On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
Before: SLOVITER, Chief Judge, ALITO and SEITZ, Circuit Judges
Argued September 15, 1995
The plaintiffs-appellants are two learning-disabled children and their mothers who, frustrated with their inability to secure the special educational plans to which they claim they were entitled by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1400-91, filed complaints with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). When their complaints were inadequately addressed or unanswered by the PDE, the plaintiffs, joined by Parents Union for Public Schools, a non-profit educational advocacy organization, sought declaratory and injunctive relief by bringing suit against the PDE and the state Secretary of Education (jointly PDE), claiming that the Commonwealth had failed to comply with regulations promulgated by the United States Department of Education (DOE) governing procedures for resolution of complaints, and moved for class certification.
Although neither the PDE nor the U.S. Secretary of Education, who was also sued but has since been dismissed as a defendant, contended that plaintiffs did not have a private right of action, the district court directed briefing on that issue. Thereafter, the court, without reaching any of the substantive issues raised by the complaint, entered summary judgment against the plaintiffs on the ground, inter alia, that the plaintiffs did not have a right of action on their claim that the state had failed to maintain a timely and effective state-level complaint resolution system as required by IDEA and by the DOE regulations. Because we view the court's decision as inconsistent with the statutory language in IDEA establishing a private right of action, see 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1415(e), we will reverse and remand. We will therefore not reach the numerous other issues raised by the parties on appeal.
IDEA, originally enacted in 1970 as the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA), Pub. L. No. 91-230, Section(s) 601-662, 84 Stat. 175, confers on disabled children a substantive right to a "free appropriate public education." 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1400(c); see Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 308-10 (1988). That free appropriate education "consists of educational instruction specially designed to meet the unique needs of the [disabled] child, supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child 'to benefit' from the instruction." Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 188-89 (1982). Under IDEA, a disabled student is entitled to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a specially tailored educational program detailing the student's present abilities, educational goals, and specific services designed to achieve those goals within a stated timeframe. See 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1401(a)(20).
IDEA places on the states the primary responsibility for satisfying the goals of the statute. IDEA, described by several courts as a model of "cooperative federalism," see, e.g., Bernardsville Bd. of Educ. v. J.H., 42 F.3d 149, 151 (3d Cir. 1994); Town of Burlington v. Dep't of Educ., 736 F.2d 773, 783 (1st Cir. 1984), aff'd, 471 U.S. 359 (1985), authorizes federal funding for states providing the special education that the statute requires, but funding is contingent on state compliance with its array of substantive and procedural requirements, 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1412.
One of those requirements is the provision for procedural safeguards as outlined in the statute which maximize parental involvement in decisions affecting their children's education. See 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1415. Those procedures expressly include, inter alia, an opportunity for the parents or guardian of a handicapped child to examine all relevant records pertaining to the education of such child and written prior notice of proposals or refusals to initiate or change the identification, evaluation or educational placement of the child. See Section(s) 1415(b)(1)(A), (C). The statute also includes among the required procedures an opportunity to present complaints "with respect to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child." Section(s) 1415(b)(1)(E). Parents or guardians have the statutory right to secure an impartial due process hearing based on such a complaint to be conducted by the state, local or intermediate educational agency. Section(s) 1415(b)(2). Parties aggrieved by the resulting findings and decision are entitled to bring a civil action in either state or federal court. Section(s) 1415(e)(2). The procedures specified in 1415(b) are not exclusive, as the section states at the outset that "[t]he procedures required by this section shall include, but shall not be limited to" those specified.
In addition to the procedures specified in the statute, the states must also establish written procedures for resolving a complaint filed by an organization or individual that alleges a public agency has violated a requirement of IDEA or the related regulations. The requirement to adopt certain minimum state complaint procedures is contained in regulations promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). These regulations were initially promulgated by the DOE in 1972 under IDEA's predecessor statute, the EHA, see 45 C.F.R. Section(s) 121.109 (1972), and they have since been reissued twice under other statutory authority: first in 1980, referring to 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1221e-3(a)(1), part of the General Education Provisions Act, as the enabling statute, and again in 1993, this time referring to 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 2831(a), part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
Although the current regulations are not in full haec verba with each of their predecessors, the current regulations, like the preceding regulations, require the state agency to have procedures for the receipt and resolution of such complaints and impose a time limit (60 days since 1980) for the state to carry out "an independent on-site investigation," if necessary, with an extension beyond the 60 calendar days, "only if exceptional circumstances exist with respect to a particular complaint." See, e.g., 300 C.F.R. Section(s) 330.661 (1995); 45 C.F.R. Section(s) 100b.780-.781 (1980). The current regulations not only require the state educational agency to conduct any necessary investigation of a complaint, but also require that the state's complaint resolution procedures permit complainants to submit additional information, and that the state educational agency review all relevant information and issue a written decision addressing all allegations. 34 C.F.R. Section(s) 300.661 (1995). The state educational agency must also adopt, where necessary, "[p]rocedures for effective implementation" of its final decisions, including "corrective actions to achieve compliance." Section(s) 300.661(c).
At this initial stage of the plaintiff's action, the record is meager with respect to the type of complaints that are generally the subject of these complaint resolution procedures, nor do we know with any certainty to what extent they may overlap with the due process procedures, as plaintiffs' counsel stated at oral argument. It appears to be conceded by the PDE that the DOE regulations requiring a complaint resolution system encompass at least complaints of the type of system-wide deficiencies alleged here. Oral Argument Transcript at 30-31 (Sept. 15, 1995); see also Mrs. W. v. Tirozzi, 832 F.2d 748 (2d Cir. 1987). The PDE does not deny that it has the obligation to maintain such a complaint resolution system for the prompt receipt, investigation and resolution of complaints that a public agency has violated IDEA or related regulations.
We turn to the allegations of the named plaintiffs, whose situations illustrate the types of complaints that the complaint resolution procedures may encompass. Plaintiffs Beth V. and Brandon M., both of whom have specific learning disabilities, attend school in Pennsylvania. Beth had had an IEP devised for her, but her mother, plaintiff Yvonne V., determined during the 1991-92 school year that Beth's school was not implementing it. Concerned that her daughter's academic progress was withering, Yvonne filed two complaints with the PDE pursuant to the complaint resolution procedures -- one in April 1992 and another in February 1993. Despite a directive by the DOE to the PDE to resolve the matter quickly, the PDE has never issued a decision and the complaints have never been resolved.
The complaint relating to Brandon M., the second child plaintiff, deals with his transfer to a different school after a year of showing academic and behavioral improvement. His mother, plaintiff Frederica M., was given no prior notice or opportunity to object, and requested a due process hearing under Section(s) 1415 of IDEA. After three months, four such requests, and no hearing, Frederica filed a complaint with the PDE about his treatment. She did not receive the PDE's closure report until 190 days later and, although the PDE ordered Brandon's reinstatement at his original school, it failed to order the compensatory education he requested or to address the school district's failure to provide a due process hearing. In the meantime, Brandon failed most of his courses.
Parents Union for Public Schools, a non-profit educational advocacy organization, has filed numerous complaints with the PDE on behalf of students with disabilities and their families. It joined the individual plaintiffs in bringing suit against the PDE "on behalf of all Pennsylvania children with disabilities, and their parents or representatives, who are unable to rectify violations of their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act." In their district court complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that the complaints they filed with the PDE and/or its Division of Compliance had been inadequately and tardily processed. More generally, they charged that the PDE's complaint resolution procedures were deficient in that the PDE failed to (1) resolve over 40% of its complaints within the required period; (2) address all allegations raised in complaints; (3) adequately order or enforce corrective action; or (4) permit interested parties to submit additional evidence before issuing reports.
The plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief, urging the district court to require the PDE to adopt measures that would ensure compliance with the requirements of the regulations; submit a plan to ensure continued compliance and periodic reports; and publicize the availability and operation of its complaint procedures. They also sought compensatory educational services for Beth V. and Brandon M., and reimbursement for those educational services their parents had privately secured for them while awaiting complaint resolution. Finally, the plaintiffs requested compensatory educational services and reimbursement for all other parties who had experienced delayed resolution of "founded complaints". App. at 30-32.
The plaintiffs asserted causes of action directly under IDEA, under the complaint resolution regulations, under 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 1983, and under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. They then moved for certification of a plaintiff class composed of Pennsylvania children, parents, and representatives who had used, or would use, the complaint resolution procedures.
The PDE stipulated to certification of the class as proposed. Nonetheless, the district court declined to rule on the class issue on the ground that the interest shared by the plaintiffs and the PDE in securing increased state funding and resources for better complaint resolution "made it no longer feasible to rely primarily on the litigants to produce and develop factual materials." Beth V. v. Carroll, 155 F.R.D. 529, 533 (E.D. Pa. 1994). The court stated that it would make an "independent determination" equipped with "more than a single perspective on key issues," id. at 534, and sua sponte appointed a special master, directing him not only to adduce facts relevant to the propriety of class certification ...