US Supreme Court Will Look at Maryland Special Education Case and Burden of Proof
Does the burden of proof under IDEA rest with whichever party is suing?
The U.S. Supreme Court has granted review in a Maryland special education case over whether schools or plaintiffs should bear the burden of proof when a party sues under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The case could have a major impact on millions of parents and their children with special needs. In 1997 the parents of Brian Schaffer, a seventh grader with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who was attending a private school that lacked special education programs, sought to enroll him in Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). MCPS offered an individualized education program (IEP) for Brian at one school and, after his parents expressed concern about large class size, at another school with smaller classes. The Schaffers rejected both offers, enrolled Brian in a private school, and requested a due process hearing, available under the act, to seek public reimbursement of the tuition. When the administrative hearing officer ruled that the Schaffers had to prove that the MCPS plan was lacking, they sued, winning a federal district court ruling that MCPS had the burden of proving its plan was adequate.
MCPS appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which ruled that the burden of proof under IDEA rests with whichever party is suing, in this case the Schaffers. They appealed, and the Supreme Court accepted the case. "This is a case where the school district has an affirmative obligation to develop a plan for the child," says William H. Hurd, the Schaffers' attorney. "It ought to be willing to step up to the plate and explain why it believes it has met its obligation." On the other hand, MCPS Superintendent Jerry D. Weast believes the case "demonstrates the overwhelming litigious nature that has evolved under special education in which school systems have been presumed at fault until proven otherwise." He says most districts just settle such cases to avoid litigation, but that MCPS is fighting back because "educational services should be decided in an appropriate way based on the educational needs of the student, not the whim of a lawyer."
The National School Boards Association (NSBA) backs the MCPS position. "The bottom line is that there are plenty of protections in the law, and you should follow the general rule that the challenging party has the burden of proof," says Naomi Gittins, an NSBA staff attorney. The Clinton administration supported the Schaffers as the case was wending its way through the system, and Mr. Hurd is hopeful that the Bush administration will maintain that position.
Weast v. Schaffer, No. 03-1030 (4th Cir. July 29, 2004)
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has ruled that a school district does not bear the burden of proof under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in a due process hearing initiated by a parent. The parents of Brian Schaffer, a special education student in Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), challenged his initial Individualized Education Program (IEP) in a due process hearing. After a series of decisions by the hearing officer, the federal district court, and the Fourth Circuit, MCPS appealed the district court's ruling that IDEA places the burden of proof on the school district. While acknowledging that three federal circuit courts assign the burden to parents and at least four circuits to school districts, the Fourth Circuit concluded that none of these decisions is persuasive because none contains sufficient analysis. The court rejected the parents' argument that IDEA, because it obliges a school district to provide a disabled student with a free appropriate public education, imposes on the district the burden of proving that an IEP meets this obligation. The court found that the group or class that benefits from the statute is not relieved of its burden of proving a violation "merely because the statute confers substantive rights on it." The court also rejected the parents' contention that the school district should bear the burden because of its advantages in expertise and resources. Any such advantages are more than made up for by IDEA's procedural safeguards, the court concluded. Finally, the court rejected the parents' argument that Congress's silence on the matter in enacting IDEA must have signaled its intent to assign the burden to school districts because, under IDEA's predecessor statute, two court decisions had done so. Had Congress intended this assignment, the court held, it would have done so expressly, just as it did in incorporating other key principles established in those same decisions, such as the requirement for states to "identify, locate, and evaluate" disabled children.
Weast v. Schaffer, No. 03-1030 (4th Cir. July 29, 2004)
High Court to Hear Md. Special-Ed Case
Schools Must Prove Adherence to Disabilities Law, Couple's Suit Asserts
By Tim Craig and Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to hear the case of a Montgomery County couple who contend that school officials, if challenged, must prove they are meeting their legal obligations to special education students.
The justices will try to decide whether lower courts should place the burden of proof on schools or the plaintiff -- presumably the parents -- when a party sues under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The law requires that public schools grant every disabled child a "free appropriate special education" tailored to the child's specific needs.
The case, which has taken a tortuous, seven-year path through the educational and legal systems, could have a major impact on millions of parents and their children with special needs. It involves Brian Schaffer, who in 1997 was a seventh-grader with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was attending a private school that offered no special education programs.
When Jocelyn Schaffer, Brian's mother, sought to enroll him at Herbert Hoover Middle School, the county offered a specially designed curriculum for Brian called an Individual Education Program. It called for 15.3 hours of special education and 45 minutes of speech therapy each week. After the parents expressed concern about that school's fairly large classes, according to court filings, the system offered the same individualized program at Robert Frost Middle School, where classes were smaller.
The parents rejected both offers as inadequate and instead enrolled Brian in the McLean School of Maryland, a private school in Potomac. They subsequently requested a due process hearing, available under the disabilities act, during which they sought reimbursement for school tuition.
An administrative law judge ruled that the Schaffers had to prove that the school system's plan for their son was lacking. The parents then filed suit in U.S. District Court, which ruled that the burden of proof rested with the schools. The case was returned to the administrative law judge, who ordered the school system to reimburse the parents for part of their son's private school tuition.
The Montgomery County school system appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which ruled that the burden rests with whatever party is filing the suit, effectively ruling against the Schaffers, who appealed to the Supreme Court.
The case is being closely watched by school systems and special education advocates. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act offers no clear standard for how such cases should be resolved. Various appellate courts have come down on different sides of the question.
"We regard this as an important civil rights case," said William H. Hurd, the Schaffers's attorney. "We believe the implications are very large."
Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County schools, said the case "demonstrates the overwhelming litigious nature that has evolved under special education in which school systems have been presumed at fault until proven otherwise."
Weast said most school districts settle similar cases to avoid litigation. Montgomery County, which has about 15,000 students enrolled in Individual Education Programs, is contesting the issue, he said, because "educational services should be decided in an appropriate way based on the educational needs of the student, not the whim of a lawyer."
Last year, 26 Montgomery cases were sent to an administrative law judge for mediation, according to the State Department of Education.
The National School Boards Association, which represents the nation's 15,000 school systems, backs Montgomery's' position that the burden should not rest with the schools if a parent brings a suit.
"The bottom line is that there are plenty of protections in the law, and you should follow the general rule that the challenging party has the burden of proof," said Naomi Gittins a staff attorney for the association.
Attorneys for the Schaffer family argue that it is the school system's responsibility to prove that it is adhering to federal law.
"This is a case where the school district has an affirmative obligation to develop a plan for the child," Hurd said. "It ought to be willing to step up to the plate and explain why it believes it has met its obligation."
As the case was wending its way to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Department of Justice under the Clinton administration filed a brief supporting the Schaffers. Hurd said he was hopeful that the Bush administration would maintain that position at the high court. Justice Department officials did not return phone calls yesterday seeking comment.
Editor's Note: The case is Schaffer v. Weast (Docket No. 04-698). Although the above article indicates that the issue is which party bears the burden of proof in a lawsuit, the actual issue is which party bears the burden of proof when a parent challenges an IEP in a due process hearing. Currently, there is a split among the U.S. Courts of Appeals as to this question: the First, Fifth, Sixth, and Tenth Circuits place the burden of proof on whichever party seeks the change in the IEP, while the Second, Third, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits always place the burden on the school district. A summary of the Fourth Circuit's opinion and NSBA's amicus brief to that court are linked below.
NSBA School Law pages on Weast
NSBA's amicus brief to Fourth Circuit