A statute of limitations is a law passed by a legislative body that limits the length of time following an event that a litigant may initiate legal proceedings. In California, the statute of limitations for bringing a special education dispute before the California Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH") is two years. Ed. Code, § 56505, subd. (l); 20 US.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(C). However, there are two exceptions to this general rule.
These exceptions apply in cases where the parent was prevented from filing a request for due process because of specific misrepresentations made by the local educational agency that it had resolved the problem forming the basis of the complaint, or because the local educational agency withheld information from the parent that was required to be provided to the parent. (20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(D)(i) & (ii); Ed. Code, § 56505, subd. (l)(1) and (2).)
In a recently decided OAH case (2020080333, Parent v. Oakland Unified School District), the parent in this case argued that her claim should not be subject to the two-year statute of limitations in her case because, according to her, the school district's staff had "intentionally misrepresented the law and facts to [her] at the initial IEP team meeting by telling [her] that Student qualified for special education services pursuant to the eligibility category other health impairment; but that Oakland did not find Student eligible for services because he did not require specialized academic instruction." The parent also argued that the school district did not provide her with a copy of her procedural safeguards.
The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") presiding over the case found that the parent's "misrepresentation argument [did] not address either of the two expectations to the statute of limitations." The ALJ added that, "The first exception to the statute of limitations applies if specific misrepresentations were made by the local educational agency, commonly referred to as LEA, that it had solved the problem forming the basis of the due process request. Here, there is no allegation that Oakland claimed it solved the problem forming the basis of the due process complaint. The misrepresentation alleged by Parent, even if proved by a preponderance of the evidence, would not be a legal basis to extend the statute of limitations." Additionally, the ALJ found parent's argument regarding the procedural safeguards unconvincing. The ALJ wrote that, "The statute of limitations does not apply if the local educational agency withheld information from parent that it was required to provide the parent. (Ed. Code, § 56505 subd. (l)(2).) Here, Student alleged that Oakland withheld the procedural safeguards at the March 27, 2017 IEP team meeting. As discussed above, the evidence established they were provided. Furthermore, for the purpose of the statute of limitations analysis, whether Parent understood at that time she had rights under the law is not relevant. The evidence conclusively proves that Parent had knowledge of procedural safeguards before March 27, 2017 because Parent received notice for Student's sibling and notice that they applied to Student based on the assessment plan."
Because the statute of limitations period had expired before parent filed her case, and neither of the two exceptions applied, the ALJ dismissed the bulk of parent's claims (i.e., Issue 1, Issue 2(a)-(q), Issue 3(a)-(u). On the remaining issues contained in Issue 4(a)-(b), the ALJ found that the school district prevailed.
Parents should be mindful of the two-year statute of limitations in special education cases. Unless one of the two recognized exceptions apply, as the above case illustrates, a claim filed after the statute of limitations has expired will be time-barred and dismissed, leaving the family without any opportunity to seek and obtain legal remedies. The above case also illustrates that OAH strictly applies the exceptions. So if the legal argument for why one or both of the exceptions should apply in a particular case doesn't fit squarely within the articulated exceptions, one can reasonably expect that OAH will find that the exception(s) do not apply.