In a matter of first impression among Courts of Appeals, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has finally settled a long dispute over how to interpret the two-year statute of limitations created under the IDEA in 2004. As discussed below, in the case of G.L. v. Ligonier Valley School District Authority, No. 14-1387 (3d Cir. 2015) the Court found the following: (1) The IDEA statute of limitations creates a “discovery rule” approach (statute of limitations period begins to run on the date the parents knew or should have known of the FAPE violation), rather than the “occurrence rule” approach (the statute of limitations period begins to run on the date the FAPE violation actually occurred); (2) Parents are required to request a due process hearing within two years from the date they knew or should have known of the alleged action/inaction that led to a denial of a FAPE; and (3) If the claim is timely filed, there is no limit as to how far back relief can be sought.
Background on Statute of Limitations
The dispute regarding the application of the statute of limitations is due to two provisions of the IDEA amendments of 2004. Section 1415(f)(3)(c) of IDEA requires parents to file a due process complaint no more than two years after the parents “knew or should have known” about the FAPE violation. However, Section 1415(b)(6)(B) describes the due process complaint as alleging an injury that occurred not more than two years before the “knew or should have known” date.
In order to understand the significance of this decision, a review of the background of how the statute of limitations under the IDEA has been applied is instructive.
Applying the statute of limitations under the IDEA is an issue that has resulted in two different approaches. The first approach applies a strict two year statute of limitations limiting claims to two years prior to the filing of the due process complaint. In other words, parents are unable to obtain relief for violations that occurred more than two years before the complaint was filed. The second approach applies what has become known as the “two plus two” approach to the statute of limitations.
Using this second approach, courts have applied the “discovery rule” to find that parents must file a complaint within two years from the date parents knew, or should have known, of the FAPE denial, but can seek relief for up to two years prior to the knew or should have known date, resulting in up to four years of compensatory education. Giving the conflicting views on how to apply the statute of limitations, the court and hearing officers in Pennsylvania have taken varied approaches to how to address this issue. In the case of G.L., the Third Circuit rejects both approaches and adopts a more traditional statute of limitations approach, but in so doing greatly expands potential liability to school entities.
Third Circuit Ruling
The Third Circuit noted the various conflicting views over how to interpret the IDEA’s statute of limitations discussed above and goes through a detailed analysis as to why each of these approaches is incorrect. The Court concluded that absent one of the two statutory exceptions to the IDEA’s statute of limitations, parents have two years from the date they knew or should have known of the FAPE violation to request a due process hearing by filing a due process complaint and that, if the complaint is timely filed and liability is proven, the disabled child is entitled to compensatory education for a period of time equal to the period of deprivation, but excluding the time reasonably required for the school district to rectify the problem.
The Court’s rationale is that when a school district has failed in its responsibility to provide a FAPE and parents take appropriate and timely action under the IDEA by filing a due process complaint, then that disabled child is entitled to be made whole with nothing less than a complete remedy to restore the child to the educational path he or she would have travelled, but for the FAPE deprivation.
The Court provided a hypothetical example in its decision. Assume a school district unreasonably fails to identify a student as eligible for services under the IDEA from the beginning of first grade through the end of third grade, or a three year period. Assume also that parents first reasonably discover this denial of a FAPE at the end of third grade. The IDEA’s statute of limitations only requires that they file the claim within two years of the “knew or should have known“ date at the end of third grade. If parents do so, they can seek compensatory education for first, second and third grade. Prior to this Third Circuit Court’s decision, parents would have been limited to claims for second and third grade only. As a result, in theory, if a parent can establish that they reasonably did not know of potential claims for many years, but filed them within two years of learning of the same, parents could seek five, ten or perhaps even thirteen years of compensatory education in one hearing.
The result of this case is that 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. The best way for school districts to avoid the possible expansion of claims under the IDEA, given this new direction issued by the Third Circuit, is to take strategic steps to establish the “knew or should have known” date by documenting concerns raised by parents at the time they are raised, and by keeping parents informed of how their child is doing, whether that is good news or bad. In so doing, school entities may be able to establish that the parents knew or should have known of potential issues at an earlier date, which could result in dismissal of parents’ complaint if filed beyond two years from the “knew or should have known date”.
This case law development underscores the need for ever heightened vigilance on student progress and the essential need to document parent concerns as they occur. For more informational guidance on how to protect your school from the enhanced liability this case creates, contact your solicitor, special education counsel, or one of the special education attorneys at KingSpry.
School Law Bullets are a publication of the school law attorneys of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. John E. Freund, III, is our editor. The article is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.