The IDEA Statute of Limitations (Finally!) Explained
By Christopher J. Conrad, Esq.*
In 2004, Congress reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. §1400 et seq., a federal law intended to ensure that every child with special needs is afforded a free appropriate public education (commonly known as a FAPE). The IDEA ensures that right by mandating that public educational institutions—including school districts, intermediate units and public charter schools—identify, evaluate and effectively educate special needs children, or pay for their education elsewhere if they require specialized services that the public institution cannot provide. The statute broadly authorizes special education hearing officers and federal courts to provide equitable relief, including compensatory education, to children who have been deprived of a FAPE.
Prior to the 2004 reauthorization, the IDEA did not include a statute of limitations. Congress found this problematic, because parents could knowingly wait for many years to file a complaint, resulting in school districts often being surprised by claims involving students who were much older than when the issues giving rise to the claims first presented and, on occasion, involving students who had long since graduated, or moved away, from the district. Congress reasoned that waiting many years to bring actions on behalf of a child jeopardizes the child’s education and creates distrust between parents and school districts.
Congress sought to remedy this concern in its 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA by adding a statute of limitations, now found at 20 U.S.C. §1415(f)(3)(C), which, in pertinent part, states: “A parent or agency shall request an impartial due process hearing within two years of the date the parent or agency knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint…” Thus, under the IDEA, parents generally must file their due process complaint within two years of the date they “knew or should have known” of the alleged violation (often referred to as the KOSHK date), except in limited circumstances when certain equitable tolling provisions built into the statute apply, or unless the governing state has an explicit time limitation for requesting a hearing, in which case state law governs.
While §1415(f)(3)(C) seems fairly straightforward on its face, as the language reads like a typical two-year statute of limitations found elsewhere under federal and state law, the intent of this limitations provision was muddied by another amendment appearing elsewhere in the IDEA as a result of the 2004 reauthorization. Section 1415(b), entitled “types of procedures,” lists and briefly describes the procedures for commencing and conducting a due process hearing under the IDEA. Section 1415(b)(6)(B), as amended in 2004, states that the procedures discussed generally in §1415(b) afford “[a]n opportunity for any party to present a complaint… which sets forth an alleged violation that occurred not more than two years before the date the parent or public agency knew or should have know about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint…”
With the 2004 reauthorization, the complaint procedure described in §1415(b)(6)(B) came to parallel the statute of limitations set forth in §1415(f)(3)(C) in several key respects, including that both now describe a two-year time limit that depends on a reasonable discovery (KOSHK) date. Unlike §1415(f)(3)(C), however, the two-year limitations period stated in §1415(b)(6)(B) runs backward instead of forward from the KOSHK date. The Third Circuit noted recently in its precedential decision G.L. v. Ligonier Valley School District Authority, 2015 U.S.App. LEXIS 16776 (3d Cir. Sept. 22, 2015), “[t]he differences in the language of these provisions and the fact that they appear to move in opposite directions from the reasonable discovery date has given rise to confusion in the wake of the 2004 reenactment, with district courts within this Circuit interpreting them in a range of ways.” The court pointed out that some district courts in the Circuit have construed the two provisions to limit redress to the two years preceding a complaint (a position often advanced in defense of public institutions), while others have interpreted the provisions to impose a filing deadline but not to limit the remedy for timely-filed claims, and while still others have embraced a “2+2” approach (i.e., that the section provides a two-year window before the KOSHK date within which a parent may claim an IDEA violation occurred), essentially creating a four-year period of redress for a timely-filed claim (a position argued by many parents’ attorneys).
The Third Circuit in G.L. v. Ligonier Valley, carefully considered each of these competing viewpoints and found that the limitations provision warranted further scrutiny, finding that the language of §1415(b)(6)(B) was not plain but, rather, ambiguous, and that “[t]he clearest way to demonstrate the ambiguity it has created in the statute… is through the diametrically opposed interpretations…” that have been adopted by different courts in the Circuit and, by extension, the varying interests of the special education bar. In reviewing the legislative history behind Congress’s drafting of the 2004 reauthorization, the court reasoned that the inconsistent language in §1415(b)(6)(B) and §1415(f)(3)(C) reflected nothing more than a drafting error in the reauthorization process and that Congress actually intended the statute of limitations appearing in both sections to be one and the same. Thus, the court concluded that the two-year statute of limitations appearing in both sections, when read together, “functions in a traditional way, that is, as a filing deadline that runs from the date of reasonable discovery and not as a cap on a child’s remedy for timely-filed claims that happen to date back more than two years before the complaint is filed.” In so reasoning, the court held:
[A]bsent one of the two statutory exceptions found in §1415(f)(3)(D), parents have two years from the date they knew or should have known of the violation to request a due process hearing through the filing of an administrative complaint and that, assuming parents timely file that complaint and liability is proven, Congress did not abrogate our longstanding precedent that “a disabled child is entitled to compensatory education for a period equal to the period of deprivation, but excluding the time reasonably required for the school district to rectify the problem.” (citations omitted).
G.L. v. Ligonier Valley is a significant decision in special education law in that we now know unequivocally that the separate references to the limitations periods appearing in different sections of the 2004 IDEA reauthorization, while seemingly diametrically opposed on their face, actually mean the same thing. Thus, there is no question that parents and guardians must be vigilant and cannot sit on the rights they have as parents and guardians of children with special needs. If parents know, or have reason to know, that their school district violated their child’s rights, in most circumstances they must file a complaint within two years of that KOSHK date or be forever time-barred. As attorneys representing school districts and other Local Educational Agencies (LEA), this remains a viable defense that must be raised in appropriate cases, which in many instances will require a hearing officer to consider evidence as to the timeliness of the claim before the substantive issues in dispute can be addressed.
On the other hand, we no longer have at our disposal the argument (embraced by several hearing officers and federal courts) that the period of redress is capped at two years from either the KOSHK date or, alternatively, from the date the complaint was actually filed. Instead, a student whose rights were violated is entitled to compensatory education for the entire “period of deprivation,” no matter how many years the student’s rights were violated, so long as the complaint is timely filed. Obviously, this exposes school districts and other LEAs to greater potential liability because hearing officers now unquestionably have complete authority and discretion to award multiple years’ worth of compensatory education, if appropriate, not just two years’ at most. School districts and other LEAs are well advised to be ever more vigilant in ensuring they are identifying and evaluating all students for whom they are responsible and who may be in need of special education and related services and delivering the FAPE to which they are entitled, as the failure to do so could be significant and costly.
*Chris is a shareholder in our Harrisburg, Pennsylvania office who can be reached at 717.651.3531 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Defense Digest, Vol 21, No. 4, December 2015
Defense Digest is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2015 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact email@example.com.