Education Law - Burden of Persuasion in IDEA Due Process Hearings
The United States Supreme Court has held, in SCHAFFER V. WEAST (04-698), decided on November 14, 2005, that the burden of persuasion in in an administrative hearing challenging an IEP is properly placed upon the party seeking relief, whether that is the disabled child or the school district.
To ensure disabled children a "free appropriate public education," 20 U.S.C.A. §1400(d)(1)(A), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA or Act) requires school districts to create an "individualized education program" (IEP) for each disabled child, §1414(d), and authorizes parents challenging their child’s IEP to request an "impartial due process hearing," §1415(f), but does not specify which party bears the burden of persuasion at that hearing.
After an IDEA hearing initiated by petitioners, the Administrative Law Judge held that they bore the burden of persuasion and ruled in favor of respondents. The District Court reversed, concluding that the burden of persuasion is on the school district. The Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court, concluding that petitioners had offered no persuasive reason to depart from the normal rule of allocating the burden to the party seeking relief.
In an opinion by Justice O'Conner the Court found:
(a) Because IDEA is silent on the allocation of the burden of persuasion, this Court begins with the ordinary default rule that plaintiffs bear the burden regarding the essential aspects of their claims. Although the ordinary rule admits of exceptions, decisions that place the entire burden of persuasion on the opposing party at the outset of a proceeding–as petitioners urge the Court to do here–are extremely rare. Absent some reason to believe that Congress intended otherwise, the Court will conclude that the burden of persuasion lies where it usually falls, upon the party seeking relief.
(b) Petitioners’ arguments for departing from the ordinary default rule are rejected. Petitioners’ assertion that putting the burden of persuasion on school districts will help ensure that children receive a free appropriate public education is unavailing. Assigning the burden to schools might encourage them to put more resources into preparing IEPs and presenting their evidence, but IDEA is silent about whether marginal dollars should be allocated to litigation and administrative expenditures or to educational services.
There is reason to believe that a great deal is already spent on IDEA administration, and Congress has repeatedly amended the Act to reduce its administrative and litigation-related costs. The Act also does not support petitioners’ conclusion, in effect, that every IEP should be assumed to be invalid until the school district demonstrates that it is not. Petitioners’ most plausible argument–that ordinary fairness requires that a litigant not have the burden of establishing facts peculiarly within the knowledge of his adversary, United States v. New York, N. H. & H. R. Co., 355 U.S. 253, 256, n. 5–fails because IDEA gives parents a number of procedural protections that ensure that they are not left without a realistic chance to access evidence or without an expert to match the government.
Stevens, J., filed a concurring opinion. Ginsburg, J., and Breyer, J., filed dissenting opinions. Roberts, C. J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
The Court's decision is available from the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School at: http://straylight.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/04-698.ZS.html.