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October 21, 2015

Recent Third Circuit Ruling May Increase School Liability

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently ruled that the statute of limitations for claims brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is two years from the reasonable discovery date of the violation. However, the court also ruled that a timely claim can extend as far back as the student's rights were violated. While this provides much needed clarity on the statute of limitations, it creates a much wider window for collection on compensatory education claims and exposes local educational agencies, including public school districts and charter schools, to increased liability.


The IDEA is a federal law that outlines rights and regulations for the education of students with disabilities. Under the IDEA, all children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate education (known as FAPE) in the least restrictive environment possible. The IDEA strives not only to grant equal access to students with disabilities, but also to provide procedural safeguards to students and parents. If a dispute arises between a parent and public school regarding special education services, either party may request a due process hearing. The Pennsylvania Department of Education, as mandated by federal law, provides for and oversees the due process hearing system, which includes the appointment of an impartial hearing officer to conduct the hearing. If a hearing officer finds that a student has been denied FAPE, that student may be awarded compensatory education. This remedy is meant to compensate the student for the educational services that he or she should have received. The hearing officer will generally award a particular number of hours, which the local educational agency can convert to a dollar amount to be used for educational services. The decision of a hearing officer is final and appealable to a court of competent jurisdiction.


G.L. v. Ligonier Valley School District, No. 14-1387 (3d Cir. Sep. 22, 2015), stemmed from a due process complaint that was filed by the parents of G.L., a student with special needs. G.L. alleged that he was denied a FAPE by the school district when it failed to evaluate him as he struggled with academics as well as bullying by classmates. On March 8, 2010, G.L. withdrew and enrolled in a cyber charter school. His parents then filed for a special education due process hearing on Jan. 9, 2012, alleging that his rights had been violated since 2008. This case was appealed first to the district court, and the Third Circuit granted interlocutory appeal to consider both the correct statute of limitations under the IDEA and whether it limits compensatory education claims to any specific period of time.

The Third Circuit's decision turns on the relationship between two sections of the IDEA, namely 20 U.S.C. Sections 1415(b)(6)(B) and 1415(f)(3)(C). When Congress reauthorized the IDEA in 2004, it enacted Section 1415(f)(3)(C), a statute of limitations that requires parents to file a due process complaint no more than two years after the reasonable discovery date of the violation. Simultaneously, the legislation amended Section 1415(b)(6)(B), which describes a due process complaint as alleging an injury that occurred not more than two years before the reasonable discovery date.


In response, courts engaged in a variety of interpretations of these two provisions. Some held that Section 1415(b)(6)(B) limits compensatory education to injuries that occur two years before the filing of the complaint, even if earlier injuries are claimed within two years of their reasonable discovery date. Others held that awards are limited to injuries that occurred from two years before their reasonable discovery through the filing of the complaint. Still others held that this section only imposes a pleading requirement, without affecting the availability of a remedy for timely and well-pleaded claims.


The Third Circuit resolved this question by finding that both sections provide for a two-year statute of limitations. However, neither section imposes a pleading requirement or "alters the courts' broad power under the IDEA to provide a complete remedy for the violation of a child's right to a free appropriate public education." In other words, a timely filed claim can date back as far back as the "injury" is alleged. Injury in the IDEA context is the violation of the student's right to a FAPE.


While the G.L. decision provides much needed clarity on both the statute of limitations under the IDEA and the scope of available claims, it vastly expands potential liability for local educational agencies, including public school districts and charter schools. For example, pursuant to this decision, the parents of a fourth-grader could bring a timely claim for the denial of FAPE dating back to when that student was in kindergarten. This can present significant problems for the defense, particularly in light of factors such as employee turnover, including teachers, special-education staff, and related service providers.


Patricia A. Hennessy is a shareholder of Conrad O'Brien and serves as the co-chair of the firm's education law practice group. Her clients are charter schools, traditional public schools, private schools and institutions of higher education. She serves as a member of the National Litigation Council for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.


Lauren R. Ascher is an associate at the firm and represents companies and individuals in a variety of commercial litigation matters. In addition, she represents charter schools, traditional public and private schools, archdiocesan schools, and higher-education institutions in an array of education focused matters.


Reprinted with permission from the October 21, 2015 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2015 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.


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