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Appeals Court Rules Districts Cannot Sue States in Special Education Disputes

Cross-posted from the School Law Blog

School districts have no right to sue their states in federal court in disputes over the procedural requirements of U.S. special education law, a federal appeals court has ruled. 

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled unanimously March 16 against both a local district and a county office of education in their dispute with the state of California. 

The cases arose out of cases in which parents pursued complaints with the state against their local education agencies under a "complaint-resolution proceeding," a category authorized under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Such proceedings aren't as well-known as the more typical "due-process hearing" under the IDEA.

In complaint-resolution proceedings involving the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District and the Yolo County Office of Education, the California Department of Education issued written decisions in favor of parents. The local school agencies were dissatisfied and said the state violated procedures in the IDEA and its federal regulations.

For example, in one case, the state reconsidered its decision more than once and considered facts outside the one-year time limits imposed by federal regulations, court documents say.

The Fairfield-Suisun and Yolo County agencies sued the state in federal district court, seeking an injunction to bar the procedures.

The district court dismissed their suits, and in its decision this week in Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District v. California Department of Education, the 9th Circuit court panel affirmed the lower court.

The appeals court said that while the IDEA provides for a losing party in a due-process hearing to take the matter to federal court, the provisions of the law regarding complaint-resolution proceedings provide no such right. 

"Lacking an express right of action under [the IDEA], the school districts ask us to glean from the terms of the statute an implied right of action," the court said. 

But a 2011 decision by the 9th Circuit, in Lake Washington Public School District No. 414 v. Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, held that there was no implied right for school districts to sue over procedural matters arising from due-process hearings, although they can go to federal court over matters raised by parents in IDEA complaints.

"Our holding in Lake Washington controls the outcome here, for the school districts in this case stand on even weaker footing than did their counterpart in Lake Washington," the 9th Circuit said in the new decision. "If school districts lack an implied right of action to challenge a state's non-compliance with the IDEA's procedural protections in the context of due-process hearings, they also lack such an implied right of action in the context of complaint-resolution proceedings."

While this is an undoubtedly arcane area of the law, give U.S. Circuit Judge Sidney R. Thomas some credit for the earlier, Lake Washington opinion. He managed to work a line from Shakespeare's "Henry VI" into it: "Defer no time, delays have dangerous ends."

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