Monday, January 4, 2010

Ninth Circuit Decision - District Court Standard of Review of Hearing Officer Decisions

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided the case of Ashland Sch Dist v. EH (9th Cir. December 9, 2009). The case is interesting for a few reasons. You can read the Ninth Circuit decision here.

Let me state at the outset that I have a bias here. I am a special education due process hearing officer for four states (well, really it's four jurisdictions to be accurate). The key ruling in this case involves the standard of review for hearing officer decisions when they are appealed

Seal of the United States Court of Appeals for...Image via Wikipedia

to court. You can see why I take particular notice of these decisions.

The opinion is binding precedent for the western states comprising the Ninth Circuit. Here is a map that shows the federal circuits and which states they cover. Hearing officers and courts in other circuits, however, often rely upon judicial opinions outside their circuit if they find them to be persuasively reasoned.

In the Ashland case, the parents argued that the standard for review of a hearing officer decision should be abuse of discretion. The appellate panel found that the parents misread § 615(i)(2)(C) of the IDEA and the caselaw decided thereunder. The court found that the appropriate standard was de novo review by the district court. The Ninth Circuit did qualify its ruling however, by noting that the reviewing court must give deference to the hearing officer's findings, especially if they are thoughtful and careful, and that the court must refrain from substituting its own notions of sound educational policy. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit stated that it is required that a district court reviewing a hearing officer decision must consider the hearing officer's findings carefully and respond to the hearing officers resolution of each issue before reaching a contrary result.

This decision has significance for hearing officers and those practicing before them. Although the ruling is in favor of the party arguing for a less deferential standard of review, in my opinion, the Ninth Circuit once again affirms the fairly high level of deference which should be accorded to hearing officer decisions. When I read the news reports at first, this case sounded very bad for hearing officers. As always, however, it pays to read the entire decision.

Tell me what you think.

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