Wednesday, November 28, 2012

N.D. Cal. Declines to Extend Supreme Court's Douglas Decision in an IDEA Case

On Monday, Judge Thelton E. Henderson of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued an order in the ongoing Emma C.  litigation.  (The case is Emma C. v. Eastin, 2012 WL 5904750 (N.D. Cal., Nov. 26, 2012).)  The issue before the court concerned the obligations of the California Department of Education, under a consent decree between the parties, to monitor and ensure that students in the Ravenswood school district receive a free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The state argued, among other things, that the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year in Douglas v. Independent Living Center (blogged about here) deprived the district court of jurisdiction to assess the state's system for monitoring local school districts' provision of FAPE, because the United States Department of Education approves the state's plan for implementing the IDEA.  The court rejected that argument:
CDE argues that, since Congress has vested the USDOE with jurisdiction to evaluate the adequacy of CDE's statewide system for monitoring the provision of FAPE, this Court should defer to the USDOE's OSEP and decline to exercise its own jurisdiction. CDE purports to base this argument on the Supreme Court's recent decision in Douglas v. Independent Living Center of Southern California, ––– U.S. ––––, 132 S.Ct. 1204, 182 L.Ed.2d 101 (2012), but Douglas is inapposite. In Douglas, the Court considered whether a Supremacy Clause challenge to a state statute could be maintained after the federal agency tasked with administering the relevant federal statute determined that the state statute was a valid implementation of the federal statute. Id. at 1211. Suggesting that deference might be due to the federal agency's intervening interpretation of the statute, and that the case should perhaps proceed under the Administrative Procedure Act rather than the Supremacy Clause, the Court remanded the case for further proceedings. Id. at 1210–11. CDE's attempt to draw an analogy between the agency decision in Douglas and OSEP's approval of CDE's monitoring system in the present case falls flat. CDE has not presented any evidence that OSEP has issued a ruling on the question presented in this case—whether CDE's monitoring system is “capable of ensuring continued compliance with the law and the provision of FAPE to children with disabilities in Ravenswood.” FACD § 13.0. And even if OSEP had ruled on that precise question, Douglas at most suggests that OSEP's decision would be entitled to some level of deference—it in no way implies that the Court should decline to exercise its jurisdiction. See id. at 1210 (“All parties agree that the agency's approval . . . does not make these cases moot.”).
This is likely to be an important decision, as I expect that other states will try to use Douglas in this way, both in the IDEA context and elsewhere.

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