News Out of the Third Circuit Concerning the Statute of Limitations for Special Education Due Process Matters
In a matter of first impression, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has firmly settled the debate over how to interpret the two-year statute of limitations created under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 in the matter of G.L. v. Ligonier Valley School District Authority, No. 14-1387 (3d Cir. 2015).
The Court held that the IDEA statute of limitations creates a “discovery rule” approach, in which the statute of limitations begins on the date the parents knew or should have known of the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) violation, rather than an “occurrence rule” approach, wherein the statute of limitations period would begin to run on the actual date of the violation. Based on this clarification, parents would be required to file Due Process within two years of the date they knew, or should have known, of the alleged denial of FAPE.
The most important part of the decision in G.L. however, is that the Third Circuit has determined that there is no limit to the number of years for which relief can be granted.
Previously, courts have interpreted the “discovery rule” statute of limitations under IDEA in two different ways, with significant inconsistency, through their interpretation of the various sections of its amendments. The first being a strict two-year statute of limitations limiting claims to those within the two years prior to the filing of the due process complaint. The second being an approach which applied a “two plus two” approach where parents would have to file a complaint within two years from the date parents knew, or should have known, of the FAPE denial, but would allow them to seek relief for up to two years prior to the discovery date, which could result in up to four years of compensatory education.
The Court in G.L. recognized the conflicting interpretations of the IDEA’s statute of limitations. In its holding, the Court concluded that parents have two years from the date they “knew or should have known” of the FAPE violation to file a Due Process Complaint but that if the violation alleged in the Complaint is proven, the disabled child is entitled to compensatory education for the entire time that FAPE was denied, and not limited to the two or four year period as previously interpreted.
The Court’s rationale is that when a school district has failed in its responsibility to provide a FAPE and parents take appropriate and timely action under the IDEA by filing a Due Process complaint, then that disabled child is entitled to be made whole with nothing less than a complete remedy to restore the child to the educational path he or she would have traveled, but for the violation of FAPE.
The result of this case is that if the parents of a student reasonably do not discover the denial of a FAPE to their child for many years, so long as the parents file within two years of discovering it, the parents have no limit on the number of years for which they can seek relief.