A Capehart Scatchard Blog

IDEA Does Not Limit Compensatory Education Claims to Two Years

On September 22, 2015, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision that will have widespread implications for New Jersey school districts in defending against claims brought by parents of special education students pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).  The IDEA authorizes the courts to award compensatory education as remedy to a special education student who is successful in his or her claim that a public school district deprived the student of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”).  For numerous years, school districts relied upon the two-year statute of limitations set forth in §1415(f)(3)(C) of the IDEA and adopted by the New Jersey Administrative Code in N.J.A.C. 6A:14-2.7(a)(1) to bar requests for compensatory education beyond two years of the date on which the due process petition was filed.  However, the Third Circuit in G.L. v. Ligonier Valley School District, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 16776 (3d Cir. 2015) held that a special education student’s right to compensatory education under the IDEA is not barred by the general two-year statute of limitations.

The heart of the dispute was the interpretation of two provisions of the IDEA:  the statute of limitations pursuant to §1415(f)(3)(C) requiring a parent to file a due process complaint against a school district within two years of the date the parent knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint and § 1415(b)(6)(B) which permits a parent to bring a claim regarding an alleged violation that occurred “not more than two years before the date the parent…knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint.”  According to the Third Circuit, while the IDEA imposes a two-year filing deadline, it does not create a two-year remedy cap with respect to claims for compensatory education.

G.L.’s parents filed a due process complaint in January 2012 alleging that the school district denied him a FAPE and requested compensatory education from September 2008, when G.L. was first enrolled in the school district, through March 2010, when the parents withdrew G.L. from the district.  The parties did not dispute that March 2010 was the date on which the parents “knew or should have known” about the alleged violation – also referred to as the reasonable discovery date.  The Pennsylvania Hearing Officer, who heard the case at the trial level, determined that the provisions of the IDEA barred relief for any violations occurring more than two years before the filing date.  Therefore, even if the parents were successful in their due process petition, their remedy would have been limited to the time period between January 2010 and March 2010.  The District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania disagreed with the Hearing Officer and held that the relief for compensatory education “may extend from two years before the reasonable discovery date through the date the complaint was filed, which could be up to two years after the reasonable discovery date, for a maximum period of relief of four years.”  Id. at 11.  The District Court had adopted a “2+2” remedy cap.

When the case came before the Third Circuit, the Court analyzed the perceived discrepancy between the two-year statute of limitations set forth in §1415(f)(3)(C) and § 1415(b)(6)(B), which permits a parent to bring a claim regarding an alleged violation that occurred “not more than two years before the date the parent…knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint.”  The Court established that the “knew or should have known date” is essentially the reasonable discovery date.  While the Court recognized that §1415(f)(3)(C) and § 1415(b)(6)(B) are facially similar, it drew a critical difference between the two provisions in that § 1415(b)(6)(B)’s “two-year limitations period runs backward instead of forward from the reasonable discovery date.”  Id. at 18.  In short, the Third Circuit concluded, based on the statutory context and structure, the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretive guidance, and the legislative history, that §1415(b)(6)(B) “is simply an inartful attempt to mirror §1415(f)(3)(C)’s two-year statute of limitations.  That is, both sections reflect the same two-year filing deadline for a due process complaint after the reasonable discovery of an injury, and §1415(b)(6)(B) neither imposes a pleading requirement nor in any respect alters the courts’ broad power under the IDEA to provide a complete remedy for the violation of a child’s right to a free appropriate public education.”  Id. at 4.

School districts should be mindful that they may be forced to litigate cases alleging a denial of FAPE beyond two years of the date on which the complaint is filed, so long as the parent files the due process petition within two years of the reasonable discovery date.  Critical to limiting compensatory education claims will be establishing the “knew or should have known date” (reasonable discovery date).  The Third Circuit did not address this issue, as the parties did not dispute the reasonable discovery date in G.L. v. Ligonier Valley School District.

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Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev

About the Author

About the Author:

Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq. concentrates her practice on the representation of boards of education and charter schools in all areas of school law including: labor and employment, special education, Section 504, student discipline, FERPA, Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, student residency, civil rights, tenure, OPRA, and OPMA. In connection with these representations, she is experienced in handling matters before State and Federal courts, including the Office of Administrative Law. Ms. Dev is an experienced special education litigator and defends school districts in due process hearings from inception through trial. In addition, she has handled matters before governmental agencies, including the U.S. Office for Civil Rights and New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. Ms. Dev routinely conducts training and seminars, drafts policies and manuals, and provides strategic advice to school administrators regarding school law issues. Ms. Dev was recently recognized as one of South Jersey’s Awesome Attorneys as published by South Jersey Magazine. She is licensed to practice law in New Jersey, the District Court for the District of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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