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Supreme Court Ruling on Special Education

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) grants parents independent legal rights which encompass the entitlement to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for their child.  The decision means that non-attorney parents can litigate IDEA claims in federal court unrepresented by legal counsel, because they are acting on their own behalf. Significantly, the Court side-stepped the question of whether IDEA authorizes a parent to litigate another party’s (the child’s) claims.

In this action, Jeff and Sandee Winkelman sued their child’s school district after an administrative hearing officer rejected their claim that their son’s individualized education program (IEP) failed to provide him with FAPE as required by IDEA. As the case went on, the Winkelmans proceeded without an attorney. The district court agreed with the hearing officer that the school district had provided their son with FAPE, and the parents appealed to the Sixth Circuit. The Sixth Circuit held that IDEA does not authorize parents to appear pro se on behalf of their child, a question on which other federal courts were divided.

Justice Kennedy writing for the majority, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito, found that nothing in IDEA’s text dealing with the parents’ rights to demand a due process hearing or to appeal an administrative determination excludes parents from the IDEA’s continued protection when they go on to assert their rights in court. The Court rejected the school district’s interpretation that IDEA merely affords parents “collateral tools” related to the child’s underlying rights. The text of the IDEA, according to the Court, “includes provisions conveying rights to parents as well as to children.” The Court also rejected the contention that the IDEA’s explicit language affording certain procedural and reimbursement-related rights to parents implicitly means parents cannot also enforce other IDEA entitlements. The parents’ procedural and reimbursement-related rights are intertwined with the substantive adequacy of the education provided the child and are not easily disentangled. To rule otherwise, the Court reasoned, would lead to incongruous results in which a parent whose disabled child has not received FAPE would have recourse in the federal courts only when the parent happened to have some claim related to the procedures employed or had incurred expenses creating a right to reimbursement. The result would be that “the adequacy of the educational program, which is, after all, the central issue in the litigation,” would be irrelevant to any action brought by the parents.

The obvious implication for school districts is the likelihood of more litigation both involving parent-attorneys as well as true pro se litigants, the later of which often results in slow and tedious proceedings in which courts must exercise patience in dealing with parents who do not understand Federal Procedure.