On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania
Before: BECKER and McKEE, Circuit Judges and POLLAK, District Judge *fn*
Filed September 12, 1996)
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1400 et seq., requires states which accept federal funding for the education of disabled children to insure that those children receive a "free appropriate public education." 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1415(a). The plaintiffs before us in this case Ä Jeremy Hunter, *fn1 who has a severe visual handicap, his father, W. Eugene Hunter, and his mother, Rita Hunter (collectively, "the Hunters") Ä assert that the Mount Lebanon School District and its staff have, over the course of many years, failed to provide the "appropriate" educational program to which Jeremy Hunter has been entitled. As is required by IDEA, the Hunters initially invoked a Pennsylvania administrative procedure established to resolve such claims. Dissatisfied, they then filed a complaint in federal district court, in which they brought claims under a number of statutes: IDEA; the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq.; the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. Section(s) 720, 794; and 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 1983. They named as defendants the Mount Lebanon School District; eight members of the Mount Lebanon School Board (sued both in their official and in their individual capacities); and four officials of the Mount Lebanon School District (also sued in both their official and their individual capacities).
The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, asserting, inter alia, that the Hunters' IDEA claims were barred by the statute of limitations and by the Hunters' failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The district court granted this motion as to all of the Hunters' claims, and ordered that the complaint be dismissed. The Hunters have appealed. *fn2
I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Our recitation of this case's long history is largely derived from the allegations in the Hunters' complaint. *fn3 The principal figure in this history, Jeremy Hunter, was born on September 6, 1976. Before he entered kindergarten, he was diagnosed with Brown's Syndrome, a vision disorder, in his left eye, and with occlusional nystagmus, also a vision disorder, in both eyes. Brown's Syndrome apparently renders it difficult to maintain binocular vision, which in turn causes "reduced reading rate and orientation and mobility problems." Occlusional nystagmus causes fatigue, rendering it difficult for a student to read for long periods. App. at 14-15.
In January, 1982, while he was in kindergarten, Jeremy had surgery to correct his Brown's Syndrome; this surgery was reported (apparently erroneously) to have corrected his problem. App. at 14-15. A year later, Mount Lebanon School District (MLSD) determined that Jeremy was eligible to receive special education services. For the next six years, Jeremy received such services from vision teachers provided by the School District. Over this period, the School District conducted a series of assessments of Jeremy's educational needs; these assessments were termed multidisciplinary evaluations, because they included contributions from a variety of specialists. Based on these evaluations, MLSD prepared annual individualized education plans, or IEPs, for Jeremy. *fn4
During this six-year period, the complaint states, Jeremy experienced difficulty with "reading, completing assignments, and orientation and mobility," App. at 108, problems that the Hunters aver resulted from the defendants' failure adequately to accommodate his disability. As a result of these difficulties, Jeremy had a number of bouts of serious anxiety about school. In the fall of 1989, when Jeremy was about to enter junior high school, his parents concluded that his emotional condition required that they withdraw him from public school. The Hunters placed their son in private (and later in parochial) school, where, the complaint states, he received services that were more appropriate to his needs. The Hunters also hired a number of private vision teachers for Jeremy, and helped him with his homework themselves.
Jeremy's parents continued to press MLSD to provide Jeremy with an appropriate public education. Accordingly, in late 1990 and early 1991, the District conducted another multidisciplinary evaluation, and prepared another IEP, apparently without providing Jeremy's parents with an opportunity to participate in this process. Jeremy's parents were dissatisfied with the composition of the team conducting the multidisciplinary evaluation and with the evaluation's results, as well as with the results of the IEP, and responded by invoking the IDEA administrative dispute-resolution procedure.
IDEA (1) requires that state educational agencies which receive federal assistance establish administrative procedures for resolving disputes as to the education of disabled children, and (2) provides certain criteria for those procedures. See 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1415. These procedures are intended "to assure that children with disabilities and their parents or guardians are guaranteed procedural safeguards with respect to the provision of free appropriate public education by such agencies and units." 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1415(a). IDEA envisions a three-stage dispute-resolution process. The initial stage is a hearing, at which the parties are afforded enumerated procedural protections. See 1415(b), (d). Parties aggrieved by the findings and decision of the hearing process may appeal to the state's educational agency. See 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1415(c). Thereafter, IDEA permits an aggrieved party to file a civil action. See 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1415(e).
In Pennsylvania, the initial, hearing stage of the IDEA process is termed a "due process hearing." The processing of the Hunters' complaint began with such a hearing. The matter was assigned to Dr. Constance Fox Lyttle; Dr. Lyttle's inquiry into the Hunter grievance consumed nineteen hearing days over the period from October 1991 to September 1992. *fn5 On February 24, 1993, Dr. Lyttle issued a detailed and lengthy report of her findings and decision. Both sides then invoked the IDEA administrative appeals procedure, which, in Pennsylvania, takes the form of an appeal to the Special Education Due Process Review Panel. On May 21, 1993, the appellate panel issued an opinion that substantially affirmed the hearing officer's findings and decision, with certain modifications.
The following is a summary of the principal elements of the hearing officer's findings and decision, and of those conclusions of the appellate panel which differed from the conclusions of the hearing officer.
1. The Hunters had requested reimbursement for evaluations of Jeremy that they had had performed at their own expense. The hearing officer found that MLSD's multidisciplinary evaluations suffered from a number of major deficiencies, noting, for instance, that MLSD had found that Jeremy had below-normal intelligence on the basis of tests that were not designed for use with children with impaired vision. Accordingly, she ordered that MLSD reimburse the Hunters for evaluations that they had commissioned at their own expense, and that MLSD provide for a number of new evaluations. App. at 17, 40-44, 64.
2. The Hunters asserted that the IEPs prepared by MLSD were vague and inappropriate. The hearing officer agreed. App. at 44-47.
3. The Hunters asserted that MLSD had erred when, during Jeremy's sixth-grade year, it had switched him from a plan under which he received reduced assignments to accommodate his difficulties with reading to a plan under which he received a full assignment load. The hearing officer agreed, and found that MLSD should prepare a new IEP for Jeremy. The parties had stipulated to a list of persons to be included on a team charged with preparing such an IEP. This list included the Hunters' own vision expert, Jeremy's psychologist, Jeremy's parents, and some MLSD personnel. App. at 39. The hearing officer's decision provided detailed guidelines for the elements of the IEP, App. at 50-52; the appellate decision eliminated some of these provisions, App. at 96-98, leaving these issues to be decided by the future team.
4. The Hunters asked for repayment of the private-school tuition that they had paid. The hearing officer denied this request, on the grounds that the school Jeremy attended was simply a private school, with no special facilities to accommodate his handicap. App. at 52-53.
5. The hearing officer found that MLSD had not provided Jeremy with the "free appropriate public education" guaranteed to him by IDEA. Accordingly, she ordered that MLSD provide compensatory education, in the form of special sessions during the school year and a four-week summer program. App. at 53-54. The appellate panel found that these services should be provided for two years, or until Jeremy graduated from high school. App. at 96.
6. The Hunters sought reimbursement for psychological and vision training that they had paid for while Jeremy attended MLSD public schools. The hearing officer found that the latter services should ...