Sua Sponte: NSBA’s amicus brief urges U.S. Supreme Court to review Tenth Circuit ruling that parents who unilaterally placed disabled student in a private residential treatment facility were entitled to tuition reimbursement

NSBA, along with the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB), has filed an amicus brief in support of Jefferson County School District R-1 (JCSDR1), asking the U. S. Supreme Court to review a decision by a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit (CO, KS, NM, OK, UT, WY).  The three-judge panel’s decision in JCSDR1 v. Elizabeth E. held that the parents of a special education student, who unilaterally placed her in a private treatment facility, were entitled to reimbursement for tuition expenses under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

At both the district and circuit court levels the parties disagreed on the test which the court should adopt for determining whether the parents were entitled to reimbursement.  The parents urged adoption of the Third Circuit’s “inextricably intertwined”  test, while JCSDR1 championed the “primarily oriented” test used in the Fifth and Seventh Circuits.  Declining to adopt either test, the Tenth Circuit panel’s majority found the placement reimbursable under a straightforward application of the IDEA statutory text.  In doing so, the majority relied on the plain language of the IDEA to develop a four-part test. Although all three judges agreed that regardless of the test applied the parents would still prevail on the facts, one judge filed a concurring opinion stressing that the private placement must provide a meaningful educational benefit, and not merely meet the student’s “unique needs,” in order to qualify for reimbursement under the IDEA.  (See Legal Clips for detail summary of Tenth Circuit’s majority and concurring opinions)

NSBA/CASB’s brief lays out two main policy arguments for the High Court to grant JCSDR1′s petition for certiorari and review the Tenth Circuit panel’s decision.  First, they argue that the issue in dispute has been adjudicated by the circuit courts using disparate standards and without any consensus, unconstitutionally leaving schools without the necessary clear notice of their obligations under the IDEA in this area.  The conflicting decisions from the circuit courts force key stakeholders into positions of adversarial mistrust rather than cooperation and invite costly and lengthy litigation between parents and public schools, as this case proves.  Second, NSBA/CASB contends that treating students’ mental health problems is beyond the role, capacity, and competency of public schools.

In closing the brief states:

As this issue stands today, the purposes of the IDEA are not served by the circuit split or the Tenth Circuit decision below.  Without further intervention from this Court, the cooperative process under IDEA to ensure children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education will be subverted, as public schools are faced with litigation seeking to make them the payer of first resort for services that they are neither suited nor funded to provide directly.

The brief, which was filed on April 26, 2013, was written by Joe R. Tanguma of Walsh, Anderson, Gallegos, Green & Treviño, P.C., Houston, Texas.

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