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Recent Supreme Court Decision - Schaffer v. Weast

November 16, 2005

On Monday, November 14, 2005, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the burden of proof in an administrative due process hearing challenging the appropriateness of an eligible student’s educational program under the Individuals with Disabilities Act ("IDEA") properly falls upon the party seeking relief, typically the parents.

This ruling signals a dramatic departure from current practice in Connecticut, where state regulations specifically assign the burden of proving the appropriateness of a child’s educational program or placement to the school district, regardless of which party initiates the due process hearing. As discussed below, however, the Connecticut State Department of Education must revise its regulations in order for the ruling to change the current procedures followed in Connecticut concerning this issue.

The case, Schaffer v. Weast, involved a dispute over the proposed placement of a special education student in Maryland. The students’ parents, believing that the proposed program being offered by the school district was not appropriate, unilaterally placed their child in a private school and filed for due process. At the administrative hearing level, the administrative law judge (the equivalent of a special education due process hearing officer in Connecticut) found that the evidence was "close," and believing that the parents bore the burden of persuasion, ruled in favor of the district. In Maryland (unlike Connecticut), the issue of burden in proof in IDEA due process hearings is not addressed by either state law or regulation. The statutory language of the IDEA also does not address which party bears this burden. As a result, a series of appeals ensued on the issue of which party properly bore the burden of persuasion. In a 6-2 decision written by retiring Justice O’Connor, the Supreme Court decisively concluded that, because the IDEA is silent on the allocation of the burden of proof, the ordinary default rule applies, meaning that the party seeking relief bears the burden regarding the essential aspects of their claims.

In language that may be reassuring to schools, the Supreme Court explicitly rejected the parents’ claim that "every [individualized education program] should be presumed invalid until the school district demonstrates that it is not." Rather, as the Court went on to explain, Congress appears to "have presumed instead that, if the [IDEA]’s procedural safeguards are respected, parents will prevail when they have legitimate grievances." Although Justice O’Connor acknowledged that school districts have a "natural advantage" in information and expertise, she further explained that Congress addressed this advantage by creating a number of procedural safeguards which ensure that schools do not bear any unique informational advantage in administrative hearings. These safeguards include the parents’ right to review records, the right to obtain an independent evaluation, the requirement that parties must disclose all evaluations and recommendations they intend to rely on at hearing prior to the hearing, and the recently added requirement that school districts provide parents with a written response to any due process complaint which includes the reasoning behind any disputed actions, details about other options considered and a description of factors that the school relied upon in coming to its decision.

Despite this ruling, however, the Supreme Court declined to go further and decide whether a state is free to override the default rule and establish its own law or regulation placing the burden of proof on the school district. Thus, while the Schaffer v. Weast decision marks a clear victory for school districts, those in Connecticut schools will need to continue to adhere to existing state regulations which place the burden of proving the appropriateness of a child’s program or placement on school districts unless and until the Connecticut State Department of Education issues further guidance on this issue.

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