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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, December 7, 2023 | Back issues
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Schools Can’t Fight State Over Disabled Students

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - School districts cannot sue their state's education department over procedural requirements imposed by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the 9th Circuit held Monday.

The Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District and the Yolo County Office of Education filed separate federal actions against the California Department of Education over the department's handling of disputes brought by parents of disabled children.

Both cases stem from complaints filed by parents alleging the school districts violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, by failing to provide appropriate services for their children. The parents pursued their actions through complaint resolution proceedings, one of two mechanisms states are required to maintain in order to receive federal funding under IDEA.

After on-site investigations, the department in both cases issued written decisions in the parents' favor.

Besides being dissatisfied with the department's decisions, the school districts challenged procedures used by the department which they say violate IDEA's regulations.

In one case, the department issued a decision in the parents' favor, reconsidered the matter and found in the school district's favor and then revisited the issue a third time before issuing a final decision for the parents. The school district said the second reconsideration violated California's laws implementing IDEA, and also considered conduct outside the 1-year statute of limitations imposed by state law.

The second school district said the department imposed the burden of proof on the school district rather than the parents, allegedly a tenet of IDEA.

Both districts argued that their situations involved standard operating procedures by the department that would be repeated in the future unless barred by a federal judge.

Federal judges tossed both cases, each finding that Congress did not grant school districts the right to sue state agencies for violating the procedural requirements of IDEA. And in a ruling issued Monday, a panel for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and affirmed those dismissals.

Noting that the school districts admit that no provision of IDEA gives them the express right to pursue their claims, Circuit Judge Paul Watford wrote that the appeals court has previously ruled that districts also have no implied right to sue state agencies over the implementation of IDEA.

In Lake Washington School District No. 414 v. Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, "we observed that the IDEA's procedural protections are 'intended to safeguard the rights of disabled children and their parents,' and that Congress has 'excluded local educational agencies from enforcing state compliance with the IDEA's statutory provisions,'" Watford wrote, citing the 2011 opinion. "We therefore joined several other circuits in holding that local educational agencies have 'no express or implied private right of civil action under the IDEA to litigate any question aside from the issues raised in the complaint filed by the parents on behalf of their child.'"

The school districts in this case "stand on even weaker footing" than the school district in Lake Washington, the 3-judge panel found.

"If school districts lack an implied right of action to challenge a state's non-compliance with the IDEA's procedural protections in the context of due process hearings, they also lack such an implied right of action in the context of complaint resolution proceedings," Watford concluded.

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