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Media Alerts - M.R.; J.R., Parents of Minor Child E.R. v. Ridley School District - Third Circuit
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February 22, 2014
  M.R.; J.R., Parents of Minor Child E.R. v. Ridley School District - Third Circuit
Headline: School District required to reimburse private school costs under "stay put" rule even through parents' unsuccessful appeal of order denying their claim that the District failed to provide an in-district FAPE for their child

Area of Law: Individual with Disabilities Act ("IDEA") - "Stay-Put Rule"
Issues Presented: (1) Whether parents are eligible for reimbursement for private school costs if they do not file a claim seeking payment until after a court has ruled in favor of the school district, and (2) whether the right to interim funding extends through the time of a judicial appeal.

Brief Summary: The "stay-put" provision of IDEA states that a disabled child shall remain in his or her current educational setting during the pendency of proceedings to resolve a dispute over the child's placement. M.R. and J.R., parents of E.R. ("parents") claimed that Ridley violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") by failing to provide an Individualized Education Program ("IEP"), thereby denying E.R. a "free appropriate public education" ("FAPE"). Once the parents determined that Ridley was not meeting their disabled daughter's needs, they placed her in a private school and filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education. An administrative hearing officer found that Ridley had not committed a violation during E.R.'s kindergarten year, but was denied a FAPE for part of first and all of second grade. In February 2011, the district court reversed the hearing officer's decision and the Third Circuit affirmed on May 17, 2012. In March 2011, after filing their appeal from the district court's judgment appellee sent a letter to the school district requesting payment for E.R.'s private school costs from April 2009 through spring 2011 - pursuant to the IDEA's stay-put provision. Ridley asserted that the demand for interim tuition was untimely. It also relied on three other theories: res judicata, the compulsory counterclaim requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 13, and the statute of limitations. Ridley also stated that the parents were not entitled to relief because by the time the second IDEA lawsuit was submitted the district court had already determined that the local public school was the appropriate placement for E.R.. The district court rejected all of Ridley's claims. Ridley appealed to the Third Circuit. The Third Circuit determined that a child shall remain in the current educational placement until all proceedings have been completed, this includes at least the district court's decision and thus Ridley's obligation to pay for schooling remained intact. The Third Circuit further determined that the "protective purposes" of the stay-put provision is to remain in effect through the final resolution of the dispute. Thus, in this case, the stay-put provision and obligation for reimbursement remained in place until the Third Circuit's decision in 2012.

Significance (if any):

Extended Summary: This case addresses a school district's obligation to pay for private school education during the interim period under the "stay-put" provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The stay-put provision states that a disabled child shall remain in her or her current education setting during the pendency of proceedings to resolve a dispute over the child's placement.
E.R.'s parents claimed that Ridley failed to provide E.R. with a suitable Individualized Education Program (IEP), thereby denying her the "free appropriate public education" ("FAPE"), thus the parents enrolled E.R. in private school. In 2009 an administrative hearing officer determined that Ridley had committed no violation during E.R.'s kindergarten year, but that E.R. was denied a FAPE for part of her first and second year education and awarded the E.R. compensatory education for the 2007-2008 school year. Two years later, in February 2011, a federal district court reversed the hearing officer's placement assessment. The parents appealed and the Third Circuit affirmed.

In March 2011, after the parents filed their appeal from the district court's judgment, they sent a letter to the school district requesting payment for E.R.'s private school costs from the date of the hearing officer's decision through spring 2011 - pursuant to IDEA's stay-put provision. Ridley denied its obligation to pay for the private school costs on both procedural and substantive grounds. Ridley argued that the demand for interim tuition was untimely. This argument relied on three theories: res judicata, the compulsory counterclaim requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 13, and the statute of limitations. Ridley also claimed that because the district court had ruled that E.R.'s proper placement was in the local public school, the IDEA did not provide for recovery of costs.

The premise of the IDEA is that parents and schools should work together to design an IEP that will satisfy the statute's goal of a FAPE for every child. However, if there is a disagreement, the Act allows either party to request an impartial due process hearing before a state or local administrative officer. The parties also have the right to seek state or a federal court review of the administrative decision and the child has the right to remain in his or her current educational placement during the pendency of the dispute resolution proceedings. To determine the placement the Court looks at the current IEP when the stay put is invoked. Where the parent seek a change in placement, however, the stay-put rule does not immediately come into play, and the parents will be responsible for the costs of the child's new placement initially. The new placement can be protected by the stay-put rule if the parents and the State or local education agency agree on the placement. A favorable decision in an administrative review process is treated as an agreement between the two parties. Thus, the child is entitled to "stay put" at the private school for the duration of the dispute resolution proceeding and the school district is obligated for the expense of the private school. Ridley argued that because the district court found that private schooling was unnecessary, the parents' request for payment after the decision dissolved Ridley's financial responsibility. Further, Ridley argued that any obligation for interim funding should not include the period of appeal to the Third Circuit.

Ridley argued that because the parents failed to assert a claim for reimbursement in the earlier IDEA lawsuit between the same parties they may not do so now under the principles of res judicata and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 13(a). The Court dismissed these two arguments stating that the previous suit was about the substance of an appropriate education while the current case is a payment dispute over expenses. Ridley also argued that the parents' claim was barred by the statute of limitations because of the IDEA provision requiring any party aggrieved by a hearing officer's decision to file suit within ninety days. The Court found that the statutory limitation period did not apply to a stay-put reimbursement claim.

Ridley contended that under IDEA, a parent has no entitlement to the stay-put provision until a court rules that it is appropriate. The Court rejected this argument stating that when the hearing officer found for E.R.'s private school placement, the pendency placement was the private school. There is no separate requirement of a court finding of appropriateness. Ridley also contended that any reimbursement entitlement the parents may have had dissolved when the district court reversed the hearing officer's decision and their request for reimbursement after the decision made them ineligible. The Court held that nothing in the statute or the Circuit's law provides a basis for changing E.R.'s stay-put placement back to the public school during the pendency of the dispute process. Thus, the school district's obligation to pay for E.R.'s schooling remained intact until at least the conclusion of the district court's proceedings.

Ridley's final argument was that its obligation terminated when the district court ruled in favor of the school district. The Court rejected this argument and held that the stay-put placement is to remain in effect through the final resolution of the dispute. The Court found that the statute's text is broad and includes the pendency of any proceedings, including an appeal to a circuit court. Thus, Ridley is obligated to reimburse the private school costs of E.R. and the district court's order is affirmed.

To read the full opinion, please visit http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/124137p.pdf.

Panel (if known): Rendell, Jordan and Lipez, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: October 17, 2013

Argument Location: Philadelphia, PA

Date of Issued Opinion: February 20, 2014

Docket Number: No. 12-4137

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Tam Tran

Counsel: John Francis X. Reilly, Esq., for the Appellant; Alan L. Yatvin, Esq., for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Judge Lipez

Circuit: 3rd Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Prof. Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 02/22/2014 10:50 AM     3rd Circuit  

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