IDEA’s Statute of Limitations and What It Means to Families
In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was amended and, for the first time, a statute of limitations was added to the statute. A statute of limitations is a defined period of time within which a person must bring a lawsuit or, under IDEA, an educational due process complaint. The purpose of most statutes of limitation is to prevent persons from bringing “stale” claims, i.e., claims that are sufficiently old that they may be difficult to both prove and defend against due to the passage of time, failing memories, and loss of evidence.
The 2004 IDEA amendments state:
A parent or agency shall request an impartial due process hearing within 2 years of the date the parent or agency knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint, or, if the State has an explicit time limitation for requesting such a hearing under this subchapter, in such time as the State law allows.
Under this language, parents must file their due process complaint within two years of the date they “knew or should have known” of the school district’s violation, unless the state has its own statute of limitations, in which case the state’s statute controls, or unless an exception applies.
For some time, courts in the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware) have wrestled with the question whether IDEA’s statute of limitations, besides setting a deadline for when a due process complaint must be filed, also limits the remedies available to families. This confusion is due to another section of IDEA’s 2004 revisions, which states that parents can file a due process complaint “which sets forth an alleged violation that occurred not more than 2 years before the date the parent or public agency knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint ….” Many courts interpreted this section to mean that families can only obtain relief for IDEA violations dating from two calendar years prior to filing the complaint. For instance, if a due process complaint was filed on January 10, 2015, then the family could seek remedies only for school district violations of IDEA dating from January 10, 2013. Thus, even if the school district’s violations went back beyond two years, the family could only seek a remedy for violations going back two years. This obviously greatly limited the relief available to students and their families, especially in cases where a problem persisted for more than two years.
However, a very recent case decided by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, G.L v. Ligonier Valley School District Authority, ended the confusion, and ruled conclusively that, if parents file a due process complaint before two years from the date that the parents “knew or should have known” of the school district’s violation, then the family can seek full relief for those violations, and the injuries caused by those violations, even if the violations go back more than two years. Although this is a helpful development for families, the GL case also reinforces the need to promptly file a due process complaint once parents of a disabled child know, or even suspect, that there is a problem with their child’s education. It seems clear after GL that, in many future cases, due process hearing officers, at the outset of a hearing, will conduct a separate “mini-hearing” to establish the “knew or should have known”, or “KOSHK” date. In other words, parents will be expected to put on evidence to show that they timely filed their complaint within two years after they knew or should have known of the school district violation that forms the basis of their complaint. If, for instance, parents file a due process complaint regarding the inappropriateness of a particular IEP or series of IEPs, they will be expected to show that they filed their complaint within 2 years after they knew or should have known that the IEP or IEPs were inappropriate. While parents may argue that the inappropriateness did not become apparent until years had passed with their child making little or no educational progress, school districts will likely argue that the 2-year period starts whenever the IEP is first developed and presented to the family. Thus, if an inappropriate IEP is offered on May 1, 2013, a school district will likely argue that the family only has until April 30, 2015 to file a due process complaint regarding that IEP, even if it becomes clear only after a period of months or even years that the child is not making progress.
Because each case will be decided on its particular facts, and because the law is still undeveloped, it is difficult to predict how such arguments regarding the statute of limitations will be decided. From a practical perspective, however, families will need to be vigilant in monitoring their child’s educational progress and, if they suspect there is a problem, to promptly investigate the problem and file for due process if they believe that the school district has violated IDEA. Because parents are in most cases not educational experts, and do not necessarily know when it would be appropriate to file or consider filing a due process complaint against a school district, they should consider consulting an attorney at an early point after an educational problem emerges in order to ensure that a complaint is timely filed.