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Opinion Recap: Forest Grove School District v. T.A

Stanford clinic student Tiffany Cartwright discusses this morning’s decision in Forest Grove.

Today, the Supreme Court held that parents of disabled children can seek reimbursement for private education expenses regardless whether their child had previously received special-education services from a public school. By a vote of six to three, the Court held that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) authorizes reimbursement whenever a public school fails to make a free appropriate public education (FAPE) available to a disabled child. Interestingly, the Court granted certiorari on the same question in 2007 but affirmed the opinion below by an equally divided court (Justice Kennedy recused himself), indicating that at least one Justice changed his or her vote.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stevens, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito, relied heavily on the Court’s previous decisions in School Committee of Burlington v. Department of Education of Massachusetts and Florence County School District Four v. Carter, which held that the provision authorizing a court to “grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate,” Section 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii), included private school reimbursement.

The children in those cases received Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and the ensuing services from their public school districts, but their parents claimed the IEPs were inadequate. In this case, T.A. never received an IEP or any services at all. Those factual differences, the Court explained today, are irrelevant. The reasoning of Burlington applies equally to a child who has not received an IEP, and reimbursement is authorized unless the 1997 amendments to the IDEA require a different result.

Turning to those amendments, the Court held that they did not change the text of the provision interpreted in Burlington to authorize reimbursement, and Congress is presumed to have adopted the Court’s interpretations when it reenacts a statute without change. The Court then rejected Forest Grove’s argument that one of the new provisions, Section 1412(a)(10)(C), was intended by Congress to abrogate Burlington. Although it only discusses reimbursement for children who have previously received special education services, that does not mean IDEA only authorizes reimbursement in that circumstance. The text does not expressly prohibit reimbursement for other children, and such an interpretation would be at odds with the remedial purpose of IDEA and the 1997 amendments. Ultimately, the clauses of Section 1412(a)(10)(C) are “best read as elucidative rather than exhaustive.”

Finally, the Court also rejected the argument that the obligation to provide reimbursement was not stated unambiguously pursuant to the Spending Clause. The Court held that reimbursement was merely a part of the obligation to provide a FAPE, and that in any event the States had been put on notice by Burlington.

Justice Souter’s dissent, joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas, agreed with Forest Grove that Section 1412(a)(10)(C) was meant to limit reimbursement to children who had previously received special education services from a public school. The dissenters regarded the majority’s reading as implausible because it renders the provisions in that section superfluous.