Endrew F. v. Douglas City School District

PETITIONER: Endrew F.
RESPONDENT: Douglas County School District RE-1
LOCATION: Firefly Autism House

DOCKET NO.: 15-827
DECIDED BY:
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: US ()
GRANTED: Sep 29, 2016
ARGUED: Jan 11, 2017

ADVOCATES:
Irving L. Gornstein - Counselor to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae
Jeffrey L. Fisher - for the petitioner
Neal Kumar Katyal - for the respondents

Facts of the case

Endrew F. is an autistic fifth grade student who was placed in private school because his parents believed his public school education was inadequate. Endrew was placed in Firefly Autism House and his parents sued for reimbursement of Endrew’s private school tuition and related expenses pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). IDEA provides that if a free public school cannot meet the educational needs of a disabled student, the student’s parents may enroll their child in a private school and seek reimbursement for tuition and related expenses.

This case first went to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) for review. The ALJ rejected Endrew’s parent’s request for reimbursement concluding that Endrew’s public school had provided him with  “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) as required by the IDEA. The district court affirmed the ALJ’s ruling and held that  Endrew’s parents failed to meet their burden to prove that Endrew was not provided with  FAPE. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed.

Question

What is the level of educational benefit that school districts must confer on children with disabilities to provide them with the free appropriate public education guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?

Media for Endrew F. v. Douglas City School District

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 11, 2017 in Endrew F. v. Douglas City School District

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We'll hear argument this -- this morning in Case No. 15-827, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. Mr. Fisher.

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: The IDEA does not permit a school district to provide a child with a disability a barely more than de minimis educational benefit.

Rather, what the Act requires is for the school to provide instruction and related services to the child that are reasonably calculated to provide substantially equal educational opportunities. The school district's primary response to our argument is that the standard I just described to you does not appear anywhere in the operative text of the IDEA.

But let me get right to --

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Well, it also -- it also didn't appear anywhere in the original petition, did it? I'm looking at Footnote 8 in your -- your opening brief where you note that substantial educational benefit was the standard that was discussed in the petition and then a significantly different one in your -- your opening brief.

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

Well, Mr. Chief Justice, we don't intend it to be significantly different.

What we do intend, as we describe in that footnote, is to give more detail as to how the standard works. I'd say --

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

The standard -- the standard you're asking us to adopt, substantially equal opportunity, that does appear someplace.

It appears in Justice Blackmun's concurring opinion in Rowley, and the court itself did not adopt that formulation, did not adopt substantially equal opportunity.

So you're asking us to adopt a standard that the majority already had before it and didn't adopt.

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

Justice Ginsburg, yes, Justice Blackmun proposed a standard similar to the one that we offered the Court today, but that was 1982.

And Congress has amended the IDEA twice, in 1997 and in 2004.

And in the findings and purposes, it now describes the way the Act works with exactly the words I'm giving you: Equal educational opportunity.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Well, that raises a concern under the Spending Clause.

I mean, the Spending Clause operations are pretty clear.

The Federal government proposes a deal to the States.

If the States want the money, they have to agree to these provisions. And now you're saying that the content of those provisions, though, is changed by new legislation. And I just wonder whether that puts some strain on the idea that the States have agreed to these provisions when they accepted the offer under the Spending Clause.

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

No, I don't think it does.

I think it's critical to get to the text for exactly the reason you say, Mr. Chief Justice. We know from Rowley that there's a substantive guarantee in the IDEA, and we know from Rowley, even in 1982, the way the Act was put together, that that substantive guarantee must track the way that the IEP provisions -- the individual educational program provisions work.

That's at page 203 and 204 of Rowley. So to get to the text and exactly what the State agrees to, you start with the FAPE definition, the definition for free appropriate public education.

We all agree on that.

Sub D of that definition says that the school has to provide an education, quote, "in conformity with the IEP plan." Then, to understand what that means, again, this is straight out of Rowley and straight out of the text, you turn to what the IEP provisions provide, and those are laid out at pages 52A and 53A of the government's appendix. And, in a nutshell, what they say over and over again is that standards, generally speaking, for children with disabilities should be aimed at the general educational curriculum.

So what you do is you start with the general educational curriculum that applies to all kids, then you identify the child's disability and how it impacts that child's ability to participate and progress in that general educational curriculum.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

How does that work?

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

Then --

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I'm sorry.

How does that work with students whose disabilities generally wouldn't allow them in -- in their own -- with their own potential to follow the general educational curriculum? I understand how it worked in Rowley --

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

Right.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

-- where we were dealing with someone with a particular disability, but one that was rather readily and easily addressed.

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

Uh-huh.