District of Delaware Rules In Favor of School District in Parents’ FAPE Claim

The United States District Court for the District of Delaware has found in favor of a local public school district in a special-education case brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  The conduct of the parents, said the Court, was a large part of the problem.

The parent involved in the case filed a due-process claim against the District in late 2006, alleging a number of procedural errors.  As a remedy, the parent sought a private placement at The Gow School at public expense. Therefore, the Delaware Department of Education was joined as an additional party to the proceeding.  In a decision issued on January 6, 2007, the administrative due process Hearing Panel found in favor of the District and the Department, and the parent appealed. 

On appeal, both the parent and the District filed motions for summary judgment.   The two key issues raised in the case centered on whether the District denied the student a free appropriate public education (FAPE) by (a) failing to have an IEP in place for the student on the first day of school and (b) failing to properly notice an IEP meeting.  The Court rejected both claims.  

First, the Court noted that “minor procedural violations do not constitute an IDEA violation.”  And, “[w]hile the court does not recommend having a disabled child attend school without an IEP, it finds the week delay to be a minor procedural error.  Consequently, the absence of an IEP on the first day of school does not equate to a denial of a FAPE.” 

Second, the Court held that the IEP meeting “was merely a continuation” of a prior IEP meeting and as such “no new notice was necessary.” Therefore, because there was no denial of FAPE, the Court concluded that the District was not responsible for the costs of the parents’ private school placement.

This decision highlights the fact that minor procedural errors do not automatically lead to liability for public school district’s under the IDEA.  The case also illustrates the risks run by parents when they cease to participate in the collaborative IEP development process.  Here, the Court specifically noted that it was “convinced that an IEP could have been instituted for [student] after the September 11, 2006 meeting and that none was developed because of the conduct of [student’s] mother.”  

[Editor’s Note:  As usual, the author’s humility has led him to omit his role in the case as counsel for the District.  Congratulations to Michael Stafford for securing this important victory for the school district! md]