The Lawletter Vol 35 No 5, March 25, 2011
On October 30, 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1482 ("IDEA"), was enacted in an effort to ensure that children with disabilities are not denied the opportunity to receive a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") by local educational agencies ("LEAs"). Although the IDEA applies only to those states and LEAs that accept federal funding under the IDEA for their public schools, all states have accepted such funding and are thus subject to the IDEA. At its "core," the IDEA provides for a "cooperative process . . . between parents and schools" to develop an individualized education program ("IEP") in an effort to provide disabled public school students with a FAPE. See Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 53 (2005). If a party objects to an IEP, that party may invoke certain procedural safeguards provided by the IDEA. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415. In short, the aggrieved party may file an administrative complaint and request an impartial due process hearing before a state or local administrative officer, and a party aggrieved by the administrative decision then has a private cause of action in federal court. See Winkelman v. Parma City Sch. Dist., 550 U.S. 516, 525-26 (2007).
Over the past several years, various LEAs have sought to invoke the IDEA's procedural safeguards against the State. Some have sought to remedy the State's alleged failure to comply with the IDEA. See, e.g., Lake Wash. Sch. Dist. No. 414 v. Office of Superintendent of Pub. Instruction, No. 09‑35472, 2011 WL 590297 (9th Cir. Feb. 22, 2011); Traverse Bay Area Intermediate Sch. Dist. v. Mich. Dep't of Educ., 615 F.3d 622 (6th Cir. 2010); County of Westchester v. New York, 286 F.3d 150, 153 (2d Cir. 2002). Others have sought to obtain reimbursement from the State for those costs of a disabled student's private education expenses that the LEA had had to pay to the student's parents. See, e.g., Lawrence Twp. Bd. of Educ. v. New Jersey, 417 F.3d 368 (3d Cir. 2005) (seeking reimbursement); Bd. of Educ. v. Kelly E., 207 F.3d 931 (7th Cir. 2000); see also Andrews v. Ledbetter, 880 F.2d 1287, 1290 (11th Cir. 1989) (holding that local school districts did not have "standing to bring suit to compel a state agency to fulfill its statutory duties" under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the predecessor to the IDEA). Without exception, however, each and every federal appellate court to have considered the issue to date has held that LEAs do not have standing to bring a lawsuit seeking to enforce the IDEA's procedural safeguards absent an underlying claim that directly involves an IEP. See id.
The statutory language of the IDEA does not expressly provide LEAs with a private right of action against the State for its alleged noncompliance. See Lake Wash., 2011 WL 590297, at *2-3; Traverse Bay, 615 F.3d at 627-28. "Any party aggrieved by" the IDEA's administrative process has a private cause of action "with respect to a complaint presented pursuant to this section," 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A), which complaint must relate "to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the preservation of a [FAPE] to such child," id. § 1415(b)(6)(A).
Furthermore, the IDEA does not impliedly provide LEAs with a private right of action against the State for its alleged noncompliance. See Lake Wash., 2011 WL 590297, at *2-3; Traverse Bay, 615 F.3d at 628-29. Rather, the legislative intent behind the IDEA's procedural safeguards is to provide disabled students and their parents a means to enforce the IDEA's guarantee of a FAPE. See Lake Wash., 2011 WL 590297, at *2-3; Traverse Bay, 615 F.3d at 629; Lawrence Twp., 417 F.3d at 371. Moreover, "[b]ecause Congress specifically delegated regulatory and enforcement authority to the Secretary of Education, 20 U.S.C. § 1417, it would be problematic to allow [LEAs] to maintain lawsuits against state educational agencies for their alleged non‑compliance with the IDEA's procedural safeguards." Traverse Bay, 615 F.3d at 629-30; County of Westchester, 286 F.3d at 152-53.
Accordingly, the Second, Third, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits have expressly held that to the extent that an LEA seeks to enforce the IDEA's procedural safeguards against the State in an effort to pursue its own interests as opposed to those directly related to the disabled child and/or the child's parents, the LEA has no affirmative, independent judicial recourse under the IDEA. Upon information and belief, then, were the issue to be raised in the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits, those courts would likely reach the same conclusion.