Special Education

The Supreme Court and the IDEA

November 29, 2005 5 min read

In Schaffer v. Weast, the court ruled Nov. 14 that the party seeking a due-process hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is the one that bears the burden of proof.

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From the majority opinion by Justice O’Connor, joined by Justices Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, and Thomas:

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a spending clause statute that seeks to ensure that “all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education.” Under IDEA, school districts must create an “individualized education program” for each disabled child. If parents believe their child’s IEP is inappropriate, they may request an impartial due-process hearing. The act is silent, however, as to which party bears the burden of persuasion at such a hearing. We hold that the burden lies, as it typically does, on the party seeking relief. …

Parents and guardians play a significant role in the IEP process. They must be informed about and consent to evaluations of their child under the act. Parents are included as members of “IEP teams.” They have the right to examine any records relating to their child, and to obtain an independent educational evaluation of their child. … If parents believe that an IEP is not appropriate, they may seek an administrative impartial due-process hearing. School districts may also seek such hearings, as Congress clarified in the 2004 amendments. They may do so, for example, if they wish to change an existing IEP but the parents do not consent, or if parents refuse to allow their child to be evaluated. As a practical matter, it appears that most hearing requests come from parents rather than schools.

Although state authorities have limited discretion to determine who conducts the hearings, and responsibility generally for establishing fair hearing procedures, Congress has chosen to legislate the central components of due-process hearings. It has imposed minimal pleading standards, requiring parties to file complaints setting forth “a description of the nature of the problem,” and “a proposed resolution of the problem to the extent known and available … at the time.” At the hearing, all parties may be accompanied by counsel, and may present evidence and confront, cross-examine, and compel the attendance of witnesses. … Prevailing parents may also recover attorney’s fees. Congress has never explicitly stated, however, which party should bear the burden of proof at IDEA hearings. …

Petitioners in effect ask this court to assume that every IEP is invalid until the school district demonstrates that it is not. The act does not support this conclusion. IDEA relies heavily upon the expertise of school districts to meet its goals. It also includes a so-called “stay put” provision, which requires a child to remain in his or her “then-current educational placement” during the pendency of an IDEA hearing. Congress could have required that a child be given the educational placement that a parentrequested during a dispute, but it did no such thing. Congress appears to have presumed instead that, if the act’s procedural requirements are respected, parents will prevail when they have legitimate grievances. …

We hold no more than we must to resolve the case at hand: The burden of proof in an administrative hearing challenging an IEP is properly placed upon the party seeking relief. In this case, that party is Brian [Schaffer], as represented by his parents. But the rule applies with equal effect to school districts: If they seek to challenge an IEP, they will in turn bear the burden of persuasion before an [administrative-law judge]. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit is, therefore, affirmed.

From the dissent by Justice Ginsburg:

… The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was designed to overcome the pattern of disregard and neglect disabled children historically encountered in seeking access to public education. Under typical civil rights and social welfare legislation, the complaining party must allege and prove discrimination or qualification for statutory benefits. The IDEA is atypical in this respect: It casts an affirmative, beneficiary-specific obligation on providers of public education. School districts are charged with responsibility to offer to each disabled child an individualized education program (IEP) suitable to the child’s special needs. The proponent of the IEP, it seems to me, is properly called upon to demonstrate its adequacy.

Understandably, school districts striving to balance their budgets, if left to their own devices, will favor educational options that enable them to conserve resources. Saddled with a proof burden in administrative “due process” hearings, parents are likely to find a district-proposed IEP resistant to challenge. Placing the burden on the district to show that its plan measures up to the statutorily mandated “free appropriate public education” will strengthen school officials’ resolve to choose a course genuinely tailored to the child’s individual needs.

From the dissent by Justice Breyer:

… The statute’s silence suggests that Congress did not think about the matter of the burden of persuasion.

One can reasonably argue, as the court holds, that the risk of nonpersuasion should fall upon the individual desiring change. … On the other hand, one can reasonably argue to the contrary, that, given the technical nature of the subject matter, its human importance, the school district’s superior resources, and the district’s superior access to relevant information, the risk of nonpersuasion ought to fall upon the district. My own view is that Congress took neither approach. It did not decide the “burden of persuasion” question; instead it left the matter to the states for decision. …

Congress has made clear that the [Individuals with Disabilities Education] Act itself represents an exercise in “cooperative federalism.” Respecting the states’ right to decide this procedural matter here, where education is at issue, where expertise matters, and where costs are shared, is consistent with that cooperative approach.

SOURCE: U.S. Supreme Court

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