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Media Alerts - M.C. v. Antelope Valley High School District
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September 5, 2017
  M.C. v. Antelope Valley High School District
Headline:Ninth Circuit panel reverses a district court's decision which deferred to an administrative law judge's finding that a school district did not violate the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and due process when the district unilaterally changed a disabled student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) without notify the student's parent.

Areas of Law: Administrative Law; Education; Disabled Students' Rights

Issues Presented: 1) Whether a school district's failure to notify a parent of changes to a child's IEP, and failure to file a response to plaintiff's due process complaint amounted to a violation of the IDEA and due process. 2) Whether the burden of proving a substantive violation of the IDEA, which normally rests on the parent alleging a violation, remains when that party has no actual knowledge of unilateral changes made by the school district until the day of the administrative hearing.

Brief Summary: The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's affirmance of an administrative law judge's (ALJ) decision which held Defendant-Appellee Antelope Valley Union High School District (the District) did not violate the IDEA and due process when it failed to notify the parent of a disabled student of unilateral changes made to an IEP. The court remanded to the district court all substantive issues for determination.

Significance: A unilateral change by a school district to a student's IEP constitutes a procedural violation of the IDEA.

Extended Summary: M.C., a student at a high school operated by the District, suffers from a disease causing blindness and other deficits which caused developmental delays. In a meeting with the District's administrators and instructors M.C.'s parent signed an IEP setting out goals and services for the student. The District alleged the IEP included a mistaken term and changed it unilaterally without ever notifying M.C.'s parent.

M.C.'s parent later filed an administrative complaint claiming the District violated the IDEA as the District did not provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The parent was unaware of the amendment to the IEP. After a three-day hearing, the ALJ found the District did not violate the IDEA or due process. The district court deferred to the ALJ's decision and affirmed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.
The court recognized that the IDEA guarantees students with disabilities a FAPE specifically designed for the unique needs of each individual. Congress intentionally placed procedural safeguards for parental input at every step of the IEP process and gave equal weight to both meaningful parental involvement as well as any substantive standard. IEPs are not normally signed in presence of counsel, so adherence to procedural safeguards is keenly important to avoid prejudice to the parent.

The Ninth Circuit held that the District's unilateral amendment to the IEP was a procedural violation of the IDEA. It found an IEP is a contract that embodies a binding commitment providing notice to a school district and parent as to what services will be provided to the student. Thus, the District was not entitled to make unilateral changes to the document. The Ninth Circuit also held that the District's changing of a term in the IEP relating to assistive technology devices violated M.C.'s right to a FAPE.

The final procedural error discussed in the opinion is the District failed to file a response to M.C.'s complaint. The Ninth Circuit held that when a school district fails to file a timely answer, an ALJ must not go forward with the hearing. Instead, it must order a response and shift the cost of the delay to the school district, regardless of who is ultimately the prevailing party.

The court remanded the substantive claims to the district court as they were never addressed by either the ALJ or the district court. It held that the burden of proof shifts to the District to show that the services the student actually received are substantively reasonable. M.C.'s parent was awarded attorneys' fees as prevailing party on the appeal.

To read the full opinion, please visit:

Panel: Stephen Reinhardt, Alex Kozinski, and Kim McLane Wardlaw, Circuit Judges.

Argument Date: August 2, 2016

Date of Issued Opinion: March 27, 2017

Docket Number: 2:13-cv-01452-DMG-MRW

Decided: Reversed and remanded

Case Alert Author: M.D. Shapiro

Counsel: Christian M. Knox (argued), Colleen A. Snyder Holcomb, Daniel R. Shaw, and F. Richard Ruderman, Ruderman & Knox LLP, Sacramento California, for Plaintiff-Appellants.

David A. Seeley (argued) and Richard D. Oppenheim, Jr., Sylvester Oppenheim & Linde, Encino, California, for Defendant-Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Alex Kozinski

Circuit: Ninth Circuit

Case Alert Supervisor: Philip L. Merkel

    Posted By: Glenn Koppel @ 09/05/2017 04:19 PM     9th Circuit  

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