Federal appellate judges rule in favor of Durham schools in special-needs case

Image by Pixabay

Listen to this story (3 minutes)

  • A unanimous 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling favoring Durham Public Schools. The case involved one student's complaint about special-needs services.
  • A three-judge appellate panel agreed the student and her mother had not made the case for federal courts to meddle in the state's interpretation of its rules.

A unanimous 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel has upheld a lower court ruling favoring Durham Public Schools in a dispute over one student’s request for special-needs services.

The case hinged on Durham schools’ argument that the student and her mother had not followed proper legal procedures. They failed to file timely appeals as they challenged the school system’s decisions about special services.

“Important principles of federalism are at stake here,” wrote Judge Marvin Quattlebaum for the three-judge panel.

The judge noted the role of Joe Walters, a State Board of Education review officer involved in the case. “Perhaps Mr. Walters’ strict adherence to North Carolina’s procedural rules was a bit too ticky-tack,” Quattlebaum wrote. “But even if that is correct, we cannot overturn a state agency’s interpretation of its rules just because we might have handled things differently.”

The student and mother “have not identified any equitable principles that permit us to meddle in a state’s interpretation of its laws,” Quattlebaum added.

The student, identified in court records as K.I., “was diagnosed with a variety of learning and psycho-social disorders,” according to the court opinion. “Dissatisfied with her school’s response to her request for special education services, K.I. and her mother J.I. asked for and received a hearing under North Carolina’s administrative procedures. Because they disagreed with the hearing decision, K.I. and J.I. tried to appeal it administratively. But their appeal was not considered because K.I. and J.I. did not follow North Carolina’s rules for filing appeals.”

The student and parent next filed in federal court under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, “which helps to ensure that children with disabilities receive special education services,” Quattlebaum wrote. “But before a plaintiff can sue in federal court under the IDEA, she must first complete — or as the law phrases it, ‘exhaust’ — her state administrative remedies.”

“The district court found that K.I. and J.I.’s failure to properly appeal under North Carolina’s administrative rules meant that they had not exhausted their administrative remedies,” according to the 4th Circuit ruling.

K.I. attended Durham Public Schools from kindergarten through sixth grade, then transferred to a local charter school. “Despite that move, K.I.’s family intends for K.I. to return to a public school in Durham for high school,” Quattlebaum wrote.

Judge Julius Richardson and Senior Judge Henry Floyd joined Quattlebaum’s decision.