Individuals with Disabilities Education Act • “Stay-put” Provision • Reimbursement of Private School Costs • Timeliness of Reimbursement Claim

M.R. v. Ridley Sch. Dist., PICS Case No. 14-0314 (3d Cir. Feb. 20, 2014) Lipez, J. (32 pages).

Where a hearing officer designates a private school as the appropriate educational setting for a student, the “stay-put” rule is triggered and the student’s parents are entitled to reimbursement for costs even after a court ruling overturning the hearing officer’s decision. Affirmed.

Plaintiffs M.R. and J.R., parents of minor child E.R., sought reimbursement for private school costs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Plaintiffs withdrew E.R., who has learning disabilities and other health issues, from the public school system after they were unsatisfied with the IEP, and sent E.R. to a private school for students with learning disabilities. Plaintiffs then sought review by a hearing officer, who ruled that defendant Ridley School District failed to provide a “free appropriate public education” and awarded reimbursement for private school costs.

Defendant sought review by the district court, who reversed the hearing officer’s placement assessment by finding that defendant’s public school IEP was adequate; plaintiffs appealed. Subsequent to the district court’s ruling, in early 2011, plaintiffs filed a separate action seeking reimbursement of private school costs through that semester pursuant to IDEA’s “stay-put” rule.

Defendant denied responsibility for any reimbursement, arguing that plaintiffs’ claim was barred by res judicata, failure to file compulsory counterclaim, and/or the statute of limitations; alternatively, defendant argued it was only responsible for reimbursement up to the date of the district court’s ruling.

In finding for the plaintiffs, the court noted that the stay-put rule allows a student to remain in their current educational setting until the conclusion of the dispute review process; furthermore, although the rule does not apply where parents choose to place their child in a setting not agreed to by the school district, if a hearing officer later rules in favor of the parents’ choice it has the legal effect of bringing the school district into agreement and authorizing that placement for the purposes of the stay-put rule. In the instant case, the hearing officer’s ruling in favor of plaintiffs made E.R.’s placement in private school effective under the rule.

The court rejected defendant’s argument that plaintiffs’ claim was barred by res judicata, failure to file compulsory counterclaim under F.R.C.P. 13(a), or the statute of limitations. The court found that res judicata and Rule 13(a) did not apply in the instant case, as although it was related to the underlying action regarding E.R.’s IEP, the current dispute over responsibility for reimbursement implicated a different set of facts and law than the dispute over the IEP. Consequently, the principles of res judicata did not apply, nor were plaintiffs required to bring their claim pursuant to Rule 13(a).

The court also ruled that the statute of limitations under IDEA did not apply in the instant case, finding that the 90-day provision only applied where a party was aggrieved by a hearing officer’s decision. In the instant case, the hearing officer ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on E.R.’s placement; as a result, they were not aggrieved by the officer’s decision.

Finally, the court rejected defendant’s assertion that it was only responsible for reimbursement up until the district court’s ruling. The court rejected the argument that plaintiffs’ claim only accrued when they filed their claim, finding that because the stay-put rule is an automatic provision, it would be pointless for a plaintiff to have to make demand, for which the district would have no response, in order to accrue its claim.