Federal Court Appeals of Decisions of Special Education Hearing Officers
Michael Gehring, McAndrews Law Offices
Synopsis: The primary federal law governing special education matters, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) provides a mechanism for appealing decisions, or parts of decisions, of Special Education Hearing Officers in administrative Due Process proceedings. The primary method of appeal is to file a lawsuit in a federal district court. After the case is assigned to a judge, the party seeking review of aspects of a Hearing Officer decision, or the opposing party, can seek to have additional evidence admitted. Otherwise, the assigned federal judge will decide the case on the record developed at the Due Process Hearing, including the pleadings, the hearing exhibits, and the transcript from the proceeding. The judge’s decision may affirm, entirely reverse, or reverse parts of the Hearing Officer’s decision. In addition, filing a federal lawsuit provides a mechanism for a family, if it is the prevailing party, to obtain statutory attorneys’ fees under IDEA, which Hearing Officers are not empowered to award.
When families of students with disabilities and school districts have a dispute regarding the appropriateness of the student’s education, the initial mechanism for deciding such disputes is pursuant to a state administrative Due Process Hearing brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and other applicable laws, such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. In such proceedings, presiding Special Education Hearing Officers will, if the case is not dismissed outright or settled, conduct an administrative Due Process Hearing. Such hearings resemble trials, where witnesses testify and documents are admitted into evidence. Based on the record developed during the hearing, the Hearing Officer will issues a written decision containing findings of fact, conclusions of law, and, if the family prevails, an award, often in the form of “compensatory education” or, in applicable cases, an order that the school district provide an appropriate education to the student or tuition reimbursement for the cost of a private school.
However, the decision of the Hearing Officer can be subject of further review by a court. Either party, if not satisfied with all or parts of the decision, may appeal those aspects of the decision with which it does not agree. IDEA provides that such appeals may be taken by filing a complaint in state or federal court within 90 days after the date of the Hearing Officer’s decision; however, almost all appeals are taken by the party filing a lawsuit in the geographically appropriate federal district court. (In Pennsylvania, where there are three federal judicial districts – Eastern, Middle, and Western – the appropriate judicial district is typically the one with jurisdiction over the county where the school district is located; in contrast, Delaware has only one federal judicial district). If one party files such a lawsuit, the opposing party is allowed to file a counterclaim seeking reversal of any aspects of the decision with which it disagrees. If both parties file individual lawsuits, they are typically consolidated before a single judge. The court sets a schedule for deciding the case or, in some instances, will refer the case to a magistrate judge or other party to attempt to mediate a settlement.
Once a lawsuit is filed, the administrative record, consisting of the pleadings, hearing exhibits, and the written transcript of the hearing, will be forwarded to the court. Under IDEA, either party may ask the court for permission to supplement the record to include evidence not introduced at the hearing, such as expert reports not available at the time of the hearing. Unlike many civil cases, there is almost never a trial or evidentiary hearing in IDEA appeals, because a “trial” has already taken place through the Due Process hearing. Instead, the court will decide the case on the administrative record from the hearing or, if the court has granted one or both parties the right to supplement the record, on the supplemented record. The court will usually order briefing on the issues raised by the case, that is, written arguments that attempt to convince the court why that party should prevail. Following briefing, the court may order oral argument to allow the attorneys for both parties to explain to the court why their side should prevail. In deciding the case, although the court will generally defer to factual findings made by the Hearing Officer, it is not bound to do so. The court will decide legal issues on its own, without deferring to the Hearing Officer. The court’s ruling (which may take months to over a year to be issued) will generally be documented in a written opinion, which sets forth the facts of the case, the procedural history, the court’s reasoning, and its conclusions. In its decision, the court will either affirm the decision of the Hearing Officer, reverse it, or affirm parts and reverse parts. If the student prevails, the court will also generally enter an “award” of compensatory education, tuition reimbursement, or other relief.
If the student and family are the prevailing party, in other words, has succeeded in obtaining some award of compensatory education or other relief, then they may file a motion seeking reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs from the school district. Attorneys’ fees are available to the prevailing party both under IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The amount of the attorneys’ fees awarded may depend on the “degree of success” of the student and his family, both at the due process level and in federal court.
If the parties do not agree to a final disposition after the federal judge has issued her decision, either party may appeal to the next level court, the United States Court of Appeals for the relevant area. This is an appeal “as of right,” that is, no party need seek permission to appeal. To file a appeal, the appealing party must file a notice of appeal within 30 days of the district court decision. Thereafter, the case will be decide on briefs and oral argument, without any new evidence being admitted. The court will only reverse the decision of the district court if the district court judge has misinterpreted the law, or made a clear error regarding the facts of the case.
Following the Third Circuit’s decision, either side may seek permission to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. This is rarely done, because the process is quite involved and expensive, and because the Court hears an extremely small number of cases per year. The Supreme Court, however, has over the years taken on appeal and decided cases involving important questions of public policy in the area of special education, and such decisions have a wide-ranging effect on parents, students, educators, and attorneys practicing in the field.