Understanding Fisher v. University of Texas

What can a law school admissions officer learn from a close reading of Fisher v. University of Texas?  A bit.

Top Ten Percent Plan

Fisher is a paradoxical case to resolve the constitutionality of a law school admissions program, because its race-conscious plan is quite different from the mechanisms used by most law schools to attain diversity.  Thus, it is important to understand the facts in Fisher to understand its applicability to law school admissions.

At the time of the Fischer litigation, the University of Texas (“UT”) used the Top Ten Percent plan to admit all students who ranked in the top ten percent of their class at Texas high schools.  In 2008, the Top Ten Percent plan resulted in 5,114 students being enrolled at UT.  Of those 5,114 students, 302 (6 %) were African-American and 1164 (23 %) were Hispanic

UT, however, was not satisfied with admitting its entire class through the Top Ten Percent plan.  It sought to be more academically selective (as measured by test scores) and regionally diverse by admitting some students who did not rank in the top ten percent of a Texas high school class. In 2008, UT allocated 1,601 of 6,715 spaces in the class to students who were not admitted through the Top Ten Percent program.

Alternative Mechanism

So, UT had to create an alternative mechanism to fill those 1,601 spaces.  It chose to fill the remainder of the class through a combination of a student’s Academic Index (AI) and Personal Achievement Index (PAI).  The AI was a combination of GPA and test scores.  The PAI sought to measure a student’s leadership and work experience, awards, extra-curricular activities, community service, and other special circumstances that give insight into a student’s background, including race. The admissions committee would plot the student’s AI on the x-axis and the student’s PAI on the y-axis.  A line was drawn on a grid to determine who was above and below the admissions requirements to fill those remaining 1601 spaces.

A problem faced by UT was that this alternative mechanism diluted the diversity of the class that was otherwise achieved through the Top Ten Percent plan, because it placed considerable weight on standardized test scores. This problem can be easily seen for Hispanics, the largest minority group in Texas.  In 2008, Hispanics were 23 % of enrolled students under the Top Ten Percent plan.  (Hispanics were 36 % of the Texas population in 2008.) But Hispanics were only 11 % of enrolled students under the alternative plan, even with a race-conscious factor in the PAI, bringing the overall percentile of Hispanics who were enrolled as students down to 20 %.  If Hispanics were not given the benefit of a race-conscious factor in calculating their PAI, the overall percentile of Hispanics who enrolled as students could have dropped as low as 17 %.

The alternative mechanism did succeed in increasing academic selectivity as measured by test scores.  While the median SAT score for the Top Ten Percent group was in the 1200-1290 band in 2008, the median SAT score for the alternative group was in the 1300-1390 band in 2008, even with the use of a race-conscious factor for the alternative group.  And the use of the alternative mechanism’s race conscious factor caused the overall percentage of Hispanics to decline from 23 % to 20 % but avoid declining all the way down to 17 %.

UT’s alternative mechanism was also clever in the way it was race-conscious. The admissions committee did not know a student’s race when making an individual admissions decision.  Decisions were made on the basis of the AI and PAI scores, exclusively.

Contrast with Law School Admissions

UT’s admissions program is quite different from the typical law school admissions program at a selective university.  Law schools often use a modified grid (with GPA on the x-axis and LSAT score on the y-axis) to admit most of their class.  That method of admission usually results in little racial diversity.  They then use a more subjective system to increase racial diversity beyond the diversity achieved through their regular admissions process. By contrast, UT achieved considerable diversity through its regular admissions process – the Top Ten Percent plan.  Its alternative admissions process diluted the diversity attained through its regular admissions program.  UT added race as a factor to the alternative admissions process to avoid excessively diluting the racial diversity that was otherwise attained through the Top Ten Percent plan.

UT’s program is also unusual in the way that admissions decisions are made with the final reviewer not even knowing the race of the admitted student.  By contrast, the admissions officer at the University of Michigan Law School program at issue in Grutter v. Bollinger was well aware of the applicant’s race at the time of decision. In fact, Justice Kennedy dissented in Grutter, in large part, because he was upset with the race-conscious aspects of the Michigan admissions process.  “The consultation of daily reports during the last stages in the admissions process suggests there was no further attempt at individual review save for race itself.” (Grutter, 539 U.S. at 392).  The Fisher decision brings into question the constitutionality validity of those daily reports.

Three Legal Principles Established by Fisher

So let us now turn to the legal principles established by Fisher.

First, it is important to note that the lower courts decided Fisher on a summary judgment motion.  Grutter was decided after a full trial at which admissions officers testified.  Kennedy emphasizes that the lower courts decided Fisher on a summary judgment motion and hints that UT could only offer “sufficient evidence” to justify its program after a full trial. (Slip opinion, p. 13).  Thus, Fisher possibly means that more of these kinds of cases will go to trial rather than be decided on summary judgment.

Second, it is important to remember that Justice Kennedy has never found an affirmative action program that he can conclude is constitutional.  In Grutter, he dissented.  In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, he concurred separately to conclude the diversity plans were unconstitutional.  And, in Fisher, he refrained from affirming the Fifth Circuit.  More importantly, one may understand his opinion in Fisher as elevating his dissenting opinion in Grutter to a majority opinion.

Third, the Fisher opinion provides two important principles that should be considered on remand: (a) that the university treated each person as an individual, and (b) that the university can demonstrate it could not attain diversity through a race-neutral alternative.

With respect to treating each person as an individual, the Fisher opinion says, quoting Grutter, that a race-conscious admissions program must “remain flexible enough to ensure that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes an applicant’s race or ethnicity the defining feature of his or her application.” (slip opinion, p. 7, quoting Grutter, 539 U.S. at 337).  Admissions officers cannot, for example, pull one student off the waiting list in August merely because that student would add diversity to the class.

With respect to race-neutral alternatives, Fisher emphasizes that the court should engage in “a careful judicial inquiry into whether a university could achieve sufficient diversity without using racial classifications.” (slip opinion, p. 10).  And, at this stage of the inquiry, the Court should “not defer to” the university’s “serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives.” The second quotation comes from Grutter (539 U.S. at 339-340).  But the “not defer to” language cannot be found in the majority opinion in Grutter.

The “not defer to” language can be found, instead, in Kennedy’s dissent in Grutter where he says: “The Court confuses deference to a university’s definition of its educational objective with deference to the implementation of this goal. In the context of university admissions the objective of racial diversity can be accepted based on empirical data known to us, but deference is not to be given with respect to the methods by which it is pursued.”  (Grutter, 539 U.S. at 388).

Fisher Remand

Which of these two factors is likely to be important on remand in Fisher?  It is hard to see how UT does not pass muster under the first factor, because the admissions officer did not even know the applicant’s race at the time the offer of admission was made.

The race-neutral alternative requirement, however, is likely to prove more challenging on remand.  In 2008, UT enrolled 20 % Hispanics through a combination of Top Ten Percent plan (23 % Hispanic) and Alternative admissions (11 % Hispanic). The alternative program dropped the Hispanic percentage from 23 % to 20 %.  Had no Hispanics been admitted through the alternative program, the Hispanic percentage would have dropped to 17 %.  Can UT justify a race-conscious element to the alternative program in order to avoid risking enrolling an incoming class that is 17 % Hispanic rather than 20 % Hispanic?

Unfortunately, the rule governing this issue is ambiguous.  The Fisher Court tells us that it is appropriate to defer to a university’s “educational judgment that such diversity is essential to its education mission.” (slip opinion, p. 9, quoting Grutter, 539 U.S. at 328).  But at the means step of the inquiry, “the University receives no deference.”  (slip opinion, p. 10).

The “sufficient diversity” rule, however, is a combination of ends and means.  If UT receives deference in defining how much diversity it should be able to attain, then the court, on remand, would have to accept the 20 % figure as an appropriate diversity goal.  If that goal is accepted, UT can presumably demonstrate that it cannot achieve that goal (while also valuing selectivity) without using a race-conscious factor in the alternative admissions process.

But if UT merely needs to demonstrate that it could not achieve its diversity goal without a race-conscious element in the alternative plan, I don’t see why a remand is necessary.  The factual record with regard to the credentials of candidates is in the record.  The Supreme Court could have done the math on its own.

But if UT must demonstrate why it needs to enroll 20 % Hispanics rather than 17 % Hispanics then a remand is necessary.  That remand would especially be necessary if the Court is not willing to defer at all to UT’s articulation of how much diversity it needs.  I therefore worry that the Court has devised a new hurdle – requiring universities to justify exactly what level of diversity is necessary to attain “sufficient diversity.”

My Advice

So, what would I advise law school admissions officers?  They should prepared to argue:

(1) We did not even know the race of an applicant at the point in the process in which we made the admissions decision.

(2) We had available no race-neutral means to attain racial diversity.

(3) We have an empirical basis for concluding that X amount of diversity is necessary to fulfill our educational mission.

The remand in Fisher may give us further insight into how these arguments are considered.  But, if I were an admissions officer, I wouldn’t wait another four years to revise my program.  To the extent possible, I would be immediately devising a program that could meet those three criteria.

And, yes, I am very happy not to be an admissions officer!


Marriage Equality Decisions

Deeply Conservative

 I understand that the gay rights community is cheering at its dual victories in the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor  and Hollingsworth v. Perry.  But memories are also so short.  One might ask – how could this be the same Court that earlier narrowed the right of a state university to seek to enroll a diverse student body in Fisher v. University of Texas, removed the core of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder and limited employer liability for workplace harassment in Vance v. Ball State?

The answer is simple. Both Windsor and Perry are narrow, conservative decisions.   In both cases, the Court took the narrowest route available to rule in favor of the gay rights claim without fully vindicating the gay rights position.

Let’s start with Windsor.  Before one state had made it possible for same-sex couples to marry, in a fit of hysteria and prejudice, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act by an overwhelming majority in 1996.  Section 2 allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed under the laws of other states. Section 3 defines the term “marriage” and “spouse” under federal law so that those provisions would not apply to married, same-sex couples under more than 1,000 federal statutes, regulations or directives.

Only Section 3 was attacked in Windsor as being unconstitutional as applied to Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, who were legally married in Canada in 2007.  When Spyer died in 2009, Windsor could not qualify for the federal marital tax exemption.  DOMA cost Spyer $353,053 in estate taxes.  She challenged DOMA, arguing that it violated the guarantee of equal protection as applied to the federal government through the Fifth Amendment.  By the year 2009, when she brought this suit, the state of New York was willing to recognize her marriage consummated in Canada.  And before this case was decided, New York amended its marriage laws to allow a same-sex couple to marry in New York.

Edith Windsor did not ask the Court to rule that a state must allow her to marry someone of the same sex. Nor did she argue that New York was required to recognize a marriage consummated in Canada.  She merely argued that the federal government, out of outright prejudice, could not refuse to recognize her marriage. The prejudice in 1996 was so brazen that the House Report quite comfortably stated that DOMA expressed “both moral disapproval of homosexuality, and a moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality.”

The courts, however, did not rush to assist individuals like Edith Windsor who sought to take advantage of the benefits of marriage.  No, the Court waited until New York and 11 other states decided to extend the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples.  It does not rule that same-sex couples anywhere in the United States are entitled to the benefits now enjoyed by Edith Windsor.  It merely rules that DOMA is invalid to the extent that it has the “purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.”

Although the Court purported to decide the case on equality grounds, the logic of its equality ruling was that equal treatment was only appropriate if the state had made the decision to extend equality to same-sex couples.  Same-sex couples who face the worst discrimination because they live in states that do not even recognize their relationships receive no relief.  They are permanent second-class citizens rather than merely second-class for federal purposes (but first-class for state purposes).

Hence, the Court’s decision in Windsor reflects the very least the Court could have done if it chose to reach the merits.  But, even so, its decision only garnered the votes of five members of the Court.  The other four conclude that it is permissible for the federal government to accord second-class status to same-sex couples as long as we live in a society in which we allow more than 30 states to fail to recognize their relationship at all.

Perry reflects another narrow, conservative way to handle these issues.  The procedural background in Perry is unusual.  In 2008, the California Supreme Court held that limiting the official designation of marriage to opposite-sex couples violated the equal protection clause of the California Constitution.  For six months, same-sex marriages occurred in California.  Then, the voters passed Proposition 8, which eliminated same-sex marriage in California.  In response, the Perry plaintiffs filed suit in federal court, arguing that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional on federal constitutional grounds.  The district court judge ruled in their favor but the decision was stayed pending appeals.  The state of California chose not to appeal the district court decision but the official proponents of the initiative were allowed to defend it in the Ninth Circuit.  In a very narrow ruling, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court, concluding that it was unconstitutional for the state to “withdraw[] a right or benefit from one group but not others, whether or not it was required to confer that right or benefit in the first place.”  If affirmed by the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit’s decision gave the Court the opportunity to overturn Proposition 8 without concluding that all states must recognize same-sex marriage.  California happened to be the only state that had allowed same-sex marriage and then withdrew it.

While conceivably appealing to a Court looking for a narrow decision path, I never could swallow the Ninth Circuit’s rationale.  Is it truly better to live in Alabama where the prospects for marriage equality through the regular legislative process are virtually zero than to live in California where the courts, executive branch and probably even the voters are likely to favor marriage equality?

No member of the Court sought to defend the Ninth Circuit’s logic.  Instead, both the majority and dissenting opinions focused entirely on the narrow issue of “standing.”  Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts said: “We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to.  We decline to do so for the first time here.”  The Court vacated the judgment of the Ninth Circuit (because it also did not have standing to hear the case) and returned it to the district court (where it had previously been held unconstitutional).

Technically, the Perry decision only affects the San Francisco district court area that heard the initial case.  But, given the politics of California, it is likely this decision will soon extend to the entire state.

So what do we have in terms of victories?  Marriage has won.  A new group of people, same-sex couples, can seek to join the institution of marriage in California. And those who live in the thirteen jurisdictions that currently allow same-sex marriage have one more reason to get married – the availability of over 1,000 federal benefits (and, in some cases, responsibilities).

More fundamentally, I do hope the Court’s decisions make gay men, lesbians and bisexuals feel like more welcome and full members of society.  I hope they attain more dignity even in states, like my own, that do not permit same-sex marriages.

But let us not forget those decisions were narrow and conservative and are part of a larger legal landscape in which this Court attacks affirmative action, voting rights, and workplace equality.  These decisions do make sense in that context.

Learning Disability and the DSM-5

Learning disability and the DSM-5

Posted on June 26, 2013

—Ruth Colker

Raised in a Spanish-speaking household, Peter learned to speak English at age two while recuperating from a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Despite an amazing work ethic and informal assistance from others, he struggled in school with painfully slow reading and writing. After reading a paper that he wrote for one of my law school classes, I discretely asked him if he had ever been tested for a learning disability. His paper had great content but some awkward phrases. Four weeks later, after I helped him find inexpensive diagnostic services, he learned at the age of 25 that there was a name for his academic struggles: dyslexia (the most common type of learning disability). As a low-income student with a visible disability, Peter had no idea he should be evaluated for dyslexia.

This diagnosis served as a pivotal moment for Peter; his self-confidence improved as he realized he was not struggling due to low cognitive aptitude. He graduated from law school with some accommodations, received extra time on the bar exam, and became a successful lawyer.

Disappointingly, the American Psychiatric Association has barely recognized the existence of “dyslexia” in its recently published fifth edition to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM-5”). And its fleeting recognition of dyslexia is likely to be confusing.  Despite comments from leading practitioners in the field to make “dyslexia” its own category, the APA stubbornly maintains the amorphous category of “Specific Learning Disorder” and then breaks that category down into impairments in reading, written expression or mathematics. Under “impairment in reading,” there is a brief notation that “Dyslexia is an alternate term used to refer to a pattern of learning difficulties characterized by problems with accurate or fluent word recognition, poor decoding, and poor spelling abilities.” Although the long-awaited Fifth Edition was supposed to reflect the most recent state of knowledge about disability, it adds confusion by failing to recognize dyslexia as its own category.

According to the United States Department of Education, 2,476,000 children between the ages of 3 and 21 were classified as having a learning disability in 2008-2009.  Additionally, millions of adults are classified as having a learning disability and receive accommodations in college, on professional testing and at the workplace in order to be productive members of society.  The most common form of learning disability is dyslexia yet the DSM-5 does not even provide an independent definition of dyslexia.

The proposed DSM-5 reflects a misconception of dyslexia. The amorphous category of “Specific Learning Disorder” presumes that individuals with a learning disability will be low-achieving and need continual testing to demonstrate the existence of this impairment based on the stereotype that they might outgrow it.

It also presumes that adults with learning disabilities will have been typically diagnosed during their primary or secondary education, ignoring the large number of young people in our society who do not have access to the clinical services necessary for such a diagnosis.

One of the most alarming aspects of the DSM-5 is that it buys into what is called the “Response to Intervention” (“RTI”) process for diagnosing a learning disability. RTI is a creature of No Child Left Behind –  it requires that school districts provide low-achieving students with intervention to help them attain grade-level success.  RTI has nothing to do with disability; it is a mechanism to help students, especially poor students, attain grade-level expectations. The DSM-5 requires an RTI process for at least six months before a student can be classified as learning disabled and receive special education and related services. In a January 2011 letter, the United States Department of Education has criticized the way the RTI process often delays a referral for special education classification of students with learning disabilities. By requiring RTI, the proposed DSM-5 could worsen an already-existing problem.

In recent years, we have made enormous progress in providing appropriate assistance to millions of Americans with learning disabilities while maintaining high expectations for their achievement at school and at work. At the same time, science has opened up our ability to understand dyslexia by imaging how the brain works when a person is reading. The DSM-5 ignores legal and scientific developments, downplays the category of “dyslexia,” and turns back the clock with disastrous consequences for children and adults with learning disabilities, like Peter, who are tremendously bright but need modest accommodations in order to become productive, tax-paying members of society.

Ruth Colker is Distinguished University Professor and Heck-Faust Memorial Chair in Constitutional Law, Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University. Professor Colker is the author of Disabled Education (New York University Press, 2013).


In the matter of a few days, the Court refused to defer to Congress (Voting Rights Case), refused to defer to the states (Texas Affirmative Action Case) and refused to defer to an administrative agency (Title VII Case).   These decisions are neither conservative nor federalist.  They are merely judicially active.

And each case was sneaky in the way it avoided deference.

In the Voting Rights case, the Court could not conclude that Congress did not have the authority to respond to racial injustice in voting. The Fifteenth Amendment’s language precluded that option.  Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment expressly gives Congress to the power to “enforce” the rule that the vote “shall not be denied or abridged … on account of race.”  The conservative majority could only second-guess how Congress implemented that power, not whether it had it at all.

In the Texas affirmative action case, the Court chose not to overrule recent precedent that racial diversity is a compelling state interest in higher education.  Yes, it could have overruled that recent ruling (from Grutter) but that would have caused Justice Kennedy to make a mockery of his prior decisions upholding the importance of stare decisis –a bedrock constitutional principle. So, instead, the Court questioned how Texas implemented that compelling state interest, creating a seemingly impossible test in which it has to prove a negative – that no race-neutral mechanism could achieve racial diversity.

In the Title VII case, we are talking about enforcement of a statute, not the Constitution.  Congress delegated authority to the EEOC to create the rules about how to attain equal opportunity at the workplace.  The Court could not question the EEOC’s delegated authority. So, instead, the Court chose to micro-manage its substantive rule by replacing its understanding of what it means to be a supervisor with that of the EEOC.

There is only one word that explains this Trifecta – Activism.

Congress, states, and administrative agencies no longer have any presumptive authority.  Rather than hide behind words like the Court “reluctantly” overturns these decisions, the Court should be more clear.

This Court welcomes the use of its power to replace democratically created policies with those of its own.  Let’s just not pretend otherwise.

Great review of Special Education Advocacy


Book Review – Special Education Advocacy

Published April 27, 2012 Book Reviews 2 Comments

Special Education Advocacy, authored and edited by Ruth Colker and Julie K. Waterson. LexisNexis (2011), 746 pages. Softbound, $61.

Special education law is a demanding and growing area of law given the increased diagnoses of disabilities among children, in particular autism. My first introduction to this area of law was in 1997 while attending law school. I secured an internship at a public interest law organization, which led to employment upon graduation. In those early years, my chief legal resources were case files, colleagues, and self-help manuals written for parents of children with disabilities. I often felt like a lost attorney navigating a maze without a map or compass. Special Education Advocacy is an overdue and much needed resource to guide those in that maze.

Special Education Advocacy is a comprehensive resource for individuals representing children with disabilities in special education cases. Although self-described as a textbook, it is more like a combination treatise and practice guide written by several highly respected law school clinicians.

Special education law has a lengthy history consisting of case law and statutory authorities. Special Education Advocacy appropriately begins with a discussion of this history, leading to the present-day principal law governing this area—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (IDEA). The chapters thereafter are arranged in a fairly chronological case-management order, from identifying the client to closing the case. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 cover the initial stages of a special education case, including the client interview, investigation process, requisite educational and medical documents, and requesting special education assessments and services. Chapter 5 is the heart of this resource, as true for all special education cases—the individualized education program (IEP). The chapter fully analyzes the IEP process, which includes identifying the players, preparing for the IEP meeting, listing the types of services available, and setting forth the necessary components of the IEP document to ensure IDEA compliance. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 cover particular groups of children, such as children under age three who are eligible for Early Intervention Services, students subject to discipline measures, and dependency children in welfare systems, for example. Chapters 9 and 10 cover dispute resolution and remedies available to students, parents, and attorneys. The last chapter provides guidance to those representing students in the delinquency system who require special education services.

The strengths of Special Education Advocacy come from the fact that it is written by practitioners who use their own experiences and real client cases to convey and illustrate the law, both substantive and procedural. Client cases serve as discussion points and demonstrate the various aspects of special education cases. Sample documents are plentiful: client letters, medical and psychology reports, an affidavit, IEP meeting minutes, IEPs, accommodation plans, a complaint, and a school suspension notice, for example. Templates and forms are also provided, including an intake form, retainer, request for services, referral letter, document requests, case chronology spreadsheet, and eligibility determinations. I was pleasantly surprised to find some nonlaw aids as well. For those advocates with little background in child development and assessments of psychology and educational attributes, the resource provides guidelines for normal development, an overview of the categories of disabilities, and a primer on evaluation instruments including an explanation of standard deviations and errors of measurement.

Supplementing the substance, practitioner tips, and samples within Special Education Advocacy are appendices of the text of IDEA, its regulations, and 13 seminal special education law cases. Its finding tools include a detailed table of contents with chapter outlines, a table of cases, a table of statutes, and an index.

Special Education Advocacy is best-suited for law students, clinical faculty, and attorneys interested in or practicing special education law, specifically in the representation of children with disabilities. Given my own experience practicing special education law, I can say with confidence that it is a must-have resource for both new and experienced advocates. Special Education Advocacy provides the map and compass to navigate this area of law competently and, most importantly, to best serve parents and children with disabilities.

Cindy Guyer (cguyer@law.usc.edu) is a research services librarian at the USC Gould School of Law in Los Angeles.

Critique of Ohio Due Process Decisions in Special Education Cases

To:  Monica Drvota

From:  Ruth Colker[1]

Re: Ohio IHO and SLRO Opinions in Special Education Cases

Date: July 25, 2012

The purpose of this memorandum is to summarize some problems I have observed in the due process decisions rendered by Ohio Independent Hearing Officers (“IHO”) and State Law Review Officers (“SLRO”) in special education cases.   By bringing these matters to the attention of the Ohio Department of Education, I hope to assist in the increased professionalization of the office and help make the due process decisions more accessible[2] and useful to the public.

The problems include:

  • presentation of cases in the on-line database in ways that limit the ability of parents and practitioners to be aware of final outcomes,
  • writing of opinions in ways that makes it hard to understand the result and reasoning, and
  • substantive outcomes that are sometimes inconsistent with the rules that apply to these cases; this problem is particularly troublesome when parents and child are not represented by outside counsel.


I. Problems

A. Due Process Database

The State of Ohio has a database that contains Due Process decisions.[3]   This database is inconsistent and unsystematic with respect to the scope of what it includes and whether it includes court cases.

The database begins with an IHO 1996 decision from the Bexley School District, marked as SE-XXXX-1996.   That case ultimately was appealed to the Sixth Circuit.  See Knable v. Bexley City School District, 238 F.3d 755 (6th Cir. 2001).  Like all cases that were appealed, there is no reference or link to the appeal in the database.  The failure to include links or references to appeals can cause the results in the database to mislead both parents and others as to the precedential value of the IHO decision.  I recommend a link for any IHO decision that is appealed to a SLRO or federal court.

After the 1996 IHO decision in the Bexley case, the next case in the database is dated 2002.  Until 2009, there is inconsistent inclusion of court cases in the database and unreliable links for those that are present.   There is a 2003 Elida School District decision (with no active link) and a 2003 Kings Local School District case.  Later in the database, there is another reference to the Elida School District decision with an active link.  There are no more court decisions until 2006 when there are two links to cases involving the Parma School District. Neither link appears to work, however.  In 2007, there is another link to the Parma School District (the Winkelman Supreme Court decision).  The next reference to a court decision is a 2007 Sixth Circuit case against the Sylvania School District.  The database includes several other cases against the Sylvania School District; there is no easy way to figure out which are the predecessors to this Sixth Circuit decision (nor whether any of them are a subsequent remand).  There are two district court cases involving cases against the Woodmore Local School District.  That case was appealed to the Sixth Circuit.  See P.R. v. Woodmore Local School District, 2007 WL 4163857 (6th Cir. 2007) yet the Sixth Circuit appeal does not appear to be in the database.  The most recent court decision listed on the database is from 2009, against Switzerland of Ohio.  That court decision required further proceedings but there is no link to those subsequent developments.  I believe there are about 30 district court or appellate cases not included in the Department’s database that were decided between 2002 and 2012 – the apparent scope of the Department’s database.

The Department’s database has deleted identifying information about students even when the decisions are federal cases.  I assume that the Department has done so for FERPA reasons.  When a case is appealed to federal court, however, the published federal court record typically includes the full information.  I recommend that the Department include the same text as the federal court.  Cases with extensive white outs are difficult to read and understand.

B. Writing of Opinions

Each IHO and SLRO uses a different style of opinion writing and it is often hard to follow the opinion and determine the outcome.  I will critique the most recent decision in the database — SE-2645-2011– to give a general sense of the problems that I typically find in the writing of the opinions.  I am using this opinion as an example because it is typical, not because it is atypical.

This 55-page IHO opinion does not state at the outset whether the hearing officer is ruling for or against the parent.  There are numerous white outs of material other than the student’s name.  It appears that the hearing officer felt the need to delete the names of any teachers but not replace them with generic labels such as “Speech Language Pathologist.”  Years and dates are haphazardly listed or deleted.  Details like the number of weeks of therapy are deleted.

The discussion of the “law” is also difficult to follow.  Beginning on page 32, the hearing officer seems to cut and paste from various sources to summarize the relevant legal requirements.   When the IHO discusses the Rowley decision (pages 32-33), there are odd keystrokes as if the IHO was using incompatible software when cutting and pasting the decision.  The odd keystrokes make it difficult to follow the discussion.

The legal discussion also does not always use complete, grammatically correct sentences.  At the bottom of page 33, the opinion starts with an incomplete sentence, reading “In Deal at pgs. 862-863.”  There is then a sentence stating that the Sixth Circuit agrees with the Third Circuit but the quote that then follows (to support this sentence) never provides a cite to any Third Circuit decision.  While describing the law, the opinion also establishes its conclusion.  On page 34, the IHO states that the child’s IEPs were adequate at the same time as she recites the statutory requirements for an IEP. It is confusing for rule application to be interspersed with the statement of the rule (especially since a later section of the opinion applies the law to the facts).

Further, the presentation of the statutory law and case law is confusing. Because the IDEA has been repeatedly amended, it is helpful to start with the current statutory language and then any case law that interprets the existing statutory language.  For example, on page 35, the IHO discusses the rules about when hearing officers should issue remedies for procedural violations. Those rules have changed a lot over the years.  Nonetheless, the hearing officer first discusses cases from the 1990’s and then moves on to a listing of the codified rules from 2004 although some of those cases may no longer be valid in light of the 1997 and 2004 amendments to the IDEA.

The discussion of the relevant legal issues is also somewhat haphazard in organization.  It is typical for courts that consider special education cases to begin with the legal issue of who has the burden of proof because all the testimony has to be considered through that lens.  This hearing officer does not get to the issue of burden of proof until page 37.  As the hearing officer notes, the United States Supreme Court has resolved this issue.  Therefore, there is no reason to have extensive discussion of Sixth Circuit case law that preceded the Supreme Court’s decision on this issue in 2005.

After the statement of the law, the organization of the opinion is difficult to follow.  There is a discussion of three separate issues (with discussions of both law and facts) and then there is a heading:  Argument-Discussion-Conclusions.   Although this section had a header that included the word “conclusion,” it does not fully state the decision of the hearing officer.  Instead, that is stated in the final section marked “Decision.”

I recommend that the state of Ohio adopt a template for IHO and SLRO decisions so that the reader can easily follow them.  An organization that has proven successful in other jurisdictions consists of a brief summary of the outcome, a statement of the issues, a statement of the facts, a statement of the relevant law, an application of the law to the facts, and a conclusion for each issue raised by the parties.  I have noticed that district courts sometimes criticize hearing officers for not deciding all the issues before them when they reverse or remand SLRO decisions.  Clearer organization guidelines could help solve that problem.   In addition, a clearer delineation of the resolution of each issue would also assist discussions about attorney fees between the parties, following issuance of the IHO or SLRO opinion.  Other states and some federal agencies use such templates and find that they improve the quality of opinions and help reduce errors.

C. Substantive Outcomes

I do not know what procedures are in place to discuss decisions that are reversed in order to learn from errors that have been made.   Two SLRO decisions (that I know of) have been reversed in the last couple of years by district courts: B.H. v. West Clermont Board of Education, 788 F. Supp.2d 682 (S.D. OH 2011) and Jackson v. Northwest Local School District, 2010 WL 3452333 (S.D. OH 2010).

In B.H. v. West Clermont Board of Education, a case about a child whose behavior management program was unduly punitive as well as too complicated for someone with her cognitive capacity to understand, the district court stated:  “SLRO opinion is without any evidentiary or legal support and contains virtually no references to the record.”[4]  The key error made by the SLRO was a failure to consider both academic and functional advances in deciding whether a child was receiving a FAPE in a case where the school district was found to have used restraints unnecessarily in a punitive fashion while the student’s behavior regressed markedly.  I have read about 500 hearing officer decisions in various states in the last year while writing my book, Disabled Education, and that is the most critical statement I have ever seen from a federal judge in reference to a hearing officer opinion.  This case was unusual in that the SLRO reversed the IHO and the district court judge essentially reinstated the IHO decision.  There appear to be five or so other cases in which the SLRO reversed the IHO (two of which also involved this SLRO).  As far as I know, the other cases were not appealed.  I have not reviewed the other cases to try to determine if they were correctly decided by the SLRO.

The other case that was reversed — Jackson v. Northwest Local School District – is also an unusual case in that the parent managed to prevail in this pro se case.   One of the issues in the case was whether the district should have had to conduct a manifestation review before suspending the child from school.  The statutory language on this issue is quite clear.   A manifestation hearing is necessary if the school can be “deemed to have knowledge of the child’s disability.” See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(k)(5)(A)&(B).  In this case, before the incident that triggered the suspension occurred, the school district had already told the parent that the child should see an outside mental health agency and, after the incident, could not return to school until receiving clearance from a psychologist.   The school district clearly suspected the child was disabled before suspending the child; the SLRO missed the application of this statutory provision.  Somehow, the pro se parent found this language and brought it to the attention of the district court on appeal.  An SLRO should not be making this kind of plain legal error and it suggests that some review or training should be made available to all hearing officers on the rules surrounding a right to manifestation determinations.

In these two cases, the errors are clear and were reversed on appeal.   I found two other recent cases that have not yet been reversed on appeal but which are troubling.   In SE 2223-2009, a case against the Sylvania School District, the IHO found that procedural errors had occurred while the school district failed to identify the student as disabled for several years but the errors were not sufficient to cause substantive harm and thereby entitle the child to relief.  This fact pattern is a classic example of a district relying on a “response to intervention” program as a basis for delaying a very evidently needed evaluation.  It was clearly contrary to the January 21, 2011 OSEP guidance stating that the response to intervention process should not be used as a way to delay appropriate intervention.[5]  Further, the “mentor” that was provided to the child in this case cannot possibly be considered equivalent to the kind of intensive intervention delivered by an appropriately trained teacher that one would expect to find under a proper IEP.  This case was not appealed, I understand, because the child moved to another school district.  At this point, an evidently misleading precedent, directly contrary to published OSEP guidance, has been left standing.  It concerns me that the Sylvania School District, and anyone else reading this opinion, believes that the school district treated this child in a way that is legally acceptable.

Similarly, I am concerned about the IHO and SLRO decisions reached in Gibson v. Forest Hills Local School District, 2012 WL 1197896 (S.D. OH 2012).  This case is currently on appeal and I expect the district court will reverse the SLRO decision because the case does not appear to be consistent with any legal rule that I understand exists under the IDEA.  The hearing officers appeared to conclude the child was provided FAPE but nonetheless ordered changes in the IEP for the future because, in fact, the child was not provided FAPE.  Although appellate decisions cannot be predicted with certainty, I suspect the district court opinion will correct that legal position that cannot be supported in the law.  If so, I hope this case is discussed at a future training session so that the hearing officers will learn from these errors.

In reading over a hundred OHI and SLRO opinions, I have concluded that hearing officers would benefit from a training session that went back to many of the basic elements of the statute as well as some of the landmark decisions.  These issues and cases include:

  • rules for invoking a school district’s “child find” obligation especially in light of the movement towards RTI,
  • rules for determining when and whether a manifestation review is required,
  • rules for determining whether a school districts’ evaluations are “appropriate” so that an Independent Educational Evaluation is not required, with particular attention to developments in the field of educational psychology,
  • rules for determining whether procedural violations result in harm so that relief is appropriate,
  • Supreme Court’s decision in Schaffer v. Weast, and
  • Supreme Court’s decision in Rowley and the continued vitality of that decision after the 2004 IDEA Amendments.

II. Solutions

In light of the problems I identified above, I recommend that:

  • the Ohio Department of Education investigate how to increase the usefulness, completeness and accuracy of its database by providing links to appealed decisions and, if possible, make the cases word searchable,
  • provide a model or template for opinions to provide more consistency among opinions,
  • provide proofreading and editing assistance for authors of opinions,
  • increase the training on important rules of law and landmark cases that are cited repeatedly in IDEA decisions , and
  • focus training on decisions by IHOs or SLROs that have been affirmed or reversed on appeal.

III. Conclusion

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is an enormously complicated, changing statute.  When I co-authored a set of teaching materials on this statute, which are used in clinics throughout the country, I found it necessary to work with eight co-authors who specialized in various subtopics under the statute.[6]  Ohio hearing officers often write no more than one decision per year so it is understandably difficult for them to stay current on this statute and how to write a high quality opinion with the level of assistance they currently receive.

Parents of children with disabilities rarely come into a due process hearing on an equal footing with school districts and their lawyers.  Thus, when the Supreme Court decided in 2005 to place the burden of proof on parents in IDEA cases (when they were the moving party), it simultaneously directed hearing officers to run hearings in such a way as to safeguard the important constitutional and statutory right of children to receive a free and adequate public education.  The SupremeCourt said:

IDEA hearings are deliberately informal and intended to give ALJs the flexibility that they need to ensure that each side can fairly present its evidence.  IDEA, in fact, requires state authorities to organize hearings in a way that guarantees parents and children [IDEA’s] procedural protections …. They are not left to challenge the government without a realistic opportunity to access the necessary evidence, or without an expert with the firepower to match the opposition.[7]

I fear that parents in Ohio are not always able to access their full set of “procedural protections” or have sufficient “firepower to match the opposition” due to inadequate training of hearing officers.

Congress has repeatedly raised the standards for the education that school districts are supposed to provide all children, including children with disabilities.  The IDEA Findings indicate school districts should “hav[e] high expectations for such children and ensur[e] their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible”[8]  The Department of Education regulations provide that children can be classified as disabled and therefore entitled to a FAPE “even though they are advancing from grade to grade”[9]  Because many parents proceed pro se in these cases, it is crucial that hearing officers are making sure that the rights of children are protected in Ohio.  Decisions, such as some of the ones I discussed above, bring into question whether school districts are being required to meet those high standards in Ohio.

I would be happy to speak to Ohio hearing officers at a training session if I can be of any further assistance in the future.  I hope these comments are helpful and constructive.







[1] Distinguished University Professor and Heck-Faust Memorial Chair in Constitutional Law, Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University.

[2] I also hope that the online database, like all material available to the public on a state-run website, is accessible to those with visual and other impairments although I do not specifically discuss those kinds of accessibility problems in this memo.

[3] See http://www.edresourcesohio.org/index.php?slug=due-process-database.

[4] B.H. v. West Clermont Board of Education, 788 F. Supp.2d 682, 697 (S.D. OH 2011).

[5] See http://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/osep11-07rtimemo.pdf.

[6] See Ruth Colker & Julie K. Waterstone, Special Education Advocacy (2011).

[7] Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 61 (2005)(citations omitted).

[8] 20 U.S.C. § 1400(c)(5)(A).

[9] 34 C.F.R. § 300.111(c)(2).