In a groundbreaking decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the rights of students with disabilities to a free and appropriate public education. The September 12, 2012, ruling reversed a New Jersey District Court dismissal of a lawsuit seeking to obtain compensatory education for a student with disabilities who was denied special education services and subsequently moved out of state. The Education Law Center (ELC), represented by global law firm White & Case LLP, filed an amicus brief, which was joined by a number of organizations from around the country and urged the court to reverse the New Jersey District Court’s decision.
The case presented the critical issue of whether an out-of-state move renders a claim for compensatory education moot. Compensatory education is awarded to special education students who have not received the school services to which they are entitled in order to “compensate” for missed learning opportunities. The District Court, in D.F. v. Collingswood Public Schools, granted Collingswood’s summary judgment motion and held that the compensatory education claims were rendered moot because the child moved out of New Jersey to another state.
The appeals court noted, however, that there are “several District Courts within this Circuit that have held that an out-of-district [although not out-of-state] move does not render claims for compensatory damages moot.” The Third Circuit stated that there is “no basis to distinguish between out-of-district, but in-state, moves and out-of-state moves in the IDEA or in case law.” The appeals court also rejected Collingswood’s theory that compensatory educational services were “subsumed within the education that he was currently receiving” from his new school district.
The Third Circuit concluded that a “claim for compensatory education is not rendered moot by an out-of-district move, even if that move takes the child out of state.” The court reasoned that to hold otherwise would undermine the purpose of IDEA and would disproportionately affect low-income families, who cannot afford to front the costs of their children’s education.
Ruth Lowenkron, the senior attorney at ELC who worked on the amicus brief, expressed her satisfaction with the Third Circuit decision, calling it “a simple matter of fairness” and a case that will “aid all students with disabilities in New Jersey and beyond.”
Ruth Deale Lowenkron, Esq.
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