Schaffer V. Weast

US Supreme Court

___ U.S. ___, 2005 U.S. LEXIS 8554, 2005 WL 3028015 (2005).

November 14, 2005

In a decision that may have far reaching implications for disabled students eligible for special education services, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the burden of proof in an administrative “due process” hearing challenging the student’s education plan is placed on the party seeking relief, whether that party is the disabled child or the local school district. In Schaffer v. Weast, the Court entered the murky waters of special education law, as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and opted to tip the balance against state’s rights in its attempt to define the scope and of administrative proceedings. As a result, in states that have not determined which party maintains the burden of proof in special education due process hearings, parties seeking relief in those proceedings will now be required to carry the burden of proof, placing the already cumbersome task of challenging a local board of education on a much higher footing.

Brian Schaffer, the disabled plaintiff, suffers from learning disabilities and speech-language impairment. From grades kindergarten through seven, he attended a private school where he struggled academically. After his seventh grade year, his mother proceeded to contact the local educational authority (“LEA”) 1 seeking a public school placement for him the following year. The LEA evaluated Brian and convened an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”) meeting offering him a placement in one of the county’s two middle schools 2. The parents demurred from this offer, placed Brian in a private school catering to his academic needs, and initiated a due process hearing seeking compensation for the private school tuition. The due process administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held that the parents had the burden of proof and ruled in favor of the LEA. The parents brought a civil action pursuant to 20 U.S.C. §1415(i)(2) challenging the administrative decision, where the District Court reversed and remanded the case after concluding the LEA had the burden of proof in administrative proceedings under IDEA. The LEA appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which vacated and remanded the case to the District Court after learning that the ALJ reconsidered the case, deeming the evidence truly “in equipoise,” and ruled in favor of the parents. Eventually, the case wended its way back to the Fourth Circuit, which in a split decision, concluded that there was no persuasive reason to depart from the normal rule of allocating the burden of proof to the party seeking relief 3, thereby ruling in favor of the LEA.

In a short decision authored by Justice O’Connor, the Court opted to follow the traditional legal pathway in a statutory cause of action, whereby the party seeking relief has the burden of proof in an administrative proceeding 4. Absent explicit statutory language, which does not exist in IDEA, the Court seemed unwilling to change the long held belief that placing the entire burden of proof on an opposing party (here the LEA), would be imprudent and defy statutory precedent. In addition, the more comprehensive analysis of IDEA provides ample justification to refute the parents’ contention that the LEA should always possess the burden of proof in due process hearings. Assigning this burden to the LEA’s will not necessarily ensure that disabled students receive a free appropriate public education pursuant to IDEA, but the resulting shifting of marginal resources would put an undue burden on already financially strapped LEA’s.

The Court also rejected what it considered the parents’ strongest argument – that the general rule of ordinary fairness requires that the litigant not have the burden of establishing facts particularly within the knowledge of his adversary. Under IDEA, parents are provided with a number of procedural safeguards, including the right to unfettered access to school records, an independent educational evaluation pf their child, and attorney’s fees if they prevail at a hearing. Thus, the Court opines that these protections ensure that the school bears no unique informational advantage.

In an important caveat to the holding, however, Justice O’Connor notes that while several states (including Connecticut 5), have laws or regulations placing the burden of proof on the LEA, those state requirements will not be affected because no such law or regulation exists in Maryland. Since the argument of whether states should be the sole decision maker regarding the allocation of the burden (as proposed by Justice Breyer in his dissent) was not raised at the argument, the court declined to address it.

In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg argues that the complexity and overwhelming nature of IDEA mandates placing the burden on the LEA to even the playing field for parents of children with special needs. Justice Breyer, taking a shot at the court’s unwillingness to adhere to principles of federalism, indicated that states should always bear the burden of establishing sufficient administrative laws and regulations determining how the federal statute should be applied in its jurisdiction, and therefore the case should be remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings.

The case may be obtained by going to the Supreme Court’s website at:

1. Montgomery County Public Schools System, Montgomery Maryland.

2. An IEP meeting is the generic description for a team meeting to develop a child’s IEP under IDEA. Connecticut refers to its IEP meetings as planning and placement team meetings, or PPT’s.

3. When he reached high school age, the LEA agreed to place Brian in a high school with a special learning center. The litigation continued, however, as the parents sought compensation for the private middle school tuition.

4. The Court substitutes the terms “burden of proof” with “burden of persuasion” interchangeably in the decision. Although traditionally the term “burden of persuasion,” wherein a party loses if the evidence is closely balanced, is utilized to describe the adjudicatory process, the opinion relies on “burden of proof” as its general term of art, and therefore “burden of proof” is used here.

5. See Regs. Conn. State Agencies 10-76h-14.

Filed in Tags:

« Back to Case Library

Donate Now »