Skip to content Gordon & Rees Northern California Team Wins Published Decision Requiring Administrative Exhaustion of IDEA Claims


Search Gordon & Rees Results

August 2021

Gordon & Rees Northern California Team Wins Published Decision Requiring Administrative Exhaustion of IDEA Claims

Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani’s team of senior partner Mark Posard, partner Don Willenburg, and senior counsel Judith Cregan won a great victory from the Ninth Circuit in an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") case against the firm’s client, a California school district.  In an August 18, 2021 published decision, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of the school district’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion without leave to amend for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

The parents of a group of five students with learning disabilities sued the firm’s client in a class action in federal court, bypassing the required administrative proceedings under the IDEA.  The plaintiffs argued that administrative exhaustion was excused because they sought “systemic” relief beyond what the Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH") could provide. The plaintiffs supported this claim with statistics showing disproportionately negative outcomes for the district’s students with learning disabilities. The plaintiffs also alleged that they were not required to file a complaint resolution proceeding ("CRP") with the California Department of Education, the other means of administrative review. 

The district court granted the district’s motion with leave to amend. The plaintiffs amended their complaint, the school district again moved to dismiss, and the court granted the motion without leave to amend.  The students appealed.

The firm’s appeal brief argued that Ninth Circuit cases of Hoeft v. Tucson Unified School District, 967 F.2d 1298 (9th Cir. 1992) and Doe ex rel. Brockhuis v. Arizona Department of Education, 111 F.3d 678 (9th Cir. 1997) compelled a finding in favor of the school district.  The Gordon & Rees team argued that the plaintiffs failed to identify any specific systemic school district policy or practice that violated the Act, and their claims did not meet the Ninth Circuit definition of “systemic.”  The firm pointed out that the plaintiffs’ individual claims were all within the jurisdictional ambit of the OAH, therefore, exhaustion was not futile. In the alternative, the students could have filed a CRP proceeding if they believed the school district was violating any provision of the IDEA.  Requiring the plaintiffs to exhaust their administrative remedies would provide a reviewing court with an administrative record containing special education expert opinions on any challenged policies and programs, and allow the State the opportunity to correct any problems within a school district early, and without litigation. 

In a unanimous decision, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the firm's arguments and affirmed.  The court ruled that the students “are not challenging the integrity of the state’s administrative procedure; they simply seek to bypass them.”  The court further held that the students’ assertions of delaying providing services, denial of sufficiently individualized services, and arbitrary limits on services are “allegations of bad results, not descriptions of unlawful policies or practices.”  In response to the student’s argument that there was no requirement that they bring a CRP proceeding, the court stated, “the CRP process may, on a case-by-case basis, serve as a substitute for the OAH process for purposes of the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement.”  The decision re-affirmed the utility of creating an administrative record, and chance for early correction of school policies.  “An administrative record could shed needed light on what is going right, what is going wrong, and remedies for the latter.”

This is an important victory for our client, and indeed all school districts within the Ninth Circuit.  The students made a creative effort to couch the language of their complaint to take advantage of an exception to the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement.  This decision should persuade future plaintiffs to pursue the proper administrative route, and spare school districts the expense and uncertainty of litigation for most such claims.

Mark S. Posard
Don Willenburg