June 22, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Forest Grove School District v. T.A.

On June 22, the Supreme Court decided Forest Grove School District v. T.A., No. 08-305.

When T.A. was diagnosed with learning disabilities during his junior year in high school, his parents withdrew him from the public school that he had been attending, enrolled him in a private school, and requested an administrative hearing on his eligibility for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.

The district found T.A. ineligible for special education services and declined to offer him an individualized education program. The hearing officer found that the district had failed to provide a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) as required by IDEA and that private school placement was appropriate, and ordered that the district reimburse the cost of the private school tuition. The district court set the award aside, holding that the 1997 amendments to the IDEA categorically bar reimbursement unless a child has "previously received special education . . . services . . . under the authority of a public agency." The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the 1997 amendments did not limit courts' authority to grant reimbursement as "appropriate" relief under another provision of the IDEA.

The Supreme Court had considered this issue in Board of Education of New York v. Tom F., 552 U.S. 1 (2007), but that case ended in affirmance by an equally divided court, with Justice Kennedy not participating. This time, the Court was not similarly disabled from reaching a decision. It affirmed, holding that the IDEA authorizes reimbursement for private special education services whenever a public school fails to provide a FAPE and private school placement is appropriate, and that this remedy may be ordered regardless of whether a child has previously received special education services through the public school. Although the IDEA originally made no specific reference to reimbursement of private school expenses, the Court had long recognized that courts could order such reimbursement under a provision authorizing "appropriate" relief if a school district fails to provide a FAPE. School Committee of Burlington v. Department of Education of Massachusetts, 471 U.S. 359 (1985). The 1997 amendments recognized reimbursement as a statutory remedy in some situations, the Court said, but they did not categorically prohibit courts from granting such relief in other cases where the public school failed in its FAPE obligation, as the school district here was found to have done.

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer and Alito joined. Justice Souter filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Scalia and Thomas joined.

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