The IDEA’s Statute of Limitations Looks Forward From the Date of Discovery, Not Backward

Category: Education Matters
Date: May 18, 2017 10:36 AM

In 2006, the Avilas, parents of G.A., a student in the Spokane School District 81, asked the District to evaluate their son for special education services.  A school psychologist evaluated G.A. and concluded that G.A.’s behavior was not severe enough to qualify for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  In 2007, the Avilas requested that the District re-evaluate G.A. for IDEA eligibility.  A school psychologist concluded in a reevaluation dated April 14, 2008, that G.A. was eligible for special education services for autism.  About a year later, the Avilas and the District both filed a request for a due process hearing regarding a subsequent reevaluation of G.A.’s behavior.

The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruled that the Avilas’ pre-April 2008 claims were barred by the statute of limitations because they occurred more than two years before the Avilas filed their due process complaint.  These claims included allegations that the District denied G.A. a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) by failing to identify him as a child with a disability in 2006, and that the District failed to assess his suspected disability in 2006 and 2007.  The Avilas challenged the ALJ’s decision, and the federal trial court agreed that the claims were barred by the statute of limitations.  The Avilas appealed.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals explained that the IDEA’s statute of limitations is contained in two different provisions of the IDEA, which create ambiguity.  The first provides that the two-year statute of limitations for filing a due process complaint is triggered when a parent “knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint.”  This is referred to as the “discovery rule.”  A parent would then have two years after he or she discovers a violation to file a due process complaint.  The second provision is written, instead, to bar a complaint regarding the identification, evaluation or educational placement of a child, or the provision of a FAPE if it arises from conduct occurring more than two years before the discovery date.  This is referred to as a “strict occurrence rule.”

The Court held that both provisions should be read as requiring an application of the “discovery rule.”  The Court considered whether Congress might have intended to create different limitations periods for requesting due process hearings and presenting complaints, but found instead that the second provision, “though poorly penned,” was intended merely as a synopsis of the discovery rule stated in the first provision.  Further, cutting off children’s and parent’s remedies if violations are not discovered within two years is not consistent with the IDEA’s purpose.  Thus, parents and children have two years after the discovery date to request a due process hearing or present a complaint.  The Court also found that the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of the IDEA and the IDEA’s legislative history both support this conclusion.

Both parties agreed that the discovery rule should apply to trigger the statute of limitations, but the District argued that the district court did apply the discovery rule.  The Ninth Circuit found that the district court had initially stated the correct rule, but had not applied it.  Thus, it ordered the district court to make findings about when the Avilas “knew or should have known” about the alleged actions that formed the basis of their complaint and address the statute of limitations under the standard adopted by the Court.

Avila v. Spokane School District 81 (9th Cir. 2017) 852 F.3d 936.

NOTE:

There are two exceptions to the IDEA’s two-year statute of limitations, which were not discussed in this case, but are important:  (1) when a local educational agency misrepresents that it has resolved issues underlying a claim; and (2) when a local educational agency withholds necessary information.  

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