Special Education Case Law Update – Week of November 18, 2012

Posted on December 5, 2012

A.C. v. Jefferson County Board of Education, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 241130 (11th Cir., Nov. 21, 2012)
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals addressed an appeal by the Jefferson County Board of Education, Alabama, (Board) that federal regulations requiring an individual educational evaluation at public expense, promulgated by the Department of Education (DOE), a federal agency, exceeded the DOE’s authority under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400., et seq.   The Circuit Court rejected the arguments presented by the Board and ruled in favor of A.C. and his parents.

In 2002, the Board determined that A.C. was eligible for special education services.  In 2005, the Board re-evaluated A.C. and A.C.’s parents disagreed with the results of the assessment.  A.C.’s parents then obtained an independent educational evaluation (IEE) at a private facility and requested that the Board reimburse them for their expenses in obtaining this IEE.  The Board refused.   The parents then requested a due process hearing to challenge the Board’s refusal and the Hearing Officer determined that the Board was obligated to pay for the private IEE.  After the Board continued to refuse reimbursement, the parents filed this case in federal district court. The district court affirmed the Hearing Officer’s finding that the parents were entitled to reimbursement. 

The Board then appealed to the Eleventh Circuit arguing that the DOE had exceeded its authority in promulgating 34 C.F.R. § 300.502, the regulation requiring public financing of a parent’s IEE if the parent disagrees with the results of an evaluation obtained by a public agency.   The Board’s argument was that the public finance of a private IEE was not expressly provided for in the IDEA, and that regulation 34 C.F.R. § 300.502 implementing the IDEA by requiring public finance therefore exceeded the DOE’s authority.

The Court found the regulation valid because public financing of a parent’s private IEE was consistent with the intent of Congress in enacting the IDEA.  Noting that section 20 U.S.C. § 1406(b)(2) of the IDEA expressly required the DOE to preserve any IDEA regulation existing on July 20, 1983, the Court found that regulations in effect on that date expressly provided parents “the right to an independent evaluation at public expense if the parent disagrees with an evaluation obtained by the public agency.”   By enacting 20 U.S.C. § 1406(b), Congress affirmed its support for this program and the existing regulations, including a parent’s right to an IEE at public expense.

Likewise, under the re-enactment doctrine, Congress is presumed to be aware of an administrative or judicial interpretation of a statute at the re-enactment of that statute without change.   The Circuit Court thus found that by re-enacting the IDEA on multiple occasions in 1990, 1997, and 2004, Congress evidenced an intent that parents have a right under the IDEA to obtain an IEE at public expense as this was reflected in the regulations in force at the dates of the re-enactments. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that a parent’s right to a publically financed IEE is an essential procedural safeguard against a school district’s advantage in information and expertise.  The Eleventh Circuit thus held, for all the reasons above, that the DOE did not exceed its authority in promulgating 34 C.F.R. § 300.502 providing parents the right of a publically financed IEE and that the Board was required to reimburse A.C.’s parents for the privately obtained IEE.

M.C. v. Byram Hills School District, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 165878 (S.D.NY. Nov. 16, 2012)
In this New York case, M.C.’s  parents brought suit against the Byram Hills School District for the reimbursement of tuition for M.C.’s  fifth and sixth grade years at a private special education school.  As discussed below, the federal court rejected the parents’ claims for tuition reimbursement.

M.C. was a student classified as learning disabled pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400., et seq.  He attended kindergarten in the Byram Hills School District (District), but was placed by his parents at a private school for first through third grades.  Beginning with his fourth grade year, M.C.’s parents placed him at Eagle Hill, a private school for children with learning disabilities.  In April 2008, M.C.’s parents requested a Committee on Special Education (CSE) meeting to develop an individualized education program (IEP) for M.C.’s fifth grade year.  That meeting occurred in June 2008, and the CSE recommended an IEP that detailed classes, student-teacher and student-aide ratios, and therapy sessions held in District classrooms.  After requesting and receiving from the District a sample schedule of M.C.’s proposed programs, M.C.’s parents rejected the schedule, asserting that the level of services recommended by the 2008 IEP could not be provided in a school week.  Parent’s indicated they would return M.C. to Eagle Hill for his fifth grade year and seek tuition reimbursement.

In June 2009, the District convened a CSE for M.C.’s annual review and to develop his IEP for the upcoming 2009-2010 school year.  The resulting IEP, developed collaboratively with Eagle Hill, increased the ratio of students to teachers/aides in M.C.’s proposed classes, along with other modifications, and retained the 2008 recommendation that M.C. to attend public school in the District.  While it is unclear whether M.C.’s parents communicated any rejection of this 2009 IEP to the District, M.C. was nevertheless returned to Eagle Hill for his sixth grade year.

Thereafter, in May 2010, the parents filed a Due Process Complaint alleging that the District had denied M.C. a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years because the District’s programs would not confer any meaningful educational benefit for M.C.  The parents sought tuition reimbursement for those two years at Eagle Hill.  At a hearing before an Impartial Hearing Officer (IHO), the IHO determined that the District offered M.C. a FAPE for the 2008-09 school  year, and the parents were not entitled to tuition reimbursement for that year.   With regard to the 2009-10 school year, the IHO determined that the District provided no justification for the increase in the student-teacher ratio for M.C.’s classes and related reductions in service, and held that the parents were entitled to tuition reimbursement for that year.  The parents and the District administratively appealed the IHO’s decision to a State Review Officer (SRO).   The SRO upheld the IHO’s determination that the parents were not entitled to tuition reimbursement for the 2008-09 school year.  Additionally, agreeing with the District, the SRO reversed the IHO on reimbursement for the 2009-10 school year, finding that the District did offer M.C. a FAPE for that year and reimbursement was not available to the parents.  The parents appealed the findings of the SRO to federal district court.

The decision of the federal court, which upheld the findings of the SRO, is a lesson in the deference federal courts afford to state administrative decisions regarding special education; federal courts are reluctant to substitute their own judgments for those of a school district in matters of educational policy.  Regarding the decision on the 2008-09 school year, the federal court found the SRO’s decision well-supported and warranted given the SRO’s and the District’s expertise in such matters.  Specifically, the Court deferred to the SRO’s findings that the IEP’s annual goals appropriately targeted M.C.’s anxiety, impulsivity, and social interactions.  Additionally, the SRO’s conclusion regarding the adequacy of M.C.’s behavioral intervention plan was factually supported with modifications that were included in the IEP, among them, teacher verbal cues, manipulative chips, and behavioral contracts.  The federal court was likewise deferential to the SRO’s determination that the suggested class size and teacher/aide ratio for M.C. in the IEP was appropriate and noted in particular M.C.’s ability to transition between classes and participate in team sports at Eagle Hill.

Regarding the SRO’s decision on reimbursement for the 2009-10 school year, the federal court noted that where the SRO articulated specific reasons to adopt a different educational policy from that accepted by the IHO deference to the SRO was particularly appropriate.  The federal court found the SRO’s decision was factually supported by programs recommended in the IEP.  Further, the Court noted that the IDEA does not require that the District provide the ideal learning environment, but only one where M.C. could progress.  Having thus determined that the District offered M.C. a FAPE for both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, the Court did not address the appropriateness of the parents’ unilateral placement of M.C. at Eagle Hill, and tuition reimbursement for that placement was denied.

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