000-student Arlington Central district, in upstate New York, and asked a U.S. District Court judge in New York City to award them $29,350 in expert fees for the services of an educational consultant, Marilyn Arons. The judge, in a 2003 ruling, concluded that the parents were entitled to recover part of that sum, or $8,650.

The district appealed the fee award and lost again last year in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, also in New York City.

The federal appeals courts have taken several different tacks in interpreting a provision of the IDEA that authorizes the award of attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party in a special education dispute. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to decide whether the law’s provision on recovering “costs” would include expert fees.

Ms. Arons, though not a party to the case, was at the center of it because she has long been an advocate for parents of children in special education, and she has been involved in several legal matters addressing whether nonlawyer experts and consultants like her can ultimately recover their fees from districts. (“Advocacy for Parents Key to IDEA Case,” April 12, 2006.)

Ms. Arons declined a request for a comment, but she reacted to the decision on the Web site of the Parent Information Center of New Jersey, a Teaneck, N.J.-based advocacy organization for parents of children with disabilities that she founded.

“For now, Goliath has slain David, the innocent savaged by brute force,” Ms. Arons wrote.

‘Insulting to Parents’

Maura A. Collinsgru, the director of the Parent Information Center, said the court’s ruling was “decimating to parents.”

“This decision renders IDEA meaningless for those who have no resources,” she said.

Ms. Collinsgru referred to Justice Alito’s conclusion that the spending clause in Article I of the U.S. Constitution required Congress to give the states clear notice of an obligation under the IDEA, such as reimbursing parents for the use of experts.

“The majority speaks about our disabled children as though they are commodities under the spending clause,” she said. “It was very insulting to parents and those who work with them.”

Drew S. Days III, a Washington lawyer who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the parents’ side for the National Disability Rights Network and the Center for Law and Education, said the text and the legislative history of the IDEA suggest that Congress wanted parents to be able to win reimbursement for experts.

“The fact they will not be able to hire educational consultants with the expectation that, even if they are successful, they could be reimbursed will substantially limit the degree to which parents can represent their interests effectively,” Mr. Days, who was a U.S. solicitor general under President Clinton, said in an interview.

But Thomas Hutton, a staff lawyer for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the Arlington Central district, said the ruling shows the judicial branch is “willing to give the schools the benefit of the doubt on dealing with children in special education.”

“We don’t view this as a victory for school districts over parents,” Mr. Hutton said. “It is a victory for the collaborative approach over the litigation approach.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Justices Rule Against Parents in IDEA Case


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