d.l. v. district of columbia

D.D.C., Civ. No. 05-1437



In 2005, the firm brought the case of D.L. v. District of Columbia in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.  This is a class action related to the failure of the District of Columbia (the District) to provide and timely provide special education and related services to three-to-five-year-old children in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Rehabilitation Act, and District law.

As stated by the district court, “This case concerns the District’s obligations, under both federal and local law, to provide special education to some of our most vulnerable citizens at a very early and critical stage in their lives.  In the first few years of a child’s life, there exists a narrow window of opportunity in which special education, tailored to the child’s particular needs, can work a miracle.  ‘[S]omewhere in the neighborhood of 75 to 80 percent’ of the disabled children who are found in the community and served by quality early intervention programs will go on to kindergarten alongside every other ordinary five-year-old—without needing further supplemental special education. . . . So that’s what’s at stake here.”

There is a long history to this case, but, ultimately, in 2016, the district court found the District liable for failing to identify children with disabilities, timely issue eligibility determinations, and smoothly and effectively transition them from Part C services (early intervention services for children up to three years old) to Part B services (special education and related services for children ages three and older).  The district court enjoined the District from further violations of the IDEA and District law, and ordered specific corrective actions, including that the District ensure that (1) at least 8.5 percent of children between the ages of three and five who reside in the District or are wards of the District receive necessary special education and related services, (2) at least 95 percent of all children between the ages of three and five referred for special education services receive a timely eligibility determination, and (3) at least 95 percent of all children receiving Part C services that are found eligible for Part B services receive a smooth and effective transition to those Part B services by their third birthdays.

The injunction includes specific provisions related to the measurement and monitoring of compliance.  The District was ordered to correct several metrics that made it appear that it was performing much better than it actually was.  The District is also required to provide semi-annual and annual reports to the Court regarding its compliance.  The injunction will remain in effect until the District has demonstrated sustained compliance with it.

The district court wrote: “The District’s lack of effective Child Find and transition policies is particularly troubling in light of the intense scrutiny and seemingly constant admonishment it has received over the last decade. . . .  [The District’s] persistent failure to live up to [its] statutory obligations, a failure that works a severe and lasting harm on one of society’s most vulnerable populations—disabled preschool children—is deeply troubling to this Court.’ . . . Moreover, . . . . OSEP [the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs] informed OSSE [the District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent of Education] in 2015 that it ‘needs intervention in implementing the requirements of Part B of the IDEA’ for the ‘ninth consecutive year,’ which is the longest period in the country. . . . . Although OSEP’s long-running ‘needs intervention’ determination does not deal exclusively with the statutory obligations at issue in this litigation, it contributes to the overarching narrative that the District requires strong, outside involvement to produce even minimally acceptable results.  And critically, this litigation has been ongoing for more than ten years, providing the District with ample time and robust incentives to come into full compliance with the law.  It is for these reasons that a structural injunction is necessary.”

The district court concluded by stating: “The District has come a long way since 2005 when this lawsuit was initiated, but it has not come far enough.  Indeed, while its progress has been in some ways impressive, the District started at such a low base that the advances it has made are insufficient to bring it into compliance with its legal obligations.  The Court today makes clear that the implementation and outcomes of the District’s policies are paramount.  The District will comply with its statutory obligations when it actually locates and identifies children to provide them with a FAPE [free appropriate public education], timely evaluates them, timely determines their eligibility, and smoothly and effectively transitions them—not when they establish policies that, if properly implemented, would achieve these goals.  If the [District] fails to abide by the order and adopt a more outcome-based approach, the District will earn far more significant court involvement and oversight than is ordered today.”

The District appealed the injunction.  The court of appeals rejected all of the District’s arguments.  Addressing the District’s argument that the IDEA precludes comprehensive injunctions and allows only for relief on an individual child basis, the court of appeals stated that “the District’s argument would eviscerate the very purpose of IDEA.”  Congress enacted the IDEA in response to the “pervasive and tragic” failure to serve all children with disabilities.  In exchange for federal funding, the IDEA imposes on states, including the District, the obligation of identifying and evaluating all preschoolers with disabilities.  The court of appeals found that although the District had “enthusiastically accepted millions of dollars in IDEA funding,” it was now proposing to shift back to parents the burden of determining whether a child was eligible for special education services.  The court of appeals stated: “Given the purpose of IDEA, we cannot imagine a more preposterous argument.”

Plaintiffs’ counsel are monitoring the District’s program to ensure that it provides the level of attention and resources necessary to comply with the injunction and bring about the needed improvements.  Plaintiffs’ counsel also stand ready to assist and advise advocates, parents, and guardians in using the D.L. injunction to advocate for children with special education needs.  Linked here is a notice that may be helpful to better understand the impacts that the D.L. injunction has had on special education deadlines relevant to individual children.

If you have any questions about the case, please call Todd Gluckman at 202-204-8482.

 Back to Current Class Actions