Appellate Court rules against Milwaukee special education plan, disability advocates

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit on Friday decertified class action status in a major lawsuit against the Milwaukee Public School District, overturning a previous settlement and potentially signaling a new shift against class action, special education litigation.

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“It was a complete victory for them,” Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsintold the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “We’re very disappointed.”

Disability Rights Wisconsin filed a class action lawsuit against the school district in 2001, charging that the school district was violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s premier special education law, by failing to identify students in need of special education services. This identification provision is commonly known as the “child find” requirement.

In 2007, a district court found “systemic” violations of the IDEA in the Milwaukee school district. The next year, Disability Rights Wisconsin reached a settlement with the state Department of Public Instruction, creating a court-monitored plan to bring the school district into compliance with the IDEA.

Relying on a landmark 2011 decision by the Supreme Court involving Wal-Mart, which many legal commentators have interpreted as narrowing the standard for when individuals can collectively form class action lawsuits, the 7th Circuit ruled that the claims by the students against the Milwaukee School District did not have enough in common to be joined into a single lawsuit.

“In short, a class of unidentified but potentially IDEA-eligible disabled students is inherently too indefinite to be certified,” the court stated in its opinion.

For Disability Rights Wisconsin, the ruling, raises questions about the viability of bringing class action lawsuits in the special education context. Without the convenience of bringing many claims to the court at the same time, it will likely be harder for disability rights groups to instigate high impact decisions for IDEA violations.

“It can’t all be individuals who bring these claims, especially in large school districts,” Spitzer-Resnick said. “We brought this (class-action) case because we were doing these cases one at a time for years.”

The court also ruled that the state Department of Public Instruction abused its power by negotiating the 2008 settlement with Disability Rights Wisconsin.

Disability Rights Wisconsin argued that it had the authority to negotiate with the state because of its oversight role over the Milwaukee public school district. But the court ruled that the state only has authority to regulate the school district and that only the school district can negotiate and construct the specifics of a remedial plan for violations of the IDEA.

Writing separately from the other two judges on the court, circuit judge Illana Rovner agreed that the claims charged by the students lacked the commonality to form a class action lawsuit.

However, she criticized the majority’s hard line stance against class action lawsuits for violations of the child find requirement, suggesting that class action lawsuits could be brought for more specific, systemic violations, such as if a school consistently failed to identify and provide services to students with a particular disability.

Disability Rights Wisconsin is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.