A Stay-Put Order Under IDEA Functions As A Preliminary Injunction

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Dec 22, 2021

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) offers federal funds to states that furnish a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to children with physical or intellectual disabilities.

A school district provides a FAPE by devising an individualized education program (IEP), which identifies instructions for a child’s unique educational needs and support services to allow the child to benefit from the instruction. The IEP is developed by an “IEP team,” which includes the child’s parents, school officials, and teachers. The IEP also documents the child’s levels of academic achievement and identifies annual educational goals.

IDEA provides for specific procedural safeguards to address disputes over an IEP. If a parent is not satisfied with the IEP or has another complaint about the school district’s provision of the FAPE, the parent can file a complaint with the responsible state or local educational agency. Upon receiving the complaint, the agency must convene a “preliminary meeting” with the IEP team and the child’s parents. If the parents are still unsatisfied, the parties can proceed with a due process hearing before a neutral arbiter, who determines whether the child has received a FAPE.

If the parents are aggrieved with the ruling of the arbiter, they then have the right to file a suit in court. However, while the suit is ongoing, IDEA requires that the child remains in their then-current educational placement – a requirement known as the “stay-put” provision. The “stay-put” acts as an automatic preliminary injunction, meaning the child’s IEP plan remains in place until the proceeding is complete.

S.C. is a teenage girl who attends school in Lincoln County School District. S.C. has a severe form of Prader-Willi Syndrome (“PWS”), which causes loss of appetite control, anxiety, depression, and physical and verbal aggression. S.C. had been receiving special education services at the school district since 2015. In May 2020 S.C.’s mother, K.G., filed an administrative challenge claiming the school district was not providing a FAPE to S.C. While the administrative challenge was still pending, a new IEP was approved without input from S.C. and K.G in September 2020.

An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on the challenge. Because the ALJ’s review was limited to two years preceding the filing of the complaint, the hearing did not cover the September 2020 IEP. The ALJ found the school did not provide S.C. a FAPE and ordered S.C. be placed in a residential facility that treats students with PWS at the district’s expense.

The school district did not comply with the order and failed to enroll S.C. in a residential facility. K.G., on behalf of S.C. filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking a stay-put order or a preliminary injunction to compel the school district to comply with the ALJ’s order. The trial court denied K.C.’s request on the grounds that K.G. needed to challenge the September 2020 IEP through administrative procedures before filing a suit in court.

The Ninth Circuit held that the trial court misinterpreted that the ALJ’s order provided simultaneous remedies, rather than the immediate transfer to the residential facility until the school district provided an appropriate IEP.

Additionally, the trial court’s interpretation of the ALJ’s order would require K.G. to file a new due process challenge to the September 2020 IEP in order to receive the benefit of the favorable ALJ ruling, even though September 2020 was outside the scope of the ALJ’s review. The Ninth Circuit held that this was inconsistent with the procedural protections of the IDEA. Under this interpretation, parents would be forced to file a due process challenge every time a new IEP is developed without enjoying the benefits of a favorable administrative ruling on a previous challenge.

The Ninth Circuit also held the trial court failed to ask how the ALJ changed S.C.’s education placement. Federal regulations require that the educational placement must be treated as an agreement between the parents and the state if the hearing officer agrees with the parents that a change is appropriate for purposes of “stay-put.” The Ninth Circuit held that the ALJ’s order that S.C. be placed in a residential facility constituted an agreement between the state and S.C’s parents for purposes of the stay-put provision. As such, S.C. must be placed at a residential facility and remain there until the school provides a FAPE that cures the deficiencies of previous IEPs that the ALJ identified in the order.

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision.

S.C. by K.G. v. Lincoln Cty. Sch. Dist. (9th Cir. 2021) 16 F.4th 587.

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