546 U.S. 49 (2005), 04-698, Schaffer ex rel. Schaffer v. Weast

Docket Nº:No. 04-698.
Citation:546 U.S. 49, 126 S.Ct. 528, 163 L.Ed.2d 387
Party Name:Brian SCHAFFER, a minor, by his parents and next friends, Jocelyn and Martin SCHAFFER et al., Petitioners v. Jerry WEAST, Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools, et al.
Case Date:November 14, 2005
Court:United States Supreme Court

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546 U.S. 49 (2005)

126 S.Ct. 528, 163 L.Ed.2d 387

Brian SCHAFFER, a minor, by his parents and next friends, Jocelyn and Martin SCHAFFER et al., Petitioners


Jerry WEAST, Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools, et al.

No. 04-698.

United States Supreme Court

November 14, 2005

Argued Oct. 5, 2005.


[126 S.Ct. 530] SYLLABUS [*]

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.


The burden of persuasion 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. Pp. 533-537.

(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. Pp. 533-535.

(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

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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, 78 S.Ct. 212, 2 L.Ed.2d 247--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. Pp. 535-537.

377 F.3d 449, affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion. GINSBURG, [126 S.Ct. 531] J., and BREYER, J., filed dissenting opinions. ROBERTS, C. J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.


David B. Salmons, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the respondents.

William H. Hurd, Counsel of Record, Siran S. Faulders, Paige S. Fitzgerald, Troutman Sanders, LLP, Richmond, Virginia, Michael J. Eig, Haylie M. Iseman, Michael J. Eig & Associates, P.C., Chevy Chase, Maryland, for petitioners.

Judith S. Bresler, Eric C. Brousaides, Reese & Carney, LLP, Columbia, MD, Jeffrey A. Krew, Ellicott City, MD, Maree F. Sneed, Counsel of Record, Jonathan S. Franklin, Gregory G. Garre, Jessica L. Ellsworth, Hogan & Hartson L.L.P., Washington, D.C., Zvi Greismann, Montgomery County Public Schools, Rockville, MD, for Respondents.


O'Connor, Justice.

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The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA or Act), 84 Stat. 175, as amended, 20 U.S.C. A. §1400 et seq. (main ed. and Supp. 2005), is a Spending Clause statute that seeks to ensure that "all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education," §1400(d)(1)(A). Under IDEA, school districts must create an "individualized education program" (IEP) for each disabled child. §1414(d). If parents believe their child's IEP is inappropriate, they may request an "impartial due process hearing." §1415(f). The Act is silent, however, as to which party bears the burden of persuasion at such a hearing. We hold that the burden lies, as it typically does, on the party seeking relief.



Congress first passed IDEA as part of the Education of the Handicapped Act in 1970, 84 Stat. 175, and amended it

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substantially in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, 89 Stat. 773. At the time the majority of disabled children in America were "either totally excluded from schools or sitting idly in regular classrooms awaiting the time when they were old enough to 'drop out,' " H.R.Rep. No. 94-332, p. 2 (1975). IDEA was intended to reverse this history of neglect. As of 2003, the Act governed the provision of special education services to nearly 7 million children across the country. See Dept. of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, Data Analysis System, http://www.ideadata.org/ tables27th/ar- aa9.htm (as visited Nov. 9, 2005, and available in Clerk of Court's case file).

IDEA is "frequently described as a model of 'cooperative federalism.' " Little Rock School Dist. v. Mauney, 183 F.3d 816, 830 (C.A.8 1999). It "leaves to the States the primary responsibility for developing and executing educational programs for handicapped children, [but] imposes significant requirements to be followed in the discharge of that responsibility." Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 183, 102 S.Ct. 3034, 73 L.Ed.2d 690 (1982). For example, the Act mandates cooperation and reporting between state and federal educational authorities. Participating States must certify [126 S.Ct. 532] to the Secretary of Education that they have "policies and procedures" that will effectively meet the Act's conditions. 20 U.S.C. §1412(a). (Unless otherwise noted, all citations to the Act are to the pre-2004 version of the statute because this is the version that was in effect during the proceedings below. We note, however, that nothing in the recent 2004 amendments, 118 Stat. 2674, appears to materially affect the rule announced here.) State educational agencies, in turn, must ensure that local schools and teachers are meeting the State's educational standards. §§1412(a)(11), 1412(a)(15)(A). Local educational agencies (school boards or other administrative bodies) can receive IDEA funds only if they certify to a state educational

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agency that they are acting in accordance with the State's policies and procedures. §1413(a)(1).

The core of the statute, however, is the cooperative process that it establishes between parents and schools. Rowley, supra, at 205-206, 102 S.Ct. 3034 ("Congress placed every bit as much emphasis upon compliance with procedures giving parents and guardians a large measure of participation at every stage of the administrative process, . . . as it did upon the measurement of the resulting IEP against a substantive standard"). The central vehicle for this collaboration is the IEP process. State educational authorities must identify and evaluate disabled children, §§1414(a)-(c), develop an IEP for each one, §1414(d)(2), and review every IEP at least once a year, §1414(d)(4). Each IEP must include an assessment of the child's current educational performance, must articulate measurable educational goals, and must specify the nature of the special services that the school will provide. §1414(d)(1)(A).

Parents and guardians play a significant role in the IEP process. They must be informed about and consent to evaluations of their child under the Act. §1414(c)(3). Parents are included as members of "IEP teams." §1414(d)(1)(B). They have the right to examine any records relating to their child, and to obtain an "independent educational evaluation of the[ir] child." §1415(b)(1). They must be given written prior notice of any changes in an IEP, §1415(b)(3), and be notified in writing of the procedural safeguards available to them under the Act, §1415(d)(1). If parents believe that an IEP is not appropriate, they may seek an administrative "impartial due process hearing." §1415(f). School districts may also seek such hearings, as Congress clarified in the 2004 amendments. See S. Rep. No. 108-185, p. 37 (2003). They may do so, for example, if they wish to change an existing IEP but the parents do not consent, or if parents refuse to allow their child to be evaluated. As a practical matter,

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it appears that most hearing requests come from parents rather than schools. Brief for Petitioners 7.

Although state authorities have...

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