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Steven I. v. Central Bucks School District

August 18, 2010


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil No. 2-08-cv-00571) District Judge: Honorable John R. Padova.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rendell, Circuit Judge.


Argued July 13, 2010

Before: RENDELL, JORDAN and GREENAWAY, JR., Circuit Judges.


We are asked on this appeal to resolve a conflict among the district courts in our circuit, most notably in Pennsylvania, regarding the applicability of the statute of limitations enacted as part of the 2004 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act ("IDEA 2004") to compensatory education claims that are brought after the statute's effective date but that arise from conduct that occurred before the statute's passage.*fn1 We conclude that, because the statute of limitations did not become effective until seven months after the enactment of IDEA 2004, it is reasonable to apply it to claims based on conduct that pre-dated the law's passage. Accordingly, we will reverse the order of the District Court and remand for further proceedings.*fn2

I. Background

Steven I. was enrolled in the Central Bucks School District from the 1992-93 school year until his graduation from high school on June 17, 2005. He was first identified as learning disabled in kindergarten, and continued to be eligible for special education programming and services through his high school graduation. On May 1, 2007, Steven I.'s parents initiated a due process hearing seeking compensatory education from the 1997-1998 school year through the filing date*fn3 for failure to provide a free appropriate public education under IDEA 2004 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 795.

IDEA 2004 was enacted on December 3, 2004. It broke new ground by providing for a two year statute of limitations where there previously had been none. The statute of limitations provision, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(C), took effect on July 1, 2005, seven months after the law was passed.*fn4 It provides:

A parent or agency shall request an impartial due process hearing within 2 years of the date the parent or agency knew or should have known about the alleged action that forms the basis of the complaint*fn5 , or, if the State has an explicit time limitation for requesting such a hearing under this subchapter, in such time as the State law allows.*fn6

In concluding that the two-year statute of limitations does not bar claims that accrued prior to the effective date of that statute, the District Court applied the two-part retroactivity analysis that the Supreme Court set forth in Landgraf v. USI Film Prods., 511 U.S. 244 (1994), and INS v. St. Cyr, 533 U.S. 289, 316 (2001), focusing on (1) whether there is clear congressional intent that the statute be applied retroactively, and (2) whether the retroactive application of the statute would have an impermissible effect, that is, would it "take[] away or impair[] vested rights acquired under existing law, or create[] a new obligation, impose[] a new duty, or attach[] a new disability, in respect to transactions or considerations already past." Landgraf, 511 U.S. at 269. The District Court noted that the first prong was not satisfied because Congress did not expressly state in IDEA 2004 that its statute of limitations was to be applied retroactively. The District Court further determined that, under the second prong, applying the IDEA 2004 statute of limitations would have an impermissible retroactive effect because to do so would impair rights that Steven I. had prior to the amendment by attaching "new legal consequences to events completed before the amendment's effective date." Steven I. v. Cent. Bucks Sch. Dist., No. 08-571, 2009 WL 415767, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 18, 2009) (internal citation omitted).

On appeal, the School District urges that we should not apply a retroactivity analysis to the amended statute of limitations and should instead look to whether IDEA 2004, given the seven-month delay between the statute's enactment and the effective date of the statute of limitations provision, gave sufficient notice and a reasonable opportunity for litigants to commence an action based on claims arising in the past. Steven I. responds that the District Court correctly applied the two-step Landgraf analysis in concluding that the IDEA 2004 statute of limitations should not apply retroactively.

II. Discussion

The Landgraf analysis is typically controlling on issues of retroactivity, in particular the application of new substantive requirements to conduct that occurred in the past. However, because the statute of limitations in IDEA 2004 governs Steven I.'s conduct in filing the claim, not the School District's conduct giving rise to the claim, we need not engage in a retroactivity analysis.*fn7 "Generally, retroactivity concerns do not bar a changed limitation period's application to a suit filed after the amendment's effective date." United States v. Simmonds, 111 F.3d 737, 745 (10th Cir. 1997), overruled on other grounds by United States v. Hurst, 322 F.3d 1256 (10th Cir. 2003); see also Vernon v. Cassadaga Valley Cent. Sch. Dist., 49 F.3d 886, 890 (2d Cir. 1995) ("Retroactivity concerns, therefore, generally do not bar the application of a changed statute of limitations to a complaint filed after the amendment . . . . The conduct to which the statute of limitations applies is not the primary conduct of the defendants . . . but is instead the secondary conduct of the plaintiffs, the filing of their suit."); Forest v. United States Postal Serv., 97 F.3d 137, 140 (6th Cir. 1996) (finding that the application of a new statute of limitations is prospective because it applies to the filing of the complaint, which occurred after the statute was enacted); Smith v. Zeneca, Inc., 820 F. Supp. 831, 833 (D. Del. 1993) (finding that retroactivity is not at issue when applying an amended statute of limitations where defendant's conduct occurred prior ...

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