The families of disabled children embroiled in an eight-year legal fight with the District of Columbia over special education services can move ahead with their claims, a Washington federal judge has ruled.
The Nov. 8 ruling revives a class action, first filed in 2005, that accused city officials of failing to identify young children eligible for special education services. The plaintiffs suffered a setback in April after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed the trial judge's certification of a class, undoing the judge's previous findings that the city was liable for violations of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act.
Back in the trial court, Senior Judge Royce Lamberth on Nov. 8 denied the city's request to dismiss the case. Lamberth certified four subclasses of plaintiffs in response to the D.C. Circuit’s ruling. The appeals court was concerned about a class made up of members with different types of claims.
The ruling means the plaintiffs get another chance to prove the city is liable for violations of federal law. The plaintiffs want a court order requiring the city to take certain steps to fix how it identifies children eligible for special education services and then provides those services. The city said in court filings it has already "demonstrated marked improvement" in providing the required services.
The case was one of a number of class actions to face a challenge following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in 2011's Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes, which tightened the standards for class certification. The D.C. Circuit found the plaintiffs in the special education case, DL v. District of Columbia, failed to show they suffered common harm from a policy or practice that affected each class member.
In his ruling, Lamberth approved four subclasses: children who were not identified for services; children who weren't provided with a timely evaluation; children who didn't receive a timely decision about their eligibility; and children who weren't provided with a "smooth and effective" transition into preschool programs.
Lamberth previously found the city liable for violations of the federal disabilities law. Following the Wal-Mart decision, Lamberth denied the city's request to decertify the class, prompting the appeal to the D.C. Circuit.
Lawyers for the District of Columbia argued in the trial court that the case should be dismissed because the plaintiffs were too old to still have standing to sue. The city’s attorneys also said they challengers no longer had current claims pending against the city for educational services or for reimbursement for services they received outside the D.C. public school system.
Lamberth said that as long as the plaintiffs had standing at the time they filed their complaint, they kept that standing even as they aged. Due to the "inherently transitory" nature of litigation over special education services-litigation typically outlasts the children's eligibility for age-specific services-Lamberth said the population of students at issue still had a "live claim."
Lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Bruce Terris of Washington’s Terris, Pravlik & Millian, said Lamberth's decision "gives us the opportunity to get the injunction reinstated and ensure the improvements the District has made continue into the future."
Ted Gest, a spokesman for the D.C. attorney general’s office, said the city’s lawyers were studying the decision.