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Adler v. Education Department

decided: April 25, 1985.


Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Lee P. Gagliardi, Judge, dismissing as time barred an action seeking reimbursement of tuition costs under the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2).

Kaufman, Oakes and Meskill, Circuit Judges.

Author: Oakes

OAKES, Circuit Judge:

This appeal is yet another in a long line of cases involving what state statute of limitations should be employed in an action pursuant to a federal enactment without its own statute of limitations.*fn1 The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Lee P. Gagliardi, Judge, held that this action pursuant to the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2) (1982) ("EAHCA"), was barred because it was not brought within the four-month statute of limitations set forth in N.Y. Civ. Prac. Law § 217 (McKinney 1972) ("CPLR"), as opposed to the three-year statute applicable to "an action to recover upon a liability . . . created or imposed by statute" as provided for by CPLR § 214(2). We affirm.

Jeremy Adler, the appellant, is a handicapped nine-year-old child suffering from certain speech and motor disabilities. Appellees Board of Education of the City School District of New York; Subcommittee of the Committee on the Handicapped, School District 2; and Michael Mendelson, Chairperson of the Committee on the Handicapped, School District 2 (collectively "COH"), recommended a school placement for Jeremy that his parents believed inappropriate. His parents pursued their administrative remedies by appealing the recommendation to appellees Education Department of the State of New York and Gordon M. Ambach, the New York State Commissioner of Education (collectively the "Commissioner"). That appeal was taken pursuant to N.Y. Educ. Law §§ 4403, 4404 (McKinney 1981), the statute adopted by New York in response to the EAHCA, and according to the procedural requirements of the EAHCA set forth in 20 U.S.C. § 1415.

The Commissioner ruled in favor of the parents, finding the placement proposed by COH to be inappropriate, but declined to order reimbursement for tuition paid by the parents to a private school that had provided an appropriate placement for the child for the period during which the parents were pursuing their administrative remedies. The Commissioner's decision was rendered in January 1982, some ten months after the request of the parents for an appropriate school placement.

Under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2), a parent aggrieved by a determination of a state educational agency -- in this case the Commissioner -- may commence an action either in state court or in federal district court.*fn2 The Adlers took the latter course in April 1983, some fifteen months after the Commissioner's decision, seeking the reimbursement for tuition that the Commissioner had not allowed. The district court held that the applicable time limitation -- borrowing that for the most closely analogous cause of action under state law -- was the four months used in Article 78 proceedings, see CPLR §§ 7801-7806 (McKinney 1981 & Supp. 1984), and provided for by CPLR § 217. The court reasoned that N.Y. Educ. Law § 4404 (3) offers a modified Article 78 action to review administrative decisions involving handicapped children by granting the reviewing court discretion to remand the proceedings for further consideration upon a finding that there was "any relevant and material evidence . . . then available which was not previously considered by the commissioner."*fn3 The court found, as it had to find, that the "substantial evidence" standard of review in Article 78 proceedings, see CPLR § 7803(4), does differ from the "preponderance standard" required by section 1415(e)(2) of the EAHCA, but held that this difference should not be dispositive since as a matter of policy four months should be ample to prepare additional evidence and to assess the validity of the Commissioner's decision even while encouraging the parties to move with reasonable promptness. Moreover, the district court said that in Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 204-07, 73 L. Ed. 2d 690, 102 S. Ct. 3034 (1982), the Supreme Court implicitly rejected the broad proposition that the EAHCA "requires court to exercise de novo review over state educational decisions and policies," id. at 205, and thus the court found that issues subject to review under section 1415(e)(2) "can be fully and fairly addressed" through an Article 78 proceeding. Accordingly, the district court found that the Article 78 appeal as prescribed in section 4404(3) was essentially analogous to the procedures set forth in 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2). The court therefore adopted the four-month statute of limitations applicable to Article 78 proceedings. This appeal followed.

For purposes of this decision we assume, without reaching the question, that an action lies for reimbursement in the circumstances here, having left the question open in Zvi D. v. Ambach, 694 F.2d 904, 908 n.8 (2d Cir. 1982). With that assumption, we agree with the district court's decision on the basis of logic, as a matter of symmetry, and in view of the overall purposes of the EAHCA.

As a matter of logic, this action under section 1415(e)(2) -- like an action under section 4404(3) -- is essentially an appeal from administrative proceedings previously held first by the COH and followed by an intermediate appeal to the Commissioner. Appellant argues that section 1415(e)(2) and section 4404(3) differ in three important ways: the evidence before the reviewing court, the standard of review, and the type of relief afforded the reviewing court. Agreeing with the differences we nevertheless hold that for limitations purposes the state action and the federal action are analogous, keeping in mind that the Supreme Court has recently recognized that an analogous state action for limitations purposes need not mirror the federal action. See Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, , 85 L. Ed. 2d 254, 105 S. Ct. 1938, 53 U.S.L.W. 4481, 4483-84 (1985).

Appellant refers us to several decisions holding that a section 1415(e)(2) action differs from a state law action to review an administrative decision. In Tokarcik v. Forest Hills School District, 665 F.2d 443, 450 (3d Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 458 U.S. 1121, 102 S. Ct. 3508, 73 L. Ed. 2d 1383 (1982), the court held that, because a section 1415(e)(2) court "may hear evidence not contained in the administrative record and must reach an independent decision based on a preponderance of the evidence, . . . the state limitations statute controlling administrative appeals to state courts . . . is neither an analogous nor appropriate reference point." And in Monahan v. Nebraska, 491 F. Supp. 1074, 1084 (D. Neb. 1980), aff'd in part, vacated in part on other grounds and remanded, 645 F.2d 592 (8th Cir. 1981), the court came to a similar conclusion, stating that a suit under section 1415(e)(2) is "practically indistinguishable from the normal civil action in which all the issues of the case are tried de novo." See also Flavin v. Connecticut State Board of Education, 553 F. Supp. 827, 831 (D. Conn. 1982). By extension, again relying upon Tokarcik, 665 F.2d at 451-52, appellant argues that a limited time period functions to restrict the range of evidence and issues that reviewing courts can consider, because the time needs of parties investigating and preparing for a de novo action are different from those preparing for a simple administrative appeal. It is similarly argued that the EAHCA's goal of preventing inappropriate educational placements would not be furthered if parents were given only a short time in which to evaluate and appeal decisions by state authorities.

The fact is, however, that in all three of the cases relied upon by appellant, Tokarcik, Flavin, and Monahan, the reviewing court's inquiry under the state law was confined to the administrative record, which is not the case under section 4404(3). A section 4404(3) court may remand to the Commissioner for the consideration of newly available evidence. Cf. Department of Education v. Carl D., 695 F.2d 1154, 1157 (9th Cir. 1983) (borrowing Hawaii Administrative Procedure Act statute of limitations for EAHCA actions "since it provides for the introduction of additional evidence in a particular case"). While the ability to open the record under section 4404(3) is different from the open record under section 1415(e)(2), it is not so different. Beyond that, an action under section 4404(3) is governed by a four-month limitation period, while the state statutes rejected in Tokarcik, Flavin, and Monahan provide limitation periods ranging only from thirty to forty-five days. Appellant's concern that an aggrieved party would be unable to prepare his case within four months seems inappropriate in a case where -- by the time state level review is completed and the Commissioner renders his decision -- the party has already participated in hearings on two levels. Four additional months seems ample time for the necessary preparation and institution of suit. Thus those cases and the state procedures that they involved can easily be distinguished from the statute and case we have before us.

We also reject appellants' argument that the standard of review under section 4404(3) is sufficiently different from that under section 1415(e)(2) as to require adoption of a different limitations period. Under section 4404(3), the question presented would be whether the Commissioner's decision was arbitrary and capricious, affected by an error of law, made in violation of lawful procedure, or not supported by substantial evidence on the record. See CPLR § 7803. And while the Rowley Court confirmed that section 1415(e)(2) generally requires independent, preponderance of the evidence review, 458 U.S. at 205, so that we cannot agree with the district court that the limitations on the scope of section 1415(e)(2) established by the Supreme Court in Rowley make the standard of review under section 1415(e)(2) virtually congruent with that under section 4404(3), the difference is not such as to require a different statute of limitations. In Rowley, the Court stated:

(A) court's inquiry in suits brought under § 1415(e)(2) is twofold. First, has the State complied with the procedures set forth in the Act? And second, is the individualized educational program developed through the Act's procedures reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits? If these requirements are met, the State has complied with the obligations imposed by Congress and the courts can require no more.

458 U.S. at 206-07 (footnotes omitted). The Court then tempered the preponderance of the evidence standard under the second question by holding that courts reviewing the actions of state authorities under section 1415(e)(2) must not "substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review." Id. at 206. Thus, the standard for reviewing the EAHCA's ...

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