The IDEA Statute of Limitations (Finally!) Explained

By Christopher J. Conrad, Esq of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, P.C.

Key Points:

·       Absent certain statutory exceptions, parents have two years from the date they knew or should have known of a violation of the IDEA to request a due process hearing through the filing of an administrative complaint, or they will be forever time-barred.

·       If a complaint is timely filed, and liability is proven, the student whose rights were violated may be entitled to compensatory education and other equitable relief for the entire “period of deprivation.” There is no two-year cap on the period of redress.

In 2004, Congress reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. §1400 et seq., a federal law intended to ensure that every child with special needs is afforded a free appropriate public education (commonly known as a FAPE). The IDEA ensures that right by mandating that public educational institutions—including school districts, intermediate units and public charter schools—identify, evaluate and effectively educate special needs children, or pay for their education elsewhere if they require specialized services that the public institution cannot provide. The statute broadly authorizes special education hearing officers and federal courts to provide equitable relief, including compensatory education, to children who have been deprived of a FAPE.

Prior to the 2004 reauthorization, the IDEA did not include a statute of limitations. Congress found this problematic, because parents could knowingly wait for many years to file a complaint, resulting in school districts often being surprised by claims involving students who were much older than when the issues giving rise to the claims first presented and, on occasion, involving students who had long since graduated, or moved away, from the district. Congress reasoned that waiting many years to bring actions on behalf of a child jeopardizes the child’s education and creates distrust between parents and school districts.

Congress sought to remedy this concern in its 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA by adding a statute of limitations, now found at 20 U.S.C. §1415(f)(3)(C), which, in pertinent part, states: “A parent or agency shall request an impartial due process hearing within two years of the date the parent or agency knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint…” Thus, under the IDEA, parents generally must file their due process complaint within two years of the date they “knew or should have known” of the alleged violation (often referred to as the KOSHK date), except in limited circumstances when certain equitable tolling provisions built into the statute apply, or unless the governing state has an explicit time limitation for requesting a hearing, in which case state law governs.

While §1415(f)(3)(C) seems fairly straightforward on its face, as the language reads like a typical two-year statute of limitations found elsewhere under federal and state law, the intent of this limitations provision was muddied by another amendment appearing elsewhere in the IDEA as a result of the 2004 reauthorization. Section 1415(b), entitled “types of procedures,” lists and briefly describes the procedures for commencing and conducting a due process hearing under the IDEA. Section 1415(b)(6)(B), as amended in 2004, states that the procedures discussed generally in §1415(b) afford “[a]n opportunity for any party to present a complaint… which sets forth an alleged violation that occurred not more than two years before the date the parent or public agency knew or should have know about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint…”

With the 2004 reauthorization, the complaint procedure described in §1415(b)(6)(B) came to parallel the statute of limitations set forth in §1415(f)(3)(C) in several key respects, including that both now describe a two-year time limit that depends on a reasonable discovery (KOSHK) date. Unlike §1415(f)(3)(C), however, the two-year limitations period stated in §1415(b)(6)(B) runs backward instead of forward from the KOSHK date. The Third Circuit noted recently in its precedential decision G.L. v. Ligonier Valley School District Authority, 2015 U.S.App. LEXIS 16776 (3d Cir. Sept. 22, 2015), “[t]he differences in the language of these provisions and the fact that they appear to move in opposite directions from the reasonable discovery date has given rise to confusion in the wake of the 2004 reenactment, with district courts within this Circuit interpreting them in a range of ways.” The court pointed out that some district courts in the Circuit have construed the two provisions to limit redress to the two years preceding a complaint (a position often advanced in defense of public institutions), while others have interpreted the provisions to impose a filing deadline but not to limit the remedy for timely-filed claims, and while still others have embraced a “2+2” approach (i.e., that the section provides a two-year window before the KOSHK date within which a parent may claim an IDEA violation occurred), essentially creating a four-year period of redress for a timely-filed claim (a position argued by many parents’ attorneys).

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