Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Second Circuit Finds that District Court Erred in Not Giving Greater Deference to State Review Officer's Findings in IDEA Case
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed a federal district court’s ruling granting private school reimbursement for an emotionally disabled student under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The Second Circuit held that the district court should have shown greater deference to a State Review Officer's (SRO) determination that parents seeking reimbursement for the unilateral placement of their emotionally disabled child in a private school had not shown that their placement was appropriate. In doing so, the Second Circuit deferred to the SRO’s determination that the student did not improve academically at private school. The circuit court remanded the case for the district court to affirm the decision of the State Review Officer. The takeaway from the opinion is the Second Circuit will defer to the final decision of the state authorities over conflicting IHO and SRO opinions, particularly when no objective evidence contradicts the SRO’s decision.
The case is Hardison v. Bd. of Educ. of the Oneonta City Sch. Dist., No. 13-1594-CV, 2014 WL 6778755, (2d Cir. Dec. 3, 2014), and is also available here. More details of the case after the jump.
In the case, the plaintiffs’ (the Hardisons) daughter had difficulty during her education in New York’s Oneonta School District and failed almost all of her freshman year classes at Oneonta High School. She was found to have mental health and emotional difficulties, and her parents requested an IEP from a Committee on Special Education (CSE) that is responsible for creating IEPs under New York Law. The CSE committee determined that a mental health classification for the student would not be optimal, so the District instead added extra supports at the high school and altered the student’s schedule to split time between the high school and a children’s center. The Hardisons felt that these changes were insufficient and unilaterally enrolled their daughter at Family Foundation, a private boarding school, without giving the District express notice of their decision to do so. In two hearings before an Impartial Hearing Officer (IHO), the District maintained that Family Foundation was not an appropriate placement because, inter alia, some of its teachers were not certified. The IHO found for the parents. The IHO determined that the student was again denied a FAPE because the IEP developed for her neither placed her in a school nor provided referrals to any of the private residential programs on the Commissioner’s approved placement list. The IHO found that the Family Foundation placement was appropriate and excused the parents’ failure to provide express notice to the District. The District was ordered to pay the student’s Family Foundation tuition and to find a suitable placement for her for the balance of the school year. The District appealed the IHO’s decision to the State Review Officer. The SRO reversed the IHO’s decision, concluding that the District did not deny the student a free and appropriate education for the part of the school year because she did not meet disability criteria, and that Family Foundation's programs were not appropriate for her specific educational needs. The SRO denied the Hardisons’ tuition reimbursement. The parents challenged the SRO’s decision in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. Finding that the equities favored private school tuition reimbursement for the parents, the district court found that the SRO placed too great an emphasis on the student’s failing grades at the private school and not enough emphasis on her improvement through counseling.
The Second Circuit found that the district court erred in not according the SRO’s determination greater deference. The Second Circuit held that greater deference to SROs is warranted because “state educational authorities possess greater expertise in drawing conclusions from educational proceedings” because of their greater “institutional competence and role.” (internal citations omitted). When federal courts review the same administrative record that the SRO had, the fact that courts “may otherwise be willing to draw conclusions from pieces of evidence that the SRO did not believe were appropriate is not enough to demonstrate insufficient reasoning on the part of the SRO.” The Second Circuit thus reversed the district court's partial summary judgment ruling and ordered the district court to the affirm the State Review Officer's decision.