NASET News Alert

Supreme Court Rules on Burden of Proof Case Under IDEA

May 26, 2006


U.S. Supreme Court Rules Against Parents in Burden of Proof Case Under The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Yesterday, an important U.S. Supreme Court Decision was handed down regarding special education and the the procedural rights of parents.  In the case Schaffer v. Weast, the question presented to the Court was:

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, when parents of a disabled child and a local school district reach an impasse over the child's individualized education program, either side has a right to bring the dispute to an administrative hearing officer for resolution. At the hearing, which side has the burden of proof - the parents or the school district?

Oral arguments in Schaffer v. Weast were made on October 5, 2005. The decision was handed down on November 14, 2005.

O’CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, J., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion. GINSBURG, J., and BRAYER, J., filed dissenting opinions.ROBERTS, C. J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

In a 6-2 decision, the Court held that there was no reason to depart from the ordinary legal rule that the person filing suit carries the burden of proof....The burden of proof in an administrative hearing challenging an IEP is properly placed upon the party seeking relief.

Summarizing the case, the Court wrote:

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. Held: 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. 6–12.(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. 6–8.

(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 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—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.  377 F. 3d 449, affirmed.


Disagreeing with the majority, Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer wrote dissenting opinions.  Justice Ginsburg felt that requesting parents to fulfill the burden of proof standard would be unfair.  In her dissenting opinion she stated, “policy considerations, convenience, and fairness” call for assigning the burden of proof to the school district in this case.... “the school district is . . . in a far better position to demonstrate that it has fulfilled [its statutory] obligation than the disabled student’s parents are in to show that the school district has failed to do so.”


To read the entire U.S. Supreme Court decision, : Click Here  

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