Hardison v. Board of Education of the Oneonta City School District, 773 F3d 372 (2d Cir. 2014)

The firm successfully represented the Oneonta City School District (the “District”) before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (“Second Circuit”) in a tuition reimbursement case brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).  This was an important decision for families and public schools dealing with tuition reimbursement issues under the IDEA as it reaffirmed existing precedent holding that significant deference be afforded to the administrative determinations made under the IDEA.

The District appealed from a judgment of the Federal District Court, Northern District of New York which reversed in part the State Review Officer’s determination to deny reimbursement for private schooling for a student who was classified as emotionally disturbed.  The Second Circuit held that the District Court should have shown greater deference to the determinations of the State Review Officer and reversed the lower Court’s decision which granted tuition reimbursement under the IDEA.

The Second Circuit agreed with the District and the State Review officer and found that the parents who sought reimbursement from the District for the unilateral placement of their emotionally disabled child in a private school had not placed sufficient evidence in the record to establish that their chosen placement was appropriate.  The Court noted that little of the testimony presented during the administrative hearing was objective evidence of academic progress under the program offered by the private school.

The Court relied upon precedent holding that federal courts reviewing administrative decisions afford due weight to administrative educational proceedings as “the judiciary generally lacks the specialized knowledge and experience necessary to resolve persistent and difficult questions of educational policy.”  In New York, a parent claiming that a child has been denied a free appropriate public education may seek review of a district’s educational placement first before an impartial hearing officer.  Thereafter, the impartial hearing officer’s decision may be appealed to the State Review Officer. If either party wishes to appeal from the State Review Officer’s determination, a plenary judicial action must be instituted.  In this case, the Court held that when the impartial hearing officer and State Review Officer reach conflicting conclusions, the Courts defer to the final decisions of the final administrative reviewers, which in New York is the State Review Officer.  This decision has important implications throughout the Second Circuit’s jurisdiction as it reaffirms the significant deference to be afforded to the State Review Officer.

Young/Sommer represents numerous school districts and families seeking advice and counseling as well as litigation under the IDEA.