Beast of Burden

You may look at the title and think you’ve accidentally wandered onto a blog about pack animals.  No, don’t worry, you’re in the right spot.  I’m not talking about actual beasts of burden, but rather the beast of the burden of proof in special education disputes and how to overcome the beast that it is (or how school districts and hearing officers interpret it to be).

What does IDEA say?

IDEA does not say who bears the burden of proof (“BOP”) in special education disputes between parents and school districts.  However, BOP is a critical legal issue in litigation.  In simplest terms, the BOP means who has to prove their case and how strong the proof needs to be.  Most people are familiar that in criminal cases, the prosecution has to prove the guilt of the alleged defendant “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  In civil cases, the standard of proof is not that high and is typically “by a preponderance of evidence.”

What does the Supreme Court say?

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Schaffer v. Weast.  That case says that when a parent challenges an IEP, the parent has the burden to prove that the IEP is not appropriate for the child with a disability in the special ed context.  So, this means the parent must put on a strong case to convince the administrative hearing officer that the IEP is either poorly designed or improperly implemented for the child.  This is a difficult proof.

Exceptions to the rule

As a result of the Schaffer v. Weast case, most people in the special education legal arena assume that the parents always have the BOP, probably because it is usually the parents challenging an IEP.  But the BOP is not always on the parents and recently this has become a very important issue.

Again, we look to the Supreme Court in what they actually said in Schaffer v. Weast.  The Court said “[t]he burden of proof in an administrative hearing challenging an IEP is properly placed upon the party seeking relief.” 546 U.S. at 62.  That isn’t necessarily always the parents.  Indeed, the Court acknowledged that there are cases that “will be in evidentiary equipoise” where the burden should be on school districts.  546 U.S. at 58.  Justice Stevens in his concurring opinion agreed, writing “a court, taking into account ‘policy considerations, convenience, and fairness,’ . . . could conclude that the purpose of a statute is best effectuated by placing the burden of persuasion on the [school district].”  546 U.S. at 62.  In other words, there will be situations where the school should bear the burden of proof.

Examples where the exception should apply

One example is when parents demand an Independent Educational Evaluation (“IEE”) of the child with a disability at the public school’s expense after rejecting the school’s evaluation, the school has two options: (1) pay for the IEE or (2) file a Due Process case.  If the school files for Due Process to defeat an IEE, the school district bears the BOP.

Another example is placement of a child with a disability and here is the recent critical trend.  A school district always bears the BOP that it is in compliance with IDEA.  A Prior Written Notice (“PWN”) is required whenever a school proposes to change the placement of a child with a disability.  20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(3).  A PWN must include at least a description of the proposed change in placement by the school district, an explanation of why the school proposes to change the placement and the basis for such explanation, and a statement that the parents of a child with a disability have the right to challenge such action. 20 U.S.C. §1400(c)(1).

Now, if parents seek to change placement of the child with a disability (usually from the public school to a private school that the parents believe is more appropriate), the parents are always entitled to pay for such private placement out of their own pocket.  If the parents want the school district to pay for the private placement, they will have to file for Due Process and prove that the public school did not provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) to the child and that the private school is more appropriate.  34 C.F.R. §300.148(c); see also Forest Grove Sch. Dist. v. T.A., 557 U.S. 230, 129 S.Ct. 2484, 2493, 2496, 174 L.Ed.2d 168 (2009).

Here comes the tricky part to which I want you to pay close attention.  Let’s say the parents have done that.  They’ve taken on the school district and met their BOP that the school did not provide FAPE to their child with a disability and that placement in the private school is appropriate, so the administrative hearing officer or judge has said the public school has to pay for the private school.  Let’s assume that a week after the parents have won that case, the school calls another IEP meeting and wants to change placement of the child back to the public school.  Do the parents now have to bear that beast of burden of proving once again that the school does not provide FAPE and the child should remain at the private school?  Is that fair?

Currently battling this issue

Well, I argue it is not fair.  And in my brief recently filed in the 9th Circuit case of J.M. v. Department of Education, State of Hawaii, Case No. 16-17327, I argue that the parents in that exact scenario should not again have the BOP immediately after they have won the private placement case.  Cross your fingers that this becomes good law for parents who are fighting this same tactic by school districts across the country.

[Supplement: We lost this issue in the 9th Circuit and then took it to the Supreme Court, who decided not to hear the case.  BUT, the same issue is again before the 9th Circuit in J.G. v. State of Hawaii, Department of Education, Case No. 18-16538 and is likely to be heard later this year 2019].

If you have questions about burden of proof in special education cases or need any assistance with your child with a disability, please contact us via our website schoolkidslawyer.com or via email at info@schoolkidslawyer.com.

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