Schaffer v. Weast (04-698)


Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

Oral argument: October 5, 2005

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., parents and schools work together to come up with an appropriate Individualized Education Program ("IEP") for children with special educational needs. When the two parties cannot come to an agreement on the appropriateness or the sufficiency of an IEP the IDEA provides for an “impartial due process hearing,” which either party can initiate, to challenge the IEP at hand. The IDEA is silent as to who has the burden of proof at these hearings. The Court granted certiorari in order to determine to which party the burden should be allocated—the parents or the school. In this case, as in many IEP challenges, the question of burden is outcome determinative. Petitioner argues that principles of due process as well as policy and fairness compel allocation of the burden to the school in all IEP challenges. Respondents argue that Congress intended the burden to be allocated to the party initiating the hearing and seeking relief, as is the customary rule when legislation fails to specifically allocate the burden. The decision in this case will have far reaching implications for children with special educational needs and their families, educational funding, taxpayers, and the IDEA program as a whole.

[Question(s) presented ] | [Issue(s) ] | [Facts ] | [Discussion ] | [Analysis ]

Questions Presented

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, when parents of a disabled child and a local school district reach an impasse over the child's individualized education program, either side has a right to bring the dispute to an administrative hearing officer for resolution. At the hearing, which side has the burden of proof—the parents or the school district?

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Issues

Whether, in an administrative hearing contesting the sufficiency of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the burden of proof is on the parent of the special education student to whom the IEP applies or whether the burden instead rests on the school district that is required under the IDEA to develop the IEP.

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Facts

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. every disabled child is entitled to a “free appropriate public education” ("FAPE") that is personally tailored by public school systems receiving federal aid to the child's specific needs in an Individualized Education Program ("IEP"), 20 U.S.C. § 1412 (a)(3)-(4). Although parents are allowed to participate in the process of creating an IEP for their child, essentially the program is determined by a group of teachers and administrators within the school system. Should the parents and school district disagree as to the appropriateness of the suggested IEP, either party can initiate an administrative hearing.

Such an administrative hearing was undertaken by Brian Schaffer's parents. Brian's mother contacted the Montgomery County Public School System ("MCPS") in November of 1997 and asked that the MCPS prepare an IEP for her seventh grade son for the 1998-99 school year because his previous private school was unable to attend to Brian's special needs. According to Dr. Kamara, who was hired by Brian's parents, Brian has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and also suffers from “a central auditory processing” problem that prevents him from learning in anything other than a small classroom environment.

The MCPS created an IEP and proposed Hoover Middle School as a placement for Brian.    However, Brian's mother did not agree that the IEP created for Brian by MCPS would provide him with an appropriate educational benefit because of the large class sizes at Hoover Middle School. After initiating a due process administrative hearing under the IDEA to challenge the appropriateness of the IEP, Brian's parents enrolled him in the McLean School, a private school for learning and language disabled students. His parents also requested reimbursement from MCPS for the McLean School's tuition for that year.

At the administrative hearing held in June and July of 1998, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") ruled that the MCPS had provided Brian with a FAPE, but believed that his decision would be impacted by a determination of which party bore the burden of proof at the hearing. After receiving briefs on the issue, the ALJ ruled that the party attacking the IEP must bear the burden of proof because there is an assumption in favor of the school system's educational expertise when creating the IEP. The parents then appealed to the United States District Court, which ruled that the burden of proof should have been allocated to the school district. Brian S. v. Vance, 86 F. Supp. 2d 538 (D. Md. 2000) . On remand, the ALJ reversed its previous decision but ordered reimbursement for only half the tuition, reasoning that the parents always intended to send Brian to private school. Both parties cross-appealed to the District Court, which upheld the ALJ's ruling based on the new allocation of the burden, and also ruled that the parents were entitled to the full cost of tuition.  Weast v. Schaffer, 240 F.Supp. 2d 396 (D. Md. 2002). However, the Fourth Circuit reversed on appeal, holding instead that there was no reason to break from the normal rule that where the burden is not allocated by statute, the party challenging the adequacy of the program must bear the burden of proof. Weast v. Schaffer, 377 F.3d 449 (4th Cir. 2004). The Fourth Circuit reasoned that placing the burden on the school system would create a “presumption of inadequacy” that cut against the IDEA's reliance on the school system's expertise. The case is now scheduled for oral argument in the United States Supreme Court on October 5, 2005.

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Discussion

Because the applicable statute in this case, the IDEA, is silent as to which party has the burden of proof in a litigation stemming from a dispute over a child's IEP, the Court must determine which party must bear the burden. If the burden of proof were imposed on the party seeking relief, in most cases the families with a special education child, the petitioner would be required to show how the challenged IEP is insufficient for the child's special education needs. Conversely, if the burden is assigned to the school in every case, regardless of which party is challenging the IEP, the school would be required to prove that the challenged IEP sufficiently meets the child's special education needs.

Petitioners argue that the school should bear the burden of proof because due process and the interests of policy and fairness compel this result. The respondent argues, from the perspective of the civil justice system, that traditionally when a statute is silent as to who has the burden of proof, legal custom dictates that the party bringing suit and seeking relief must bear the burden.

The issue in this case is important to all families of children with special education needs as well as indirectly to all beneficiaries of public school systems and tax-payers supporting public school systems.

Holding that the school that has the burden of proof would mean an increased number of challenges to IEPs as well as increased costs to school districts in the litigation of these disputes. Placing the burden on the school may foster a rule that IEPs are presumptively invalid, which could lead to increased litigation of IEPs because parents would have an easier time winning the disputes. Costs would include increased financial costs of litigation, the value of special education teachers' time when testifying at trials, social costs of increased litigation against schools, and would ultimately result in increased strain on educational resources which would inevitably trickle down to taxpayers and affect funding for other educational needs outside of special education.

Holding that it is the parents that have the burden of proof would impact the competing interests at hand – those of children with special education needs and their families throughout the country. This outcome would mean increased litigation costs for these families in challenges to IEPs and would make obtaining favorable rulings in challenges to IEPs an overall more difficult undertaking. This could lead to a lesser number of valid challenges brought by families of disabled children. Since school districts frequently have the necessary resources and information readily available to prove or disprove the sufficiency of an IEP, and parents generally do not, placing the burden on the parents will increase their cost of preparing for litigation. This increased burden could end up discouraging parents from bringing valid challenges to inadequate IEPs in the first place. To emphasize the impact of this, it is interesting to note that more than 3,000 administrative hearings are held under the IDEA each year. Many more are requested but ultimately cancelled when parents assess the difficulty of the process. (For statistical information see: IdeaData.org.)

Additionally, this decision may effect the development of the IEP program itself. Either ruling could foster an adversarial relationship between parents and schools. When parents and the school sit down to talk about a proposed IEP, an awareness of who will bear the burden at hearing if no agreement can be reached, might significantly affect the negotiation dynamics. However, this decision, either way, could also provide an incentive for the parties to come to an agreement in the first place, avoiding litigation altogether.

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Analysis

A. BURDEN OF PROOF

Which party, in a given case, has the burden of proof can be determinative to the outcome of the case. The case at hand is a quintessential paradigm of this point. When the ALJ presumed that the party bringing the IEP challenge had the burden, he ruled in favor of the school district. But when the District Court ruled that the burden should be placed on the school ( Brian S. v. Vance, 86 F. Supp. 2d 538 (D. Md. 2000) ), the ALJ ruled for the parents.  Hence, the question of burden of proof in the IDEA context is crucial to IEP litigation.

B. PETITIONER'S ARGUMENT

1. Due Process

Petitioner argues that due process dictates a ruling in their favor. Petitioner argues that although the IDEA does not explicitly state where the burden should fall, inherent in the statute is the congressional dictate that due process should govern IDEA litigation. Pet'r brief at 20. . Additionally, Petitioner argues that when the traditional due process analysis is applied to IDEA administrative hearings, the analysis points to allocating the burden of proof to the school.

The text of the IDEA includes a requirement of an “impartial due process hearing.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f). This language, argues the Petitioner, indicates that Congress clearly and intentionally incorporated the standards of due process to apply in the IDEA context. Pet'r Brief at 20. . Petitioner points to the “cardinal principle of statutory construction” that no terms included in a statute should be “superfluous, void, or insignificant” (id. ) and concludes that by Congress using the language they did in writing the text of the IDEA they intended principles of due process to govern IDEA hearings.

Applying the three-prong due process analysis for administrative hearings laid out in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976) , Petitioner argues that balance of factors weighs in favor placing the burden on the school. The first prong is the private interest that will be affected. This is the interest of special needs children affected by the IDEA which, Petitioner argues, is very substantial. Petitioner also points out that this interest is the very interest Congress had in mind in enacting IDEA. Id. at 25. The second prong, the risk of erroneous deprivation, Petitioner argues naturally points to placing the burden on the school. Petitioner points out that when the evidence is in equipoise, the burden of proof is outcome determinative – usually the party with the burden will lose. Thus, Petitioner argues, if the burden is placed on the parents, the risk of erroneous deprivation of the private interest (the special needs child's education) will be great. Id at 25. The third prong is the government's interest. The two interests in this prong are (1) the school district's interest in avoiding the expenditure of the resources required for the IEP in dispute and (2) the government's interest in ensuring that each child receives an appropriate education. Petitioner points out that this second governmental interest parallels the child's interest. Petitioner also argues that the first of these governmental interests is outweighed by the child's private interest, as well as the risk of erroneous deprivation, and thus, the balance of the interests tips toward allocating the burden to schools. Id. at 26.

2. Policy and Fairness

Petitioner argues that even if statutory construction were not a consideration in the Court's decision, principles of “policy and fairness” ( Keyes v. School Dist. No. 1, 413 U.S. 189, 209 (1973) ) dictate allocating the burden to the school.

Petitioner argues that the policies underlying the IDEA dictate allocating the burden to the school. The purposes of the IDEA include providing special needs children with appropriate educational programs and empowering parents to hold schools accountable through parents' meaningful participation in the IEP process and parents' ability to challenge IEP decisions in administrative hearings. Thus, placing the burden on parents runs contrary to these goals. Id. at 30.

Petitioner also argues that the Court should place the burden on schools because the consequences of an erroneous decision are much worse for parents than for schools. Schools face only the financial costs of providing services beyond what is necessary for a child. A child with special education needs, however, faces being denied an appropriate educational program and possibly missing a window of opportunity in which to effectively develop (for example children with autism and severe hearing loss). Thus, the burden should be placed on schools to avoid the possibility of detrimental loss to children with special education needs, at the expense of the relatively less significant risk of financial loss to schools. Pet'r Brief at 39.

Petitioner further argues, in the interest of fairness, that the school should bear the burden of proof because school districts typically have greater access and control over relevant facts and witnesses. Pet'r Brief at 41 “The ordinary rule, based on considerations of fairness, does not place the burden upon a litigant of establishing facts peculiarly within the knowledge of his adversary.” United States v. New York, New Haven & Hartform R.R. Co., 355 U.S. 253, 256 (1957)

C. RESPONDENT'S ARGUMENT

Respondents argue that, when drafting the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., Congress intended to allocate the burden of proof to the party seeking relief. The customary rule for legislation that does not expressly allocate the burden of proof to a particular party is that the party initiating the hearing and seeking relief bears the burden. See Bull v. United States , 295 U.S. 247, 260 (1935). Thus, the petitioners in this case would be required to show that the “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) provided to Brian in his Individualized Education Program (IEP), 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(3)-(4), by the Montgomery County Public School System (MCPS) did not provide “personal instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction.” Board of Education v. Rowley , 458 U.S. 176, 203 (1982).

Respondents reason that Congress intended to allocate the burden in this manner because Congress legislates with a particular burden of proof in mind, and that absent any express wording to the contrary, such default burden should govern. Also, the language found in the IDEA, including specific reference to “due process,” indicates that Congress intended to allocate the burden to the party seeking relief as is customary in many types of administrative hearings. Because the IDEA does not allocate the burden in any other manner, although it carefully details appropriate “safeguards,” Congress intended and desired that the customary burden apply. Importantly, in some particular cases, the IDEA specifically places the burden on the school district, again implying that Congress intended the default burden to apply in all other instances. Furthermore, the many procedures already available to parents under the IDEA provide adequate due process without allocating the burden of proof to the school district. Finally, if the Court were to agree with petitioner and allocate the burden to the school district in all cases, the IDEA would become a tool for inflicting additional and unintended burdens on state and local administrators. According to Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman , 451 U.S. 1, 17 (1981), “if Congress intends to impose a condition on the grant of federal moneys, it must do so unambiguously.” In this case,  Congress did not unambiguously instruct school districts that they would be required to bear the burden of proof in all administrative hearings challenging the validity of an IEP. 

Respondents also argue that the policies underlying the IDEA are best served by following the customary rule and allocating the burden to the party initiating the hearing.  Forcing the school districts to bear the burden would create and encourage costly gamesmanship-type litigation. Parents would have a disincentive to work with the school district and administrators to create an acceptable IEP if the school district was forced to justify each aspect of the IEP in an administrative hearing. Also, such an increase in litigation would not only cost the school districts financially, but would also defer teachers and resources away from all other students.  Because the IDEA was intended to protect the educational interests of all children, placing a burden on the school system that causes the majority of students to suffer directly opposes the policies underlying the legislation. Moreover, the school districts are already accountable for ensuring that students receive a FAPE under the IDEA.  Therefore, shifting the allocation of the burden would have no effect on the school district's already existing duties. In response to petitioner's argument that school districts are in a better position to access the relevant information, Respondent argues that it is the parents who are in the best position to gather information because they have the greatest access to the child. See Amanda J. ex rel. Annette J. v. Clark County Sch. Dist. , 267 F.3d 877, 891 (9th Cir. 2001). Respondent further argues that the additional policy arguments made by the petitioner are not relevant for the purposes of determining who should bear the burden of proof. Finally, Respondents argue that should a particular state choose to abrogate the burden of proof to the school district in all cases, they are free to do so under the IDEA. However, it was not Congress' intent to give the burden to the school districts in all cases. 

D. SIGNIFICANCE

Importantly, whether or not school districts are forced to shoulder the burden of proof will affect the availability of valuable resources for all other school functions. The intent of Congress when creating the IDEA and including the IEP requirement was not to concurrently undermine those IEPs by forcing the school districts to preemptively defend the created program. However, the school district appears to be in the best position to defend that program because their administrators researched and created the program. Moreover, the likelihood that the school district, and not the parents, will ever be initiating an administrative hearing over an unacceptable IEP seems low. Why would a school district seek to challenge a program it created? Thus, parents will likely always initiate such hearings and thus allowing the burden to remain on the party initiating the hearing effectively allocated the burden to the parents in most cases.

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Conclusion

If the Court decides that the burden of proof in administrative hearings regarding the sufficiency of IEPs under the IDEA falls on the school districts in all cases, as proposed by the petitioner, the resulting shift in power will have substantial implications for all parties involved. Parents will have an incentive to challenge the sufficiency of their child's IEP and school districts will have to shoulder the additional expense and responsibility of proving the adequacy of the programs they implement in all cases. Such a shift would enable parents of disabled children without vast resources the opportunity to question their child's IEP without needing to hire experts to testify at the hearings. However, other students may suffer as a result because schools could be inundated with costly litigation.

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Authors

Prepared by: Liz Hanks and Amy McDonald

Additional Sources

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