Landmark Court Cases

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There are about one hundred sped cases each year that reach the federal court system involving disputes over the IDEA.   Typically, these cases center on one or more central issues; and often they involve more than one.     Some are about the IDEA.   Some are about the ADA/504.  Some are about other laws. 

The case summaries and links to the actual decisions below are landmark cases establishing important principles of law.

This page was intended to provide an introduction to spedlaw, not to provide definitive interpretations.   Wherever possible, we have included links to the decisions themselves which are saved on this website.    We have in most cases added additional links to other websites on the Internet for readers wishing to view summaries, expanded analyses, or a discussion of the underlying issues;  

The cases below are presented in chronological order, not in order of importance.  It is important to remember in reading these cases that while a court may have settled a point of law, it does not necessarily follow that the party prevailing on the legal issue won the lawsuit.  To discover that, the reader would need to follow the case back to the lower court to which it was remanded.  For example, in the Forest Grove v. T.A. case cited below, the parents won the day in the Supreme Court but ultimately lost their battle for tuition reimbursement in the Ninth Circuit.   The technical term for following a case through to its conclusion is called “shepherding.”  And it is what we mean when we say “It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”

Since the interpretations and summaries below are not intended to convey legal advice.    If you’ve got a real problem, our advice has always been to get a real lawyer.  

Endrew F. v Douglas County, Supreme Court, March 22, 2017 *

Link to the Supreme Court decision  (Click here)

Providing somewhat more substance to the judicial definition of FAPE, this decision is important especially to parents seeking tuition reimbursement for a parentally placed student with a disability in a private school setting.  That is because the standard for successfully suing requires parents, as the party challenging the status quo, to (1) prove that the school’s IEP or proposed IEP was unlikely to provide their child with FAPE; and (2) that the placement they selected did provide the child with the equivalent of FAPE.

This decision was greeted with an immediate and enthusiastic response from the community serving children with disabilities.  Unfortunately, much of the initial hoopla has implied that by defining FAPE as requiring at least a reasonable expectation of meaningful benefit that the Supreme Court’s decision will have a transformative effect on our children’s rights nationwide.   Not necessarily so, although the proof of the pudding is always in the eating . . . and in this case, it will be the federal judges charged with applying this revised standard who will be providing the definitive interpretations.

Much in fact stays the same.   In the Second and Sixth Circuits, no change whatsoever can be expected as they’ve consistently interpreted both Rowley and the IDEA as requiring something more than non trivial benefit or (as in the Tenth) “merely something more than de minimus benefit.”

Rowley in 1982 established that FAPE might require the Ford but never the Cadillac.  That remains unchanged. Pushing the analogy further, neither Rowley nor this court ruled out providing a child who was not fully integrated into general ed  with a bicycle, if that’s what circumstances dictated.  In fact, what Rowley and this court said was that nothing in the IDEA required the Ford or bicycle provided to be as good as the Ford or bicycle provided to general ed kids.

What is FAPE for the goose may not be FAPE for the gander.  While the court did suggest that getting passing grades and being advanced from one grade to the next were typical goals for a child with a disability who was fully integrated into the general education program, neither the Rowley court nor this court  offered specific guidance with respect to those children who were NOT fully integrated into general education.

The three statements in this 20 page decision most likely to be quoted by parent advocates probably will be:

To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances

and

The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives. This standard is more demanding than the “merely more than de minimis” test applied by the Tenth Circuit. It cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for children who are not.

Nevertheless, while deciding that something more meaningful than  “merely something more than de minimus” was required, this court, as the court in Rowley (see below) sought a middle ground.

Endrew’s parents argue that the Act goes even further and requires States to provide children with disabilities educational opportunities that are “substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities.” Brief for Petitioner 40. But the lower courts in Rowley adopted a strikingly similar standard, and this Court rejected it in clear terms. Mindful that Congress has not materially changed the statutory definition of a FAPE since Rowley was decided, this Court declines to interpret the FAPE provision in a manner so plainly at odds with the Court’s analysis in that case

The Endrew F. decision runs only 20 pages and is recommended reading in its entirety,  For a brief but authoritative summary, however, this writer recommends Justia’s report.

Some early commentators reported that the lower court’s decision regarding Endrew F was reversed.  As noted on our Home Page, this was not the case.  The Supreme Court only remanded the case back to the Tenth Circuit, where it will probably be reheard by the District Court judge who found against the parents in the first place.  Applying a different standard in this or any other case does not guarantee the original decision will be overturned.

Although much was made of the fact that the Supreme Court had rejected an opinion held by Mr. Gorsuch, at the time being vetted for a position on the high court, it was an opinion held in varying degrees by other judges both on the Tenth Circuit court and a number of other courts as well.  What is important long term is that the Supreme Court rejected the “merely more than de minimus” standard . . . one small step forward for children with disabilities, but a step forward nevertheless..

As reported above, a number of reporters of this decision have framed it in more glowing terms.  For those readers interested in exploring some other interpretations, a number of references follow.  Some are more optimistic than the opinions expressed herein, others are not.

The Atlantic:  How a New Supreme Court Ruling Could Affect Special Education

Scotusblog:  Opinion analysis:  Court’s decision rejecting low bar for students with disabilities, under the spotlight

NPR Ed:  The Supreme Court Rules in Favor of a Special Education Student

Education Week School Law:  Unanimous Supreme Court Decision Expands Special Education Rights

Professor Arlene Kantor Comments

NEA Applauds Supreme Court Decision

Zirkel March 2017 Endrew F

Riley v. Ambach, Second Circuit, 1980 *

An early case regarding PL 94-142, wherein the parents had prevailed in a lower court.  The circuit court reversed, not on the merits, but because the parents had not exhausted administrative remedies before going to federal court.  Important because the precedent has been upheld in a number of decisions since.

The Decision:

Riley v Ambach 1980

Other suggested links regarding “exhaustion of administrative remedies:”

National School Board Association Legal Clips

Exhaustion of administrative remedies

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies: A Judicial view

Board of Educ. v. Rowley – 458 U.S. 176 (1982) *

Although Public Law 94-142 was passed in 1975, the first significant case to reach the Supreme Court was the Board of Education v. Rowley in 1982.  Rowley v. Hendricks County Board of Education established the standard that would be applied in determining whether or not a district had succeeded in providing a student with FAPE. There are a lot of terms in the IDEA that were basically undefined; this was the first judicial definition of the “appropriate” in “Free Appropriate Public Education.”  Basically, FAPE was defined by the court as the provision of some benefit to a child in accordance with the procedural requirements of the IDEA.  Although there have been attempts to redefine the meaning of FAPE based on the reauthorization of the IDEA by Congress, the Rowley decision continues to be definitive even today.  (See  Mercer, Ninth Circuit, 2009, below)

The Decision:

Rowley v Hendrick Hudson 1982

Selected Links to the Internet:  (We of course assume no responsibility for the content of websites outside of our website.  In fact, we don’t take a whole lot of responsibility for the material that IS on our website.)

Slideshow on Rowley 1982

Rowley after 25 years

The Rowley Decision: What Does it Mean?

Irving v. Tatro, U.S. Supreme Court, 1984 *

Established as a point of law that unless a service needed by a child to receive FAPE must be provided by a physician, it must be provided by the school system.

The Decision:

IRVING INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT

Other suggested links:

Another Summary 

Burlington v. Massachusetts, Supreme Court, 1985 *

Another early Supreme Court case establishing the right of parents to seek tuition reimbursement for a private school placement if they proved the school had not provided FAPE whereas their placement did provide FAPE. 

The Decision:

Burlington v MA

Other suggested links:

Special Education Advisor: Burlington

Honig v. Doe, US Supreme Court, 1988 *

Held that if a child with a disability was suspended for more than ten consecutive days or for more than ten days cumulative when the constituted a change of placement, the school could not suspend him if the behavior was a manifestation of his disability.  Subsequently incorporated into the IDEA as a federal regulation, the Office for Civil Rights has held that the decision applies to students eligible under ADA/504 as well.   The difference is that under the IDEA services must be provided even if the change was not a manifestation; children only eligible under 504 would not be entitled to services if the behavior was not a manifestation.

The Decision:

Honig v Doe 1988

Suggested Links:

OSEP Letter on Manifestation Determinations

Timothy W. v Rochester NH, First Circuit, 1989 *

A school system argued that a mentally retarded (intellectually disabled) child could not profit from special education, so it should not have to serve that child.  The court applied a literal interpretation of federal spedlaw and found for the parents, saying that every child without exception was entitled to FAPE.

The Decision:

TimothyW vs Rochester – appeal (1989)

Other suggested links::

Slideshow on Timothy WV v. Rochester 1985 

Rafael Oberti v. Borough of Clementon, Third Circuit, 1993 *

The parents in this case wanted their child in a regular education class, not segregated in a special education classroom.  They argued successfully that the school system had failed to provide their son with FAPE and that the reason for his misbehavior was as a direct result of their failure to consistently provide him with the modifications he needed.  The Third Circuit agreed.  Many of the principles established in this case have been accepted generally.  One principle that was overturned was the court’s conclusion that the burden of proof to show that their program did provide FAPE was on the school system.  The Supreme Court later ruled that the burden of proof was on whomever was bringing the lawsuit.

The Decision:  

 Oberti v Clementon Third Circuit 1993

Other suggested links:

Contemporary NY Times (1993) article on decision

Review of the case by the law firm representing the Obertis

Florence Cty v. Carter, Supreme Court, 1993 *

By the time this case had reached the Supreme Court, it seemed the more substantive issues had been resolved.  No one at this point in time was seriously challenging the parents’ contention that their child had been denied a meaningful special education (FAPE).  What was being disputed here was whether the school was obliged to pay her private school tuition.  They claimed that the school she was attending was not an approved state school provider of sped.   The Catch 22 was that schools were approved on a case by case basis when requested by a school system.  The parents, not the school system, had placed the student in that setting.   In short, the Supreme Court established a two part test for tuition reimbursement.  (1) That the school’s program failed to provide FAPE.  (2) That the parents’ program did provide the student with benefit.  State approval was not required.   Finding:  for the parents.   Also a major reason for one of our aphorisms, “When a school system thinks it has found a loophole in spedlaw, more often than not it turns out to be a hangman’s noose.”  (See Forest Grove v. T.A. below for another example.)  For lower court decisions as well as a more thorough analysis, the best source for that information is Wrightslaw.com as Peter Wright was the parent attorney.

The Decision: 

Florence v Carter

Other suggested links:

Extensive resource on the case on Wrightslaw

Light v. Parkway, 8th Circuit, 1994 *

This case established a two part test for removing a child from one learning environment to another learning environment because he or she posed a danger to other children.  (1)  There must be evidence that the child did  in fact pose a danger to others; and (2) that the school had provided the student with reasonable accommodations prior to the change of placement.

The Decision:

Light v. Parkway 1994

Sacramento City School Dist v. Rachel H., 9th Circuit, 1994 *

Rachel had been tested with a 44 IQ.  Her parents wanted this kindergarten child mainstreamed 100% of the school day; the school wanted to serve her in resource.  When the school refused the parents request, they withdrew her and sued for tuition reimbursement.  In short, they won.  Legal fees alone for both sides amounted to an estimated 1.2 million dollars.  The court established a four factor test, summarized here (but see the decision for further elaboration.  (1) What were the educational benefits in the regular classroom (with accommodations)? (2)  What were the social benefits that could come from interacting with non sped students? (3)  What would be the effect on other students in the class? (4) What would mainstreaming the child cost? 

The Decision:

LRE Sacramento v Holland 1994

Other suggested links:

Slideshow on Holland v. Sacramento

Sellers v. Manassas, Fourth Circuit, 1998 *

A lawsuit seeking damages under the IDEA for educational malpractice.   The court found that damages were not available for lawsuits brought under the IDEA (but see Mark H. v Hamamoto, 2010, below). 

The Decision:

Sellers v Manassas 4th Cir 1998

Also see on this website: 

Damages (Myschoolpsychology.com)

Springer v. Fairfax, Fourth Circuit, 1998. *

This was a dispute over whether or not a student who was socially maladjusted was also emotionally disabled.  The court, after systematically reviewing the evidence within the context of the  definition of ED in the federal regulations, concluded he was not.  Social maladjustment is not sufficient to establish eligibility, but neither is it exclusionary. 

The Decision:

Springer v Fairfax Fourth Circuit 1998

 

Cedar Rapids v. Garret, U.S. Supreme Court, 1999 *

The Supreme Court ruled that cost was not a legitimate factor to consider in determining whether or not a child must receive those related services needed for him/her to receive a free appropriate public education.

The Decision:

Garret v. Cedar Rapids Supreme Court 1998

Other suggested Internet links:

Common IEP errors

HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT,  v. BOBBY R.;  Joyce R.;  and Caius R.,  Fifth Circuit, 2000
*

Not an important decision in and of itself, but of interest because of the scores the court relied upon to document progress.   While most parent and school attorneys agree that standard scores and percentiles are the most defensible way to report scores, this court determined that the school system correctly relied upon grade equivalent (grade level) scores to document that their program had provided the student with some benefit.

The Decision:

HISD v Caius 2000

Shapiro v. Paradise Valley, Ninth Circuit, 2003 *

Not an especially important case, but an especially important principle.  If you leave the parents out of an IEP team meeting, it is almost automatically a denial of FAPE under the Rowley standard.  In this instance, a deaf child was being transferred into a public school.  The public school held an IEP team meeting without the parent and without a rep from her private school.  The parents placed the child in a private school setting and sued for tuition reimbursement.  What is particularly important is that the district’s defense, that the program it proposed in her IEP,would have provided her with FAPE was not a consideration in the Ninth’s final decision.  The procedural violation alone was enough to sour the fruit, as it were.  Leave the parent out, do not pass go, go directly to jail (metaphorically speaking.)

The Decision:

Shapiro v Paradise Valley 9th Cir 2003

Also see Doug C., 2013, below

Suggested Links:

Avoiding Errors in the IEP Process

Schaffer v. Weast, US Supreme Court, 2005 *

There had been a split in the circuits as to which party to a special educational dispute bore the burden of proof.  Some said the parents.   Others said the school.  The Supreme Court ruled that whomever brought the lawsuit was the party bearing the burden of proof.  Cautionary note:  Several states, e.g., New Jersey, have passed state statutes that put the burden of proof on the school system, whoever the challenging party might be.   Check  your state statute before citing this case as binding precedent.

The Decision:

Schafer v Weast 2005

Suggested Internet links:

Wrightslaw on Schaffer

Massachusetts Education Department Advisory Letter on Shaffer v. Weast

NEA Review of Shaffer v. Weast 

City of Rancho Palos Verde v. Abrams, Supreme Court, 2005 *

NOT a spedlaw case.  However, the principle set forth in this decision had some ramifications for special educators, because it precluded damages under Section 1983 when another law provided a comprehensive remedial scheme.  That would also apply to the IDEA and FERPA.  However, unfortunately for school administrators, it would not apply to lawsuits under the ADA/504 seeking damages and punitive damages for an alleged offense based on alleged deliberate indifference.  (See Mark H. v. Hamamoto, below.)

The Decision:

 Rancho Palos v Abram Supreme Court 2005

Other suggested links:

Wrightslaw on Damages

Wikepedia article on Rancho_Palos_Verdes v. Abrams

Our discussion about Damages

Arlington v. Murphy, Supreme Court, 2006 *

Another example where a seemingly simple question about the law required someone to pay  a whole lot of money to get an extremely simple answer.  The question here was, “Are parents entitled to reimbursement of expert witness fees if they are the prevailing parties in a special education lawsuit.  The court’s answer was “No.”  They did a lot of explaining, but the answer was still “No.”

The Decision (without dissents or appendices):

ARLINGTON v Murphy Supreme Court 2006

Suggested Links:

Case Summary  

J.L. v. Mercer Island, Ninth Circuit, 2009 *

This case is primarily important because the Ninth Circuit overturned a lower court decision in 2006 that greatly expanded the definition of FAPE above and beyond what had been required by the Supreme Court in 1982.  That district court decision had given hope to parents that they could successfully argue a higher standard in determining whether or not their child had received FAPE in tuition reimbursement cases.  The Ninth Circuit’s decision, if it didn’t exactly smash that dream, at the very least put it on hold.  

The Decision:

JL v Mercer Island 9th 2009

Winkleman v. Parma City, U.S. Supreme Court, 2007

Parents, even if they are not attorneys, may represent the interests of their child in a spedlaw case in court.  Finding: for the parents.

Parents may seek to enforce this mandate through the federal courts, we conclude, because among the rights they enjoy is the right to a free appropriate public education for their child.

The Decision: 

Winkleman v Parma Supreme Court 2007

Other suggested links:

National Council on Disabilities Speaks Out

Newspaper report on parent’s joy over decision

Forest Grove v. T.A, Supreme Court   2009

Argued before the district court twice, the circuit court twice, and the Supreme Court once, this case was  about a relatively arcane point of law.  Decided:  parents did not have to give their school’s proposed program a trial if it was clearly inappropriate in order to have the right to sue for tuition reimbursement

The Decision:.

Forest Grove v. T.A. Supreme Court

Also see:  Our discussion of Forest City

Mark H. v. Hamamoto, Ninth Circuit, 2010 *

A number of courts had ruled that damages and punitive damages for sped violations were not available under the IDEA or Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act.   However, as in this case, the courts made school districts liable if the parents could prove that those school administrators had been deliberately indifferent to the potentially negative impact their failure to provide due process rights to disabled children and their parents.  Although there have as of yet still only been a small number of those cases, they should be of concern to any school administrator seeking to shortcut the rights of children or a child with disabilities.

The Decision:

Mark H v Hamamoto 9th Circuit 2010

Other Suggested Links:

Wrightslaw analysis of Mark H. decision

Law firm discusses 504, damages, and deliberate indifference

American Bar Association discusses 504, ADA, and damages

Doug C. v Hawaii, Ninth Circuit, 2013 *

To some early reporters of this decision, it appeared that the school system had been caught in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.  It wasn’t that simple.   The school system was faced with an annual deadline for getting its IEP reviewed.  The parent, who wanted to be there, had been ill.  After several attempts at rescheduling, the school went ahead and held the meeting anyway.   The parent sued.  What got left out  by some of the early critics was that the school took advantage of the parent’s absence to unilaterally change the child’s placement from a private school back to a program in its own high school.  The circuit court ruled that parental rights trumped the convenience of staff members whose attendance needed to be rescheduled and it trumped timelines.  It also held that the procedural violation was substantive because if the parent had been there, the outcome of that meeting could have been reasonably assumed to have been different.  Finding:  for the parent.

The decision:  Doug C Ninth Circuit 2013

Other suggested online links:

Wrightslaw analysis of Doug C.

National School Board discussed implications of decision

T.F v Fox Chapel, Western Pennsylvania District Court, 2013 *

This is not a landmark case, but it is of interest for a number of reasons.   The child in this case had a severe tree nut allergy.  The school provided the student with a number of accommodations, but the parents were not satisfied with them.  The parents withdrew the child, and the school system filed a truancy complaint.   They maintained the complaint even after the parents placed the student in a private school.   The parents sued for a number of things, among them tuition reimbursement because they had not provided the child with FAPE and damages based on an allegation of deliberate indifference under Section 504.    

The case is instructive because of the two pronged standard applied by the court in considering the latter allegation.   In this case, the district court said that proving deliberate indifference would require a finding that  1) FCASD knew that a federally protected right was substantially likely to be violated and 2) FCASD failed to act despite that knowledge.  Negligence alone would be insufficient to substantiate that finding.  Cutting to the chase, in substantiating a retaliation claim, the judge said that there would have to be some evidence of causality, that is, that the parents’ exercise of their rights was directly linked to the school system’s actions.  

In sum, the court found on all counts for the school system.   This case is however again instructive in demonstrating that it is never over until the fat lady sings, and the his case is now being appealed to the Circuit. Court.

 The case is also somewhat different from other cases we have reviewed given the community support for the parents.   There is a Facebook page from a parent organization supporting them; and not one but two organizations, one an organization for people with food allergies (FARE) and the other an attorney’s group, filed an amici brief for which a link is provided below.  The parents also apparently made good use of the local media; those aren’t legally relevant but do provide a good non legalistic summary of the parents’ complaint.  It should be remembered, however, that these accounts tend to be one sided, as the parents are unencumbered by any restrictions on what they might choose to share; but the schools are very much encumbered by the limitations imposed by FERPA.  One example: 

Chapel Hill sued for alleged discrimination in food allergy treatment

Every case involves a roll of the dice, so this writer is not about to predict the outcome of the parents’ appeal.  However, the brief in this writer’s opinion was also unusual in that the writers appear to have omitted a  reference to the specific errors that they thought the judge might have made.   So we will be shepherding this case through the legal process, which may take years if the past is prelude to the future.

The Decision:  

T.F. v. Fox Chapel decision

Amici brief

Other References:

Legal Clips:  National School Board Association report on district court ruling

Hall v. Florida, 2014 *

This Supreme Court decision was about intellectual disability and the death penalty.  Briefly, the majority on the court ruled that intellectual disability was a condition, not a number, and that courts in determining eligibility for the death penalty must consider a variety of factors, including adaptive behavior skills, in making their decisions.

The Decision: Hall v Florida 2014

Other References: 

Supreme Court rules against Florida in death penalty case

American Prospect: What is cruel and unusual punishment?