Administrative law judge applied wrong standard in determining whether student suffering from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome was eligible for special education services under IDEA
A U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (IL, IN, WI) three-judge panel has reversed the decision of an administrative law judge (ALJ) and the district court, ruling that a student suffering from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) was not eligible for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) because his medical condition does not adversely affect his educational performance. The panel concluded that both the ALJ and the federal district court had applied the incorrect standard in determining whether the student’s EDS rendered him eligible for services. The ALJ had found that the student’s EDS adversely affects his educational performance because it causes him to experience pain and fatigue at school school, which can affect his educational performance (emphasis added). "This is an incorrect formulation of the test, " found the panel. "It is not whether something, when considered in the abstract, can but whether in reality it does adversely affect a student’s educational performance."
C.D. attends school in Marshall Joint School District No.2 (MJSD2). Because of his EDS, the IEP team found him eligible for special education, and MJSD2 provided him with additional resources in his academic classes and special education services in gym. His eligibility for such services was reevaluated in second grade, at which time the team determined that he was no longer eligible for special education services. MJSD2 employed the two-step process mandated by IDEA for determining C.D.’s eligibility: (1) whether the child has a disability recognized by the statute; and (2) as a result, needs special education. EDS fell within the catch-all category of "other health impairment" under the IDEA. In order for a condition in this category to qualify, however, it must adversely affect the student’s educational performance. If this threshold step is satisfied, the school district must determine whether as a result the student “needs special education.” Although MJSD2 concluded C.D.’s EDS does not adversely affect his educational performance, it still addressed the second step. It concluded he "did not need special education because his needs could be met in a regular education setting with some slight modifications for his medical and safety needs."
C.D.’s parents disagreed with the finding and requested an administrative (due process) hearing. The ALJ rejected MJSD2′s finding, holding that C.D.’s “ability to fully and safely perform and participate in certain physical activities at school, including regular PE class and recess, is adversely affected by his EDS.” The ALJ also rejected MJSD2′s alternative finding that C.D. did not need special education, concluding that C.D. “cannot safely engage in unrestricted participation in various activities of the regular PE program and that he requires special education, particularly specially designed PE and related services to meet his unique needs.” MJSD2 appealed the ALJ’s decision to a federal district court in Wisconsin, which upheld the ALJ’s ruling.
The Seventh Circuit panel reversed the lower court’s decision and remanded the case to it with instructions to enter judgment for MJSD2. It found that the ALJ’s misstatement of the law had affected her finding and had resulted in over reliance on C.D.’s doctor’s opinion even though the doctor lacked any special education expertise. "[T]he ALJ applied the wrong legal standard in determining whether the EDS adversely affected C.D.’s educational performance, and while there is evidence that the EDS can affect C.D.’s educational performance, there is no substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s finding that it has an adverse affect."
The appellate panel pointed out that even if the ALJ’s analysis of the first step had been correct, the ALJ would still have to determine if C.D., as a result of his condition, requires special education. Agreeing with MJSD2′s contention that "physicians cannot simply prescribe special education for a student," the panel rejected the ALJ’s reliance on C.D.’s medical experts. The panel rejected the ALJ’s finding that C.D.’s adaptive physical education teacher’s testimony was "not credible," noting that the teacher was responsible for both formulating and implementing his individualized educational plans (IEP) and coordinating the modifications and accommodations that allowed C.D. to participate more fully in physical education class. It found that the very expertise that the teacher exercised in ensuring that C.D.’s IEP was followed was being discounted because according to the ALJ the teacher’s compliance with IDEA negated her contention that C.D. was no longer in need of special education.
The panel found that C.D. had no need of special education in physical education because "his needs could be addressed by allowing him to participate in regular gym with a health plan." It noted, as had the district court, that C.D. did not need special education in gym because he was performing at grade level and had made huge personal gains over previous years. Lastly, the panel noted C.D.’s indeed could benefit from physical and occupational therapy.” These services are related services, however, used to give a student the full benefit of special education instruction under IDEA. The statute is "perfectly clear on this point: if a child has a health problem ‘but only needs a related service and not special education, the child is not a child with a disability.’"
Marshall Joint Sch. Dist. No. 2 v. C.D., Nos 09-1319/09-2499 (7th Cir. Aug. 2, 2010)
[Editor's Note: In 2007, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (ME, MA, NH, PR, RI) ruled that a student suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome qualified as a "child with a disability" under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) entitled to special education services, even though she excelled academically, because any negative impact her condition had on her educational performance, regardless of degree, could qualify as an "adverse effect" for purposes of IDEA’s eligibility test. A summary of the opinion is available below.]