Saturday, January 28, 2012

D. Hawaii Addresses Interesting IDEA Issue

Earlier this week, in Department of Education v. C.B., 2012 WL 220517 (D. Hawaii, Jan. 24, 2012), Judge Susan Oki Mollway of the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii addressed an interesting issue under the IDEA.  In state administrative proceedings, the hearing officer concluded that the child, C.B., had been denied a free appropriate public education, and it ordered the state to reimburse his private school tuition.  The state filed for judicial review in the federal district court and sought a preliminary injunction against the tuition reimbursement order.  Although the court found that the state was likely to succeed on the merits, it nonetheless denied a preliminary injunction because the state had not shown irreparable harm and the balance of hardships tipped in favor of C.B.

What is interesting to me is the court's irreparable harm holding.  The court relied on the traditional rule that a monetary harm is not irreparable because money improperly paid can always be recouped later.  But the state had argued that once it reimbursed C.B.'s parents for their tuition it could not legally reclaim the money from them even if it later succeeded in showing that the tuition reimbursement order had been improper.  As the court noted, there is some district-court-level authority for the state's argument, but nothing in the statute clearly says that education agencies can't recoup improperly-ordered reimbursements.  The court explicitly left open the possibility that should the state prevail it could recoup the reimbursements from C.B.'s parents.

Still, the state's argument on this point has to be right, doesn't it?  The basis of reimbursement, as the Supreme Court reaffirmed in the Forest Grove case, is the general statutory language providing for appropriate relief for a violation of the IDEA, read in light of general equitable principles.  It doesn't seem at all consistent with general equitable principles for a court to order a parent to pay back a tuition reimbursement when the parent incurred a significant liability to a third party school in reliance on a state decisionmaker's directive that the education agency reimburse the parent.  Not to say that the ultimate decision here is wrong.  The balance of hardships, informed by the policies underlying the IDEA's stay-put provision, still likely justify ensuring that C.B. can stay where he is until the court has the opportunity to sort out the issues in the case.  But the irreparable-harm holding is questionable.

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