CHICAGO (CN) - A federal appeals court voided a settlement in a long-running class action against the Milwaukee Public Schools citing the "indefiniteness" of the definition of the alleged affected class.
In 2001, Disability Rights Wisconsin and seven disabled students sued the Milwaukee Public School District and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction over allegedly widespread Individuals with Disabilities Education Act violations.
Jamie S. claims she was denied entry into the school's special needs program at age 8. She is now 19-years-old.
The IDEA requires participating States to provide all disabled students with a free and appropriate public education. Its Child Find mandate requires disabled children to be located and evaluated regardless of the severity of their needs.
The district court rejected the students' original request for class certification, but certified a modest version: "students eligible to receive a special education from MPS 'who are, have been or will be' denied or delayed entry into the IEP process."
A bench trial led to the lower court's ruling held MPS and DPI accountable for systematic IDEA violations. In 2008, the DPI settled with the advocacy group and agreed to hold Milwaukee Public responsible for implementing a corrective plan.
In 2009, the district court ordered the school to set up a court-monitored system to locate and assess disabled children delayed or denied entry into its special services program.
According to Milwaukee Public, the system would cost the district $74 million. It moved to challenge the court's order, its class certification and a 2008 settlement between the DPI and Disability Rights Wisconsin.
The students asked the appeals court to review the district court's rejection of its original class certification.
In its 51-page ruling, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals scrapped the 2008 DPI settlement and reversed the class certification on three grounds.
The district court's approval of the DPI settlement must be vacated because there "can be no class settlement if the class should not have been certified in the first place," Judge Diane S. Sykes wrote for the three-judge panel.
A large part of the class remains unidentified, the court noted. "In other words, the certified class combined all disabled students eligible for special education from MPS who were not identified as potentially eligible for services, not timely referred for evaluation after identification, not timely evaluated after referral, not evaluated in a properly constituted IEP meeting, or whose parents did not (for whatever reason) attend an otherwise proper IEP meeting," Sykes noted.
Adding: "One immediately obvious defect in the class is its indefiniteness. A significant segment of the class (of unknown and unknowable size) comprises disabled students who may have been eligible for special education but were not identified and remain unidentified."
Since the IDEA claims are vast and highly individualized, there is no common issue or single resolution that would make class certification suitable. Each child's scenario must be dealt with separately, the panel says.
"To bring individual IDEA claims together to litigate a class, the plaintiffs must show that they share some question of law or fact that can be answered all at once and that the single answer to that question will resolve a central issue in all class members' claims," the judge wrote.
A common injunction does not exist that would apply to each class members' individual needs, the ruling states.
"While the compensatory-education remedies will often or always be injunctive in nature, there can be no single injunction that provides final relief to the class as a whole," Sykes wrote.
The disabled students and the advocacy group plan to take its case to the Supreme Court or have it reviewed by a 13-judge 7th Circuit panel.
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