Friday, July 07, 2006

US Supreme Court, IDEA and kids with Disabilities


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From the National Down Syndrome Society

July 7, 2006
On June 26, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 decision in Arlington Central School District Board of Education v. Pearl Murphy and Theodore Murphy. The question the Court decided in Arlington v. Murphy was whether the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) authorizes parents who win an action (“prevail”) under the due process provisions of IDEA to recover fees they paid to experts during the case. Many parents find it necessary to hire private experts to observe and evaluate their child and then testify in an action challenging a school or district’s decision regarding their child’s IEP.
Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas. The majority opinion states that IDEA does not authorize the reimbursement of expert fees. Justice Ginsberg agreed with this result but wrote a concurring opinion because she disagreed with some of the other statements in the majority opinion. Justice Breyer wrote the dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Souter and Stevens. The dissenting Justices argue that IDEA does authorize the reimbursement of these fees. The full text of Arlington v. Murphy can be found at
IDEA states that “in any action or proceeding brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys’ fees as part of the costs to the parents of a child with a disability who is the prevailing party.” The majority opinion rejects the argument that “costs” includes the reimbursement of expert fees. This conclusion is reached in spite of the fact that the 1986 Conference Report for IDEA clearly states that Congress intended the term “attorneys’ fees as part of the costs” to include reasonable expenses and fees of expert witnesses and the reasonable costs of any test or evaluation which is found to be necessary for the preparation of the case. According to the majority opinion, the intent of Congress is not the key issue in this case. Instead, the focus is on whether the language in IDEA gives clear notice to the states that by accepting IDEA funds they might be liable to reimburse prevailing parents for expert fees. The majority of the Court concludes that “the terms of the IDEA fail to provide the clear notice that would be needed to attach such a condition to a State’s receipt of IDEA funds”.
The Justices offering the dissenting opinion disagree with the rest of the Court’s decision to ignore the intent of Congress. They also argue that IDEA’s basic purpose further supports interpreting the provision’s language to include expert fees. IDEA guarantees a “free” and “appropriate” public education for “all” children with disabilities and the expense of paying experts to secure an appropriate education undermines this guarantee. Parents have the right to become involved in their child’s education and IDEA encourages their participation. The dissenting Justices point out that parents are assured by IDEA that they may question a school district’s decisions about what is “appropriate” for their child and in doing so, they may secure the help of experts. The dissent concludes that “the practical significance of the Act’s participatory rights and procedural protections may be seriously diminished if parents are unable to obtain reimbursement for the costs of their experts” and that experts are necessary because “the vast majority of parents whose children require the benefits and protections provided in the IDEA lack knowledge about the educational resources available to their child and the sophistication to mount an effective case against a district-proposed IEP.”The preceding quote in the dissenting opinion for the Murphy case comes from Justice Ginsberg’s dissenting opinion for the Shaffer v. Weast case in 2005. In a prior information bulletin we explained that Shaffer v. Weast places the burden of proof on the party (usually a parent) who is challenging the appropriateness of an IEP, unless there is a state statute placing the burden of proof on the district. The fact that most parents must now prove the inappropriateness of the district-proposed IEP, increases the need for experts.The combined effect of these two Supreme Court cases is to discourage parents from filing a due process complaint because of the economic impact on their families. NDSS encourages parents to try to resolve disagreements at the school and district level using non-adversarial forms of dispute resolution. However, sometimes parents end up having to choose between filing a complaint or forfeiting their child’s educational rights under IDEA.As a result of the Shaffer and Murphy cases it is more important than ever for parents to be well informed about their child’s rights, to develop effective advocacy strategies and to access the free and low cost resources that are available in their communities. The NDSS website ( and local NDSS affiliates are great sources of information and support. If you need help contacting an affiliate, call NDSS at 800-221-4602. In addition, every state has organizations that are funded to help parents, such as Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIs), Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs) and Protection and Advocacy agencies (P&A’s). A directory of PTIs and CPRCs can be found at A directory of P&As can be found at
If you have questions or comments about this bulletin, contact Ricki Sabia at If you or others you know would like to be added to the NDSS mailing list, send name(s) and email address to
National Down Syndrome Society666 Broadway, New York, NY 10012,Phone: 800-221-4602; Fax: 212-979-2873e-mail:; Web site:
Our mission is to benefit people with Down syndrome and their families through national leadership in education, research and advocacy.

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