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COPAA Files 6th Circuit Brief Urging the Court to adopt the 3rd Circuit’s Ligonier Approach

Tuesday, November 21, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Denise Marshall

COPAA submitted an amicus curiae brief in the Sixth Circuit, F.C., et al. v. Tennessee Department of Education on November 16, 2017.  Selene Almazan, Jessica Salonus, and Ellen Saideman assisted in the drafting along with fellow COPAA member, Judith Gran, who filed the brief in the Sixth Circuit.  Amicus supports the parents and urges the Court to reverse the district court’s ruling that parents who obtained a final order dismissing their due process complaint did not satisfy IDEA’s exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement and remand the case to the district court for a decision on the merits.  COPAA further urges the Court to adopt the Third Circuit’s Ligonier approach to calculating the statute of limitations and apply the “discovery rule” to parents’ IDEA claims rather than simply time-barring claims that preceded two years prior to the date of the parents’ due process complaint filing.


As set forth in the statute, IDEA requires that parents exhaust administrative remedies through due process hearing channels for both their IDEA claims and claims brought under other federal statutes that seek relief available under the IDEA.  20 U.S.C. §1415(l).  In this case, the parents complied with IDEA’s exhaustion requirement and filed an initial due process complaint asserting claims under IDEA, Section 504 and the ADA.  When that due process complaint was dismissed, they filed an amended due process complaint only to receive a Final Order dismissing their amended due process complaint.  The hearing officer based the dismissal upon the parents’ persistence in raising non-IDEA claims (the 504/ADA claims) and the claims that the hearing officer determined were time-barred because they were outside the two-year window from the date of the filing of the parents’ initial due process complaint.  COPAA asserts that when a hearing officer refuses to hold a hearing on the merits, and instead issues a final order dismissing the entire due process complaint, including the IDEA claims within two years of the date of filing the due process complaint, the parents have fulfilled their obligation to exhaust administrative remedies and have the right to appeal that dismissal to the district court.  

Moreover, the Sixth Circuit has yet to address whether the discovery rule applies to IDEA’s statute of limitations.  Accordingly, COPAA asserts that this is purely a question of law which is not the type of question for which the administrative hearing officer’s expertise would apply, thus, necessitating a decision by the court.  E.g., Ezratty v. Puerto Rico, 648 F.2d 770, 774 (1st Cir. 1981); see also K.S. v. R.I. Bd. of Educ., 44 F. Supp. 3d 193 (D.R.I. 2014) (holding exhaustion not required for “a purely legal question of statutory interpretation concerning whether enforcement of Section 300.101 is a violation of the IDEA”).  


In addition, COPAA maintains that the plain language of the statute indicates that the discovery rule is the correct approach for determining the applicable statute of limitations for IDEA claims.  With the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, Congress adopted a uniform federal statute of limitations which states: “a parent or agency shall request an impartial due process hearing within 2 years of the date the parent or agency knew or should have known about the alleged action that formed the basis of the complaint . . . .”  20 U.S.C. §1415(f)(3)(C).  Thus, as COPAA contends, the district court’s failure to use the “discovery rule” (when the party knew or should have known of the injury) for calculating the parents’ statute of limitations on their claims under IDEA, is inconsistent with IDEA’s statutory language and purpose.

As further explained by COPAA, the “discovery rule” approach is supported not only by the plain language of the statute itself, but is supported by the other circuit courts of appeals that have addressed this provision of IDEA—the Third and Ninth Circuits.  G.L. v. Ligonier Valley Sch. Dist. Auth., 802 F.3d 601 (3d Cir. 2015); Avila v. Spokane Sch. Dist. 81, 852 F.3d 936 (9th Cir. 2017).  After a thorough analysis of the statutory language and congressional intent, the Third Circuit adopted the “discovery rule” for special education claims holding that “once a violation is reasonably discovered by the parent, any claim for that violation, however far back it dates, must be filed within two years of the ‘knew or should have known’ date.”  Ligonier, 802 F.3d at 620.  The Third Circuit made clear that relief was not limited to only two years, as the Ligonier decision further held that if a claim is not filed within two years of the “knew or should have known date” (i.e. “the discovery”), then, “all but the most recent two years before the filing of the complaint will be time-barred; but if it is timely filed, then, upon a finding of liability, the entire period of the violation should be remedied.”  Id. at 620-21.  The Ninth Circuit agreed, reasoning, “[i]f Congress intended a strict occurrence rule, there would have been no need to include the ‘knew or should have known’ language.”  Avila, 852 F.3d at 941. Here, without even inquiring into the “knew or should have known” date, the district court barred claims and relief outside the two-year period preceding the filing of the F.C.’s due process complaint.  This approach by the district court erroneously applied an “occurrence rule,” contrary to the explicit, mandatory language of the IDEA imposing a “discovery rule.”  Moreover, the holding “contravenes the language and purpose of Congress in using a reasonable discovery date” to determine when the statute of limitations begins to run. Ligonier, 802 F.3d at 613.  Thus, COPAA urges the Sixth Circuit to adopt the “discovery rule” approach used by the Third and Ninth Circuit, and set forth in the statutory language itself, as this approach encourages school districts to ensure that children receive a free and appropriate education and ensures that children with disabilities have a full and meaningful remedy as Congress intended.  


Read the Appellant’s brief and COPAA’s amicus brief.



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