Monday, September 28, 2015

Court Limits Special Education Complaint Filing to Two Years from Date Parents Knew or Should Have Known of a Violation, But Leaves Measure of Compensatory Education Open by Mark Weber

Last week, the Third Circuit handed down a major special education law decision, G.L. v. Ligonier Valley School District Authority, No. 14-1387, 2015 WL 5559976 (3d Cir. Sept. 22, 2015). In brief, it holds that two oddly worded provisions in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act establish a two year limitations period from the date the parent knew or should have known of an IDEA violation for the filing of a due process complaint, but the provisions do not limit the period that may be considered in fashioning a compensatory remedy for claims that are timely filed.


The first provision, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6)(B), describes a due process complaint as one alleging an injury that occurred not more than two years before when the parents knew or should have known about the action that is the basis of the complaint; the second provision, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(C), requires parents to file a due process complaint no more than two years after the parents knew or should have known about the action that is the basis for the complaint. The school district argued that the combination of the two provisions limits compensatory education remedies to injuries occurring two years before the filing of the complaint, even if previous injuries occurred within two years of when the parents knew or should have known about them and the action was timely filed. The district court ruled that the provisions limit compensatory education to injuries that occurred from two years before they were or should have been discovered through the filing of the complaint, up to two years before their discovery (the “2+2” approach). The U.S. Department of Education and the amici, who were represented by the Rutgers University School of Law Special Education Clinic, offered the interpretation that the provisions simply establish limitations or pleading or requirements that do not affect what relief may be provided in cases filed within the limitations period.

The court found ambiguities in the plain language of the provisions, and turned to the statutory context, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the remedial scope of section 1415, and textual cross-references of the two provisions, arriving at the interpretation that:

 [O]nce a violation is reasonably discovered by the parent, any claim for that violation, however far back it dates, must be filed within two years of the “knew or should have known” date. If it is not, all but the most recent two years before the filing of the complaint will be time-barred; but if it is timely filed, then, upon a finding of liability, the entire period of the violation should be remedied. In other words, § 1415(f)(3)(C), like its synopsis in § 1415(b)(6)(B), reflects a traditional statute of limitations.

 The court confirmed this interpretation by citing the position of the Department of Education and the legislative history of the two provisions. The history revealed that the two provisions came from contrasting House and Senate versions of the 2004 IDEA Amendments that were combined during reconciliation, but that both were intended to be traditional statutes of limitations employing a discovery rule, rather than intended as limits on remedies. The court concluded:

 Absent one of two statutory exceptions [to the limitations provisions] parents have two years from the date they knew or should have known of the violation to request a due process hearing through the filing of an administrative complaint and that, assuming parents timely file that complaint and liability is proven, Congress did not abrogate our longstanding precedent that a disabled child is entitled to compensatory education for a period equal to the period of deprivation, but excluding the time reasonably required for the school district to rectify the problem. [internal quotation marks omitted]

The court’s thoughtful and realistic treatment of the topic carries a great deal of persuasive power, and may set to rest the argument that the administrative statute limitations in the law artificially limits the scope of IDEA remedies. There remain, of course, many questions about what the measure of compensatory education ought to be, an issue that could benefit greatly from the insights of education law scholars.

Download GL v Ligonier Valley School Dist 2015

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