Wrightslaw Update: U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case back to U.S. District Court, school prevailed, parents appealed again to Ninth Circuit, school prevailed.
What next? We don't know. If there is more news about this case - if, for example, the 9th Circuit agrees to hear the case en banc - we will post updates on this page. (06/02/11 update by Pam Wright)
The question presented in Forest Grove v. T.A. was whether parents who unilaterally enroll their disabled child in a private school are entitled to tuition reimbursement if the child never received special education from the district.
There was a split among circuits on this question: “whether 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10)(C) creates a categorical bar to reimbursement of private school tuition for students who have not ‘previously received special education and related services.’” [Note: This statute is located on page 76 of Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Ed.]
School District's Position "Borders on the Irrational"
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that:
This dispute "... differs from Burlington and Carter in that it concerns not the adequacy of a proposed IEP but the School District's failure to provide an IEP at all . . . moreover, when a child requires special education services, a school district's failure to propose an IEP of any kind is at least as serious a violation of it's responsibilities under IDEA as a failure to provide an adequate IEP."
"The District's position similarly conflicts with IDEA's 'Child find' requirement . . . [requiring States] .. to identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities' to ensure that they receive needed special education services."
"Indeed, by immunizing a school district's refusal to find a child eligible for special education services no matter how compelling the child's need, the School District's interpretation [of the statute] would produce a rule bordering on the irrational."
This would "leave parents without relief in the more egregious situation in which the school district unreasonably denies a child access to such services altogether."
". . . we conclude that IDEA authorizes [tuition] reimbursement for the cost of private special education services when a school district fails to provide a FAPE and the private-school placement is appropriate, regardless of whether the child previously received special education or related services through the public school."
Despite a long history of ADHD, severe depression, substance abuse problems, and failing grades, Forest Grove School District determined that T. A. was not eligible for special education services under IDEA, nor for protections under Section 504.
The school district appealed to federal court where the Judge set aside the reimbursement award, based on the belief that IDEA 97 barred reimbursement for students who did not previously receive special education from the public school district.
The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Ninth Circuit held that:
"... a student who never received special education and related services from a school district nevertheless may recover reimbursement for the costs of private school education. We conclude that such a student is not barred as a matter of law from receiving reimbursement. In the IDEA, Congress conferred broad discretion on the courts to provide appropriate equitable relief, including reimbursement for attendance at a private school."
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to resolve a split among Circuits on this issue.
In April, the Obama Administration filed an Amicus Brief on behalf of T.A. and his parents. The Administration argued that private school tuition reimbursement may be awarded to the parents of a child who has not previously received special education when the child was denied a free appropriate public education.
In support of this position, the Administration asserted that:
A. The plain text of IDEA provides for reimbursement of private-school tuition when a school district fails to provide a free appropriate public education.
B. Petitioner’s interpretation produces perverse consequences.
C. The legislative history does not support petitioner’s interpretation.
D. The formal position of the agency charged with implementing IDEA is entitled to deference.
E. The Spending Clause does not require a different result.
Oral argument before the Supreme Court was held on April 28, 2009.
Listen to the Oral Argument (MP3 download)
The case was remanded back to the U. S. District Court. On December 8, 2009 Judge Mosman held that "that the equities do not support reimbursement in this case and therefore [I] reverse the decision of the hearing officer." Parents appealed to the Ninth Circuit which, on April 27, 2011, upheld the District Court's ruling by a 2 to 1 vote. Judge Graber wrote a strong dissent.
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