On March 30, 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in Avila v. Spokane School District 81, 52 F.3d 936 (2017) and applied the "discovery rule" to the two-year statute of limitations for claims brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA").
Background of Case
In 2006, Parents requested that the district evaluate their five-year-old son, A.G., because of behavior issues and his preschool teacher’s concerns that A.G. may have autism. In December 2006, the Spokane School District’s psychologist conducted an initial assessment, noted some behavioral concerns, but determined that the behavior was not severe enough to qualify A.G. for special education. Parents agreed with the evaluation results.
About a year later, in October 2007, a physician diagnosed A.G. with Asperger’s Syndrome. Parents requested a re-evaluation, and the District thereafter found A.G. eligible for special education in April 2008. Parents disputed the offer of a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") and did not agree to the individualized educational program ("IEP") until February 2009.
Subsequently, the District re-evaluated A.G. and developed another IEP, which Parents disagreed with and requested independent educational evaluations ("IEE"). The District denied the IEE requests. Parents filed for a due process hearing on April 26, 2010, and the District also filed for hearing to defend its assessments.
The administrative law judge ("ALJ") held that eleven claims arising two years prior to the date of Parents’ filing (i.e., pre-April 2008) were timed-barred by the statute of limitations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"). The ALJ also upheld the District’s evaluations and affirmed the denial of Parents’ IEE requests. Upon an appeal filed by Parents, a district court agreed with the ALJ on all grounds, including that the eleven claims were time-barred.
The Ninth Circuit’s Decision
On appeal to the Ninth Circuit, Parents argued that rather than automatically time-barring claims beyond two years prior to the filing date, the discovery rule from civil litigation should apply. In other words, Parents asserted the IDEA’s two-year statute of limitations should be triggered when a parent discovers or reasonably could have discovered a claim.
Based on Parents’ argument, the Ninth Circuit reviewed the two statute of limitations provisions set forth in the IDEA, which the Court found to be ambiguous and poorly penned. (See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6)(B) and § 1415(f)(3)(C).) After examining the IDEA, its legislative history, its interpretation by the federal Department of Education, and the overall purpose of the IDEA and public policy, the Court held that "the IDEA’s statute of limitations requires courts to apply the discovery rule without limiting redressability to the two-year period that precedes the date when ‘the parent or agency knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint.’" The Court reasoned the discovery rule comports with the broad remedial purpose of the IDEA.
As a result, the Court found the district court failed to apply the discovery rule, and reversed and remanded the case with instructions to determine when Parents knew or should have known about the alleged action(s) by the District that forms the basis of their complaint.
Practical Effect on School Districts in California
Districts may see an increase in due process complaints alleging claims older than two years, which may drive up the cost of litigation, both in fact-gathering and litigation preparation and/or resolution. The length of a hearing may also be prolonged in order for the ALJ to receive evidence of when a parent knew or should have known about a claim. In some cases, a preliminary hearing on the statute of limitations issue may be necessary before actually litigating the merits of the claims. Regardless of whether a claim may be time-barred, an ALJ will now need to receive and hear this evidence under the legal standard clarified in the Avila case. This is to ensure that the record is complete for appeals.
While the Ninth Circuit did not provide examples of when a parent knew or should have known of the alleged actions forming the basis of the complaint, this decision serves as an important reminder of a school district’s diligence in documentation and record keeping, including crafting IEP meeting notes that summarize parent concerns, requests and disagreements, and documenting that the district provided parents with procedural safeguards and prior written notice of the district’s decisions (and in parents’ native language, if applicable). When faced with what may appear to be outdated claims, reviewing whether proper documentation and records were maintained will be essential to establishing the district’s defense as well as arguing the statute of limitations bars such claims.