Most practitioners in the field of special education are familiar with the general rule that federal courts will defer to the findings of the State Review Officer (“SRO”), (usually, the New York State Commissioner of Education, or his or her designee) over the findings of an Independent Hearing Officer (“IHO”) when considering the adequacy of services provided to a special education student by a school district. Three recent federal cases, however, P.F. v. Board of Education of the Bedford School District, S.C. v. Katonah- Lewisboro Central School District, and S.B. v. New York City Department of Education, all concerning parents’ efforts to obtain reimbursement from their school districts for private school placements; demonstrate that federal courts’ deference to the highest State education official is not a “knee-jerk” response; and, that courts will carefully scrutinize SRO decisions that overturn findings made by an IHO, thereby requiring that any such deference is earned.
All three of these cases were decided in a single week by three different judges sitting in the Southern District of New York, and all rejected the SRO’s decisions denying reimbursement, choosing instead to rely on findings made by an IHO – which had been reversed on appeal to the SRO – that the parents had, in fact, met their burden of establishing a right to reimbursement for the tuition they paid for their special education student children to attend private school at the school district’s expense. While none of these cases concerned a Long Island school district, each serves as a cautionary tale for the New York State Commissioner of Education and any designee when reviewing findings made by IHOs.
Special Education Law Generally
Students who are deemed to require special education services receive them by reason of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), which guarantees such students “free appropriate public education” (“FAPE”). A school district provides FAPE when it offers ‘“special education and related services’ tailored to meet the unique needs of a particular child, [which are] ‘reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.’”
These special education and related services to be provided to a special education student are set forth in that student’s Individualized Education Program (“IEP”), which is created by the school district’s Committee on Special Education (“CSE”), which includes the parents of the child who will receive services.
If parents disagree with the CSE’s findings, usually on the basis that the parents believe that the services set forth in the IEP will not provide the child with the required FAPE, parents can demand an impartial hearing, presided over by an IHO.
As long as the parents follow procedures with respect to the provision of notice to the district, they may unilaterally place their children in private school, and then, in the impartial hearing, seek reimbursement for the cost of such placement on the basis of a claim that the IEP proposed by the school district denied their child FAPE. In connection with any hearing seeking reimbursement for private school tuition, the parents have the burden, first, of demonstrating that the school district did not provide the student with FAPE and second, of establishing that the private placement chosen by the parents will provide the student with the appropriate services the child requires, as established by that child’s IEP.
An adverse IHO decision may be appealed by either party to the SRO, who independently reviews the IHO’s findings and ruling.
The SRO’s decision, although final from an administrative standpoint, may be appealed in state or federal court.
Where a SRO has concluded that an IEP provided FAPE, the burden of demonstrating to the court that the SRO erred falls on the plaintiff parents. In reviewing such determinations, courts must independently review the administrative record and make determinations based on a preponderance of the evidence.
Recognizing, however, that “the judiciary lacks expertise in educational policy,” courts are instructed not to “‘substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review.’”
As a result, the courts are generally deferential to the SRO’s conclusions and typically defer to the SRO’s determination when an IHO and SRO reach conflicting conclusions. That deference, however, is not without its limits. If the district court concludes that the SRO’s determinations are “insufficiently reasoned to merit that deference, and in particular the SRO rejects a more thorough and carefully considered decision of an IHO,” courts may rely instead on the IHO’s analysis, “which is also informed by greater educational expertise than that of judges.”
It was precisely on this basis that three separate judges, sitting in the Southern District, each declined, in the above-mentioned cases, to defer to the SRO’s decision regarding the parents’ right to reimbursement, and instead adopted the findings of the IHO.
The Three Recent Cases
In P.F., the court granted J.F.’s parents’ motion for summary judgment on their claim that their multiply-disabled child had been denied FAPE. There, the IHO had conducted a sixday hearing in which fifteen witnesses testified, ultimately issuing a 54-page decision in favor of the parents. On appeal from the IHO’s ruling, however, the SRO found in favor of the school district. In the federal district court, the court once again found in favor of the parents, adopting the IHO’s conclusion that the parents were entitled to reimbursement because, among other reasons, it found that the SRO’s review with respect to the student’s management needs was not “thorough and careful,” and “not well-reasoned.”
Indeed, that court described the SRO’s review of the parents’ criticism of the statement of annual goals set forth in their child’s IEP as “almost entirely a perfunctory regurgitation of the content of the IEP and generic testimony as to J.F.’s needs, [that] does not contain analysis as to how these goals would meet J.F’s specific needs.”
Additionally finding that the SRO was “incorrect” in some of her findings, and relied upon a “conclusory statement” to support another, the court found that the usual deference given to SRO’s findings was not appropriate, crediting “the better-reasoned IHO opinion, which is supported by evaluative evidence,” to find that school district had failed to provide FAPE.
In S.C., the court similarly rejected the SRO’s decision reversing the IHO’s finding in favor of the parents of a multiply-disabled child who sought reimbursement for that student’s private school tuition. In that case, the court rejected the SRO’s decision on the ground that there were “significant issues with the SRO’s reasoning and analysis,” including “that the SRO”s decision is not sufficiently well-reasoned, thorough, or persuasive enough to warrant deference.”
After independently reviewing the evidence, the court found in S.C. that, contrary to the SRO’s findings, the IHO’s decision was “supported by sufficient evidence in the record and ‘accordingly merits deference.’”
In S.B., the court also rejected the SRO’s decision in favor of the IHO’s finding that the parents of an autistic child were entitled to reimbursement for their private school placement. The court found that the SRO’s decision, “though well-reasoned in other respects,” incorrectly adopted “wholesale” the testimony of one witness who testified on behalf of the school district. The court also found that certain of the SRO’s conclusions were not supported by the weight of the evidence or were contrary to the weight of the evidence and, as a result, “flawed.”
Because the SRO never reached the adequacy of the private placement chosen by the parents (having found that the school district had provided FAPE), the court considered the IHO’s analysis of whether the private school chosen by the parents was appropriate, adopting it as “well-reasoned.”
Thus, the court refused to accept what it considered a less thorough and thoughtful analysis by the SRO, deferring instead to the IHO’s findings that the parents had demonstrated that the school district had denied FAPE and were entitled to reimbursement from the district for the tuition at the private school they chose.
While these three decisions are unlikely to signal the death-knell for the deference typically afforded SRO decisions that overturn an IHO’s findings, they do demonstrate that deference is not automatic, but rather depends upon whether the SRO is perceived to have carefully considered the evidence before the IHO. Parents who prevail at an impartial hearing only to have the SRO overturn the IHO’s decision would be well advised to focus their efforts on demonstrating to the court in connection with any review of the SRO’s decision that the IHO’s findings are better reasoned and more thorough than the decision issued by the SRO.