Statute of Limitations for IDEA Due Process Claims Under Threat?


On December 21, 2023, the United States District Court (“Court”) for the Central District of California issued a decision in J.R. by and through Perez v. Ventura Unified School District.  The Court, among other issues, considered the availability of an exception to the two-year statute of limitations for due process claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and California Education Code based on the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Avila v. Spokane School District, 852 F.3d 936 (9th Cir. 2017).  In applying Avila, the Court ruled that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) should have extended relief back to 2012 when J.R. was first assessed for special education, instead of April 8, 2019, consistent with a typical two-year statute of limitations period stemming from a due process filing date of April 8, 2021.

J.R. had been identified by the District as a student with a specific learning disability in 2012 due to disordered auditory processing skills.  He was later re-assessed in 2015 and 2018 and, although autism was mentioned in prior reports to some extent, J.R. was not found to be eligible for special education as a student with autistic like behaviors prior to June 30, 2014, or with autism thereafter when the eligibility title and qualifying criteria were changed.  In 2021, J.R. was privately assessed by a clinical psychologist and speech pathologist and diagnosed with autism. These assessors testified in the due process hearing that the symptoms of autism had been evident to at least some degree dating back to 2012.  

The ALJ found in favor of the District as to the proper application of the two-year statute of limitations, devoting roughly 32 pages specifically to her analysis of this issue.  She reasoned that, since parents had knowledge of J.R.’s symptoms and of the District’s assessments before 2019, this was “all the information they needed” to file a due process complaint.  On appeal, the Court disagreed and reversed.  In setting the stage for discussion about exceptions to the IDEA and Education Code’s statute of limitations provisions and how the Avila court explained —or expanded upon them, depending on one’s point of view —the Court first considered the basic rules. 

20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6)(B) and 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(C) govern the statute of limitations for IDEA claims.  Section 1415(b)(6)(B) allows a plaintiff to submit a complaint for a violation which occurred not more than 2 years before the date the parent or public agency knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint. Section 1415(f)(3)(C) also provides that a parent or agency shall request an impartial due process hearing within 2 years of the date the parent or agency knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint. Both sections provide that State law timelines, to the extent they exist, should be followed instead. 

California Education Code § 56505(l) provides that “[a] request for a due process hearing . . . shall be filed within two years from the date the party initiating the request knew or had reason to know of the facts underlying the basis for the request.”  This section also adopts the exceptions to the statute of limitations set forth in 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(D), which establishes that the timelines under sections 1415(f)(3)(C) and 56505(l) shall not apply to parents who were prevented from requesting a hearing due to:

  1. specific misrepresentations by the local educational agency that it had resolved the problem forming the basis of the complaint; or
  2. the local educational agency’s withholding of information from the parent that was required under this subchapter to be provided to the parent.

Applying the controversial Avila decision to the facts of this case, the Court found that the ALJ erred by failing to apply the “discovery rule” set forth in Avila and ultimately concluded that the statute of limitations should have been tolled by several years. The Court did not find that the parents should have suspected a disability based on the information they had about J.R.’s symptoms several years before the two-year statute of limitations but determined the District should have suspected a disability based on the same information.  It held that for the statute of limitations to apply, the record also needed to show why that information should have led the parents to suspect that J.R. required further assessment. The record in this case did not show that the parents had the “specialized skill” necessary to contest the school district’s eligibility determination. 

The Court further found that the statute of limitations was tolled because the District failed to provide parents with all required information, including providing them with information that would have helped them understand what the assessment results meant.  Put simply, the Court found the District was required to explain why it did not suspect autism even though reliable scientific methods indicated this conclusion was, at the very least, premature.

This case has been appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  However, in light of the District Court’s decision, school districts should remain aware that courts continue to be of the judicial mind that school districts are assumed to have expertise in identifying suspected disabilities. To avoid claims that parents have been excluded from the assessment and IEP processes, staff should ensure that the clinical significance of assessment results and other information are explained to parents during the IEP meeting in a way they can understand and that the IEP notes acknowledge that discussion. Further, in in appropriate circumstances following the meeting, a prior written notice can be used to bolster the IEP discussion and clarify lingering misunderstandings.

Should you have any questions concerning the topic of this alert, please do not hesitate to contact the authors or your usual counsel at AALRR for clarification and guidance.  

This AALRR publication is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching a conclusion in a particular area of law. Applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ substantially in individual situations. Receipt of this or any other AALRR publication does not create an attorney-client relationship. The Firm is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur in the publishing process. 

© 2024 Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo


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