THIRD CIRCUIT FIRST TO EXAMINE SCOPE OF TWO-YEAR STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS IN SECTION 504 CLAIMS

In an October 11, 2012 decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that claims for compensatory education under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act are limited by the two-year statute of limitations contained in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and strictly construed the statutory exceptions to the statute of limitations. As this case is the first to address the scope of the exceptions to the IDEA statute of limitations, it is an important precedential development in the limitation of claims brought on behalf of disabled students against school districts.

D.K. v. Abington School District involved a suit brought by parents of a student who evidenced significant emotional and behavioral issues during his elementary school years, including tantrums, failure to follow directions and failure to complete his school work properly.  D.K. was evaluated for special education by the District while in first grade and found to be ineligible.  D.K.’s parents requested a second evaluation prior to his entering third grade, and he was found in that evaluation to have a health impairment which rendered him eligible for special education services.  As the student’s IEP was being completed, D.K.’s parents filed for due process and claimed that as a result of the District’s previous failure to properly identify D.K., the student was entitled to compensatory education for the period of time covering his entry into kindergarten through March of his third grade year.

Under the IDEA, parents must request a due process hearing within two years after the parents knew or should have known of the action which forms the basis of their complaint that their child was denied his or her rights to a free and appropriate education.  However, the parents claimed that two specific exceptions to the IDEA’s statute of limitations applied.  First, the statute of limitations would not apply if the school district made specific misrepresentations that it had resolved the problem which formed the basis of the due process complaint, and second, the statute of limitations would not apply if the school district withheld information it was required to provide to parents under the IDEA.  The parents of D.K. asserted that these exceptions should permit them to seek redress for conduct which occurred prior to the two-year statute.  However, the assigned special education hearing officer, the special education appeals panel and a federal judge all rejected the exceptions and applied the two-year statute of limitations.

On appeal, the Third Circuit also affirmed the dismissal of the parents’ claims.  The Third Circuit found that for the “specific misrepresentation” exception to apply, the parents must present evidence that the school district had actually determined their son to be eligible for special education, but then intentionally and knowingly misled the parents as to its findings regarding the student’s eligibility.  Under this standard, a misrepresentation made without intent to deceive or a school district’s mere failure to carry out its responsibilities would not be sufficient to provide an exception to the statute of limitations.  With regard to the “withholding of information” exception, the Third Circuit strictly limited its application to those notices which the school district is specifically required to provide to parents under the IDEA.

Further, as to both exceptions, the Court stated that in order to receive relief from the statute of limitations, parents are required not only to provide evidence satisfying one of the exceptions, but also must establish that the district’s conduct caused the parents’ failure to request a due process hearing in a timely fashion.  In the case before it, the Court found that the parents failed to provide any evidence establishing that the Abington School District’s staff made knowing or intentionally false representations regarding their son’s educational progress or that the District failed to provide any required documents to the parents.  The Court also rejected the parents’ argument that the Pennsylvaniastate law concept of equitable tolling of the statute of limitations should apply to IDEA matters.  The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of the parents’ complaint.

As a result of the Circuit’s decision, there is now a precedential decision in this jurisdiction which strictly construes the exceptions to IDEA’s statute of limitations and rejects the application of state law concepts of extending those statutes of limitation.  This decision will provide clarity to districts and families alike in evaluating and resolving claims in which parents assert that the standard two-year statute of limitations should not apply.

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