Forest Grove School District v. T.A.

PETITIONER: Forest Grove School District
RESPONDENT: T. A.
LOCATION: Forest Grove High School

DOCKET NO.: 08-305
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 557 US (2009)
GRANTED: Jan 16, 2009
ARGUED: Apr 28, 2009
DECIDED: Jun 22, 2009

ADVOCATES:
David B. Salmons - argued the cause for the respondent
Eric D. Miller - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the respondent
Gary S. Feinerman - argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In 2003, T.A., a former student in the Forest Grove School District, sought to be evaluated for suspected learning disabilities. In 2004, the Office of Administrative Hearings for the State of Oregon determined that T.A. was disabled and eligible for special education under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. As T.A. was no longer enrolled in the Forest Grove School District, but attending private school, the hearing officer ordered the school district to reimburse T.A. for the private school tuition ($5,200 per month), determining it had failed to offer him a free and appropriate public education.

The school district appealed the order in an Oregon federal district court arguing that reimbursement was not appropriate because T.A. unilaterally withdrew from school, never received special education services while enrolled, and withdrew for reasons unrelated to his learning disability. The district court invalidated the order. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court and upheld the order. It reasoned that IDEA provided the courts broad discretion in order to achieve "equitable relief" for disabled students, including reimbursement for private school tuition.

Question

Under IDEA, can a federal district court order a school district to reimburse its former student for his tuition at a private school when the student unilaterally withdrew from school, never received special education services while enrolled, and withdrew for reasons unrelated to his learning disability?

Media for Forest Grove School District v. T.A.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 28, 2009 in Forest Grove School District v. T.A.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 22, 2009 in Forest Grove School District v. T.A.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Stevens has our opinion this morning in case 08-305, Forest Grove School District versus T. A.

John Paul Stevens:

After a private specialist diagnosed respondent with a learning disability, his parents placed him in a private academy that dedicated to students with special needs.

Respondent's parents then requested an administrative hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the IDEA, to determine whether respondent was eligible for public special education services.

The hearing officer concluded that respondent was eligible and that the School District was wrong in failing to identify his disability and provide him with appropriate special-education services.

Finding also that respondent's private school placement was appropriate, the hearing officer ordered the School District to reimburse respondent's parents for the cost of his private-school tuition.

The District Court set aside the award, holding their recent amendments to IDEA categorically bar reimbursement unless a child has previously received public special education services.

The Ninth Circuit reversed including that a court may order reimbursement if the School District has failed to meet its obligations under IDEA and the child has been placed in an appropriate private school.

A child's previous receipt of public special-education services is not an absolute prerequisite for reimbursement.

We agree with the Ninth Circuit.

Several years ago, we held in a case called School Committee of Burlington that if provision of IDEA authorizing courts to award “appropriate” relief permits reimbursement for the cost of private-school tuition when a school district fails to provide adequate special-education services and the child's private school placement is appropriate.

Congress amended IDEA in 1997 adding provisions that elaborate on the circumstances in which reimbursement is appropriate.

The Amendments made no change to the central purpose of IDEA or to the text of the provision we construed in the Burlington case.

Accordingly, we do not read the Amendments to abridge the authority of courts and hearing officers to award reimbursement in the circumstances of this case.

A contrary reading would be inconsistent with the text and purpose of IDEA and it would produce the absurd result of providing a remedy when a school offers a child inadequate special-education services that leave parents without a remedy when the school unreasonably denies access to such services altogether.

Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Scalia and Thomas have joined.