TPM Wins Affirmance in Federal Appeals Court that District of Columbia Underserves Preschoolers with Disabilities

D.L. v. District of Columbia is a class action brought by the firm seeking to remedy the District of Columbia’s failure to provide and timely provide special education services to preschoolers with disabilities in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and other laws.

On Friday, June 23, 2017, the court of appeals, in a unanimous decision, affirmed the lower court decision in all respects.  The lower court found that the District of Columbia violates the rights of preschoolers with disabilities by failing to provide and timely provide services required by the IDEA and District law.  The lower court issued an injunction requiring numerous corrective actions to prevent further violations.

U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who has presided over the case since 2005, described the case as follows: “This case concerns the District of Columbia’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.”   

The court of appeals rejected all arguments made by the District in its appeal of Judge Lamberth’s ruling.  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 and their counsel are very pleased with the ruling.  This decision will have a positive and lasting impact on children with disabilities in the District.  We hope and expect that the District will now focus its full attention and resources on complying with the injunction and bringing about the improvements needed to ensure that special education services are timely delivered to all preschoolers with disabilities.

This decision was featured in the Washington Post on June 23, 2017.

Click here for the decision.