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In the United States legal system, judicial decisions play an important role in determining what a particular law means. This type of law is known as “Case Law.” Case Law is developed when courts are asked to resolve disputes that are occurring between two or more parties, and the court must interpret what the law means in a given situation. Through this process, the meaning of phrases such as “Least Restrictive Environment” and “Meaningful Educational Benefit” evolve as various courts decide cases and set precedents. A precedent is a rule established in a previous court case that is either binding or persuasive depending on which court issued the decision. Below are some of the cases that are important to special education law and the precedents they have created.

Landmark Cases in Special Education Law

U.S. Supreme Court Decisions

Cases decided by the United States Supreme Court are binding on courts all across the country. As a result, when the Supreme Court interprets a statute or makes a determination in a particular case, all lower courts must use that determination when deciding cases. In some instances, however, the Supreme Court leaves room in a decision that allows individual states to make their own determination – for example, in 2005 the Supreme Court decided that the party requesting a due process hearing under the IDEA has the burden of persuasion to establish his or her claims, but the Court expressly declined to determine whether states may legislate the burden of proof. In 2008, New Jersey enacted a law placing the burden of proof and production in all requests for a due process hearing, whether filed by the parent or the school district, on the school district.

  • Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U. S. 483 (1954) – In this landmark civil rights decision, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that a separate education for African-American children was not an equal education, concluding that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place and that ‘separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.'” This decision provided parents of children with disabilities and disability rights activists the constitutional foundation to press for equal educational opportunities for all children, including those with developmental and other disabilities.
  • Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982) – This was the first special education case decided by the Supreme Court. In this case, the Court held that an IEP must be reasonably calculated for a child to receive educational benefit, but the school district is not required to provide every service necessary to maximize a child’s potential.
  • Irving Independent Sch. Dist. v. Amber Tatro, 468 U.S. 883 (1984) – The Court held that provision of clean intermittent catheterization was a “related service” under the IDEA and not a “medical service,” because the service was necessary for the student to attend school. The services requested did not fall within the medical exclusion because they need not be performed by a physician. The Court noted that “Congress sought primarily to make public education available to handicapped children and to make such access meaningful.”
  • Burlington Sch. Committee v. Mass. Bd. of Ed., 471 U. S. 359 (1985) – The Court established, for the first time, the right of parents to be reimbursed for their expenditures for private special education. This decision (together with the Court’s decision in Florence v. Carter) generally stands for the proposition that a school district may be required to reimburse parents for tuition and other expenses related to a private school placement when (1) the IEP and placement offered by the school district were inadequate or inappropriate (in other words, where the school district failed to offer FAPE) (2) the parents’ private placement was appropriate for their child’s needs, and (3) the balance of the equities favors reimbursement. The Court also explained that in an IDEA dispute, a court has broad authority to fashion appropriate relief considering equitable factors, which will effectuate the purposes underlying the Act, and that the IDEA provides “procedural safeguards to ensure the full participation of the parents and proper resolution of substantive disagreements.”
  • Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305 (1988) – The Court addressed the IDEA’s “stay put” provision, explaining that in enacting “stay put”, Congress intended “to strip schools of the unilateral authority they had traditionally employed to exclude disabled students … from school.” The Court also noted that the IEP is the “centerpiece of the [IDEA’s] education delivery system” and explained that “Congress repeatedly emphasized throughout the Act the importance and indeed the necessity of parental participation in both the development of the IEP and any subsequent assessments of its effectiveness.”
  • Florence County School District Four v. Shannon Carter, 510 U.S. 7 (1993) – The Court discussed the standards pursuant to which a parent may obtain reimbursement for a private educational placement. Importantly, the Court determined that reimbursement does not necessarily require that the private school meet the IDEA’s definition of free appropriate public education; the private school does not necessarily have to meet the state education standards.
  • Buckhannon v. West Virginia Dept. of Health and Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598, 121 S.Ct. 1835 (2001) – The Court ruled that in order to obtain attorney fees as a “prevailing party,” the party must secure either a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree.
  • Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49 (2005) – The Court held that, absent a state statute to the contrary, the party seeking relief bears the burden of proof in an administrative due process proceeding.
  • Arlington v. Murphy, 548 U.S. 291 (2006) – The Court held that a provision of the IDEA authorizing “reasonable attorneys’ fees for prevailing parents does not authorize the recovery of fees for expert’s services.
  • Jacob Winkelman v. Parma City School District, 550 U.S. 516 (2007) – Here, the Court determined that parents may pursue claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) on their own behalf, as the rights conferred to parents under the Act exist independently from the rights of their child.

U.S. Court of Appeals Decisions

There are 13 appellate courts that sit below the U.S. Supreme Court, and they are the U.S. Courts of Appeals. A court of appeals hears challenges to District Court decisions from courts located within its circuit. The U.S. District Court of New Jersey sits within the Third Judicial Circuit. Decisions made in the Third Circuit are binding in all New Jersey courts. Decisions made in other Circuit Courts are influential when the same issue has not previously been addressed by the Third Circuit. Below are some of the important special education decisions that have been issued by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

  • Lester H. v. Gilhool, 916 F.2d 865 (3rd Cir. 1990) – The Third Circuit held that compensatory education is available to respond to situations where a school district flagrantly fails to comply with the requirements of IDEA.
  • Oberti v. Board of Educ., 995 F.2d 1204 (3rd Cir. 1993) – Children with disabilities are entitled to be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) that is appropriate to meet their needs. In this case, the Court adopted a two part test to determine whether a child has been placed in the least restrictive environment. It must first be determined whether education in the regular classroom, with the use of supplementary aids and services, can be achieved satisfactorily. In making this determination, courts should consider several factors, including: (i) whether the school district has made reasonable efforts to accommodate the child in a regular classroom; (ii) the educational benefits available to the child in a regular class, with appropriate supplementary aids and services, as compared to the benefits provided in a special education class; and (iii) the possible negative effects of the inclusion of the child on the education of the other students in the class. If placement outside the regular classroom is necessary, then it must be determined whether the child is mainstreamed to the maximum extent appropriate, i.e., whether efforts have been made to include the child in school programs with non-disabled children whenever possible. Thus, disabled children should be mainstreamed to the maximum extent appropriate and their removal from the regular education environment should occur only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
  • Polk v. Cent. Susquehanna Intermediate Unit 16, 853 F.2d 171 (3rd Cir. 1998) – The Third Circuit has held that the educational benefit to which each student is entitled must be more than “trivial,” it must be “meaningful.” The Third Circuit inferred that Congress must have envisioned that “significant learning” would occur. The Court recognized the difficulty of measuring this benefit and concluded that the question of whether the benefit is de minimis must be answered in relation to the child’s potential. Thus the standard was set, a FAPE requires “significant learning” and “meaningful benefit.”
  • Ridgewood Board of Educ. v. N.E., 172 F.3d 238 (3rd Cir. 1999) – In this case, the Third Circuit held that “the provision of merely “more than a trivial educational benefit” does not meet the [Polk] standard . . . . Rowley and Polk reject a bright-line rule on the amount of benefit required of an appropriate IEP in favor of an approach requiring a student-by-student analysis that carefully considers the student’s individual abilities.
  • T.R. v. Kingwood Township, 205 F.3d 572 (3rd Cir. 2000) – In this case, the Court clarified that the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is the one that, to the greatest extent possible, satisfactorily educates the disabled child with non-disabled children, in the same school the child would attend if the child were not disabled. T.R. involved a preschool aged child who was offered placement in an in-district classroom where half the children were disabled and half were typically developing, which the Court held was a “hybrid” program and therefore not the LRE.
  • G.L. v. Ligonier Valley School District Authority, No. 14-1397 (3rd Cir. 2015) – This case clarified how to interpret IDEA’s two-year statute of limitations. The Court held that the IDEA’s statute of limitations creates a “discovery rule” approach, in which the statute begins to run on the date the parents knew or should have known of the FAPE violation, rather than an “occurrence rule” approach, wherein the statute of limitations period would begin to run on the actual date of the violation. Based on this clarification, parents would be required to file a request for due process within two years of the date they knew, or should have known, their child was denied a FAPE. If the parents of a student reasonably do not discover the denial of a FAPE to their child for many years, so long as the parents file within two years of discovering it, the parents have no limit on the number of years for which they can seek relief.
Contact New Jersey Special Education Attorney Lori E. Arons, Esq. Today to Discuss Your Case

The laws related to special education and educational rights in the United States are extremely complicated and lawyers who have been practicing for years may have little or no experience with this area of law. For this reason, it is critical for parents of children with special needs to retain a lawyer who understands the unique issues that arise in this area of law and are familiar with the various state and federal laws, regulations, and court decisions that can have an impact on the way a case will be resolved.

Lori E. Arons, Esq. is a skilled NJ special education lawyer who has been through the IEP process with her own children, and is personally invested in ensuring that kids with special needs get the education to which they are legally entitled. To schedule a consultation with Lori, call our office today or send us an email through our online contact form.

U.S. Supreme Court Decisions


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