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Advisory on Schaffer v. Weast, U.S. Supreme Court Decision on Burden of Proof in Special Education Appeals Cases

To:Superintendents of Schools, Special Education Administrators, Charter School Leaders and Other Interested Parties
From:David P. Driscoll, Commissioner of Education
Date:December 1, 2005

On November 14, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. (2005) that in an administrative hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the party initiating the appeal and seeking relief bears the burden of proof. While the Court's ruling does not change legal practice in Massachusetts, I am bringing it to your attention because it clarifies an issue relating to IDEA hearings, which either a parent or a school district may initiate at the Bureau of Special Education Appeals.

The legal term "burden of proof" or "burden of persuasion" is relevant in cases in which the evidence presented by each side is perfectly balanced. Those cases are rare. If, as in the Schaffer case, the hearing officer finds the evidence presented by each party to be in perfect balance, not favoring one side or the other, then the party that has the burden of persuasion will lose. While completely balanced evidence is uncommon in special education disputes, the Court's ruling is important because several lower courts had reached different conclusions on which party bears the burden of proof in IDEA hearings. The Supreme Court's decision now affirms a uniform rule that will be followed consistently in all jurisdictions.

The Court noted that its interpretation accords with the usual rule that plaintiffs bear the burden regarding the essential aspects of their claims. In response to the concern that school districts might have an advantage in information and expertise about the student's educational program, the Court stated that the procedural protections for parents under the IDEA "ensure that the school bears no unique informational advantage." Those procedural safeguards include the right to review the student's records, the right to an independent educational evaluation, and the requirement that school districts provide parents with written notice, with the reasoning behind decisions and disputed actions, and disclose results of evaluations and recommendations prior to a hearing.

The Schaffer decision will have little if any impact in Massachusetts, since attorneys and advocates for parents and school districts generally have assumed that the party initiating a special education appeal bears the burden of proof, and they have prepared and presented their cases accordingly. The U.S. Supreme Court has now affirmed that this is the rule under the IDEA.

The full text of the Schaffer v. Weast decision is available through a link on the Supreme Court's website at 04-698 -- Schaffer v. Weast (11/14/05).

Last Updated: December 5, 2005

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