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Supreme Court Issues Pro-Child Decision in Forest Grove School District v. T.A.
by Peter Wright, Esq. and Pamela Wright, MA, MSW

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.

In their June 2009 decision, the Supreme Court remanded T.A.'s case back to the District Court with orders to reconsider the case in light of the factors set out in their decision. On remand, the District Court held that T.A.'s parents were not entitled to reimbursement because they placed their son in the private school "solely because of his drug abuse and behavioral problems." To support its ruling, the District Court relied upon the parent's answer to one question on an 18 page admissions document and ignored all evidence that T.A. suffered from ADHD and depression, and that his parents enrolled their son in the private program because of disability-related problems and non-disability related problems. The U. S. District Court, using a legal basis other than 20 USC § 1412(a)(10)(C), held that the "equities do not support reimbursement" to the parents while referencing the $5,200 monthly cost of the private school.

The parents appealed to the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. On April 27, 2011, in a split decision, the 9th Circuit upheld the District Court's ruling. In a strong dissent, Judge Susan Graber faulted the majority on several grounds. Quoting directly from the 9th Circuit's original decision, she noted that it was undisputed that T.A.'s parents placed him in the private program for reasons related to and unrelated to his disabilities. The District Court's decision was not supported by the record.

"T.A.’s parents are to be commended, not punished, for seeking to treat all of T.A.’s special needs. They also should be commended, not punished, for responding honestly and accurately to the questions on the application form ..."

"Everyone agrees that the School District denied T.A. a free appropriate public education; everyone agrees that T.A.’s placement at Mount Bachelor Academy was proper; and everyone agrees, as the district court found, that many equitable factors support reimbursement ... Because the district court’s analysis of that factor is clearly incorrect, no equitable factors support the complete denial of reimbursement. T.A.’s parents are entitled to reimbursement. The majority’s sanctioning of the contrary result under the guise of deferential review is deeply disappointing."

The full text of the second decision by the 9th Circuit in Forest Grove v. T.A. is here:

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)

On June 22, 2009, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Forest Grove School District v. T.A., a case about tuition reimbursement for a child who was never found eligible and never received special education services from the public school.

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."

". . . this case vividly demonstrates the problem of delay, as respondent's parents first sought a due process hearing in April 2003, and the District Court issued its decision in May 2005 -- almost a year after respondent graduated from high school."

". . . 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."

The full text of this decision, including a 3 page Syllabus, 17 page Opinion, 2 page Appendix to the Opinion, and 12 page Dissent by Justice Souter (joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas) is posted on Wrightslaw at:

Background of the Case

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.

After a due process hearing, the hearing officer found that T. A.'s ADHD and learning disabilities adversely affected his educational performance, and that the school district failed to provide him with a free appropriate public education. He ordered the district to reimburse the parents for the cost of the private school tuition.

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 Ninth Circuit decision is here:

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.

You can read the Administration’s Amicus Brief here:

Oral argument before the Supreme Court was held on April 28, 2009.

The decision was issued less than two months later.

Click here to read the transcript of the Oral Argument.

Listen to the Oral Argument (MP3 download)

Listen to Justice John Paul Stevens read the decision.

Final Outcome?

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.

This case and implications of the decision are discussed in Wrightslaw training programs. The conference schedule is at

Law School Exam

The issue in this case was a question on the Final Exam for our law students at the William and Mary School of Law. To see or take the Final Exam, click here.

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Created: 06/22/09

Revised: 07/26/16

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