Statute of Limitations Memo


Is the two-year general personal injury statute of limitations the applicable limitation period for parents or guardians to challenge the appropriateness of education being provided by the school district pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”)?


The IDEA shares a characteristic common to many federal laws in that it lacks a statute of limitations.  Board of Regents v. Tomanio, 446 U.S. 478, 483 (1980).  Where Congress has not established a time limitation for a federal cause of action, the settled practice has been to adopt a local time limitation as federal law if it is not inconsistent with federal law or policy to do so.  Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 266-67 (1985).  Under Wilson, a court enforcing a federal law without a statute of limitation must characterize the “essence” of the claim in the pending case and decide which state statute provides the most appropriate limiting principle.  Id. at 268.

The process by which judges pick a statute of limitations for a federal statute that lacks one is at best uncertain and at worst arbitrary.  McCartney C. v. Herrin Community Unit School Dist. No. 4, No. 93-2957, Slip Op. at 2-3 (7th Cir. April 7, 1994).  With reference specifically to the federal rights of disabled schoolchildren, “federal courts have borrowed no fewer than four types of state statutes, giving parents anywhere from 30 days to six years in which to file their section 1415(e)(2) claims.  Id.

The Illinois five year limitation period statute is the catch-all statute designed to govern actions for which no other time limitation is provided.  In fact, the five year Illinois limitation period of 735 ILCS 5/13-205 for statutory actions where no other limitation is provided is analogous to the four year catch all limitation period of 28 U.S.C. §1658 applicable to all federal statutes passed after December 1, 1990 for which no other limitation period is provided.  The 28 U.S.C. §1658 statute is not directly applicable because IDEA was passed prior to December 1, 1990.  However, it does provide a benchmark for determining the approximate length of the limitation period that should apply to actions brought under federal statutes which do not otherwise contain a limitations period.

Most Illinois courts agree that a five year limitation period statute would not be consistent with the underlying policy objectives of the IDEA.  The principal goal of the IDEA is to protect the educational rights of the handicapped student and to maintain the involvement of that child’s parents in the education choices for their child.  Dell v. Board of Educ., Tp. High School Dist. 113, 32 F.3d 1053 (7th Cir. 1994).  However, to succeed in safeguarding the student, the IDEA’s policies encourage the prompt, rather than protracted, resolution of disputes concerning the disabled student’s education.  See 121 Cong.Rec. 37416, 94th Cong., 1st Sess. (Nov. 19, 1975).  (Statement in final Senate debate by Senator Williams, the principal author of the bill, stating that delay in resolving education matters is detrimental to the development of a handicapped child).

The contention that a 120 day limitation applies to educational reimbursement is based on Dell v. Board of Educ., Tp. High School Dist. 113, 32 F.3d 1053 (7th Cir. 1994).  However, Dell involved “an appeal of an administrative decision” subsequent to Level I and II proceedings.  The limitations period governing the time in which a party has to appeal an adverse ruling from an administrative proceeding has nothing to do with the time period a party has for bringing an initial action for retroactive reimbursement.

In Powers v. Indiana Dept. of Educ. Div. of Sp. Educ., 61 F.3d 552 (7th Cir. 1995) and Dell, the Seventh Circuit established very short time limitations in federal cases brought subsequent to adverse administrative rulings.  Neither Powers nor Dell dealt with the applicable time limitation for filing an initial administrative claim involving a dispute over educational placement and plans, though the Powers Court was careful to distinguish the ancillary claim for attorneys fees from judicial review of “disputes over educational plans or placement” for which the Court recognized a valid basis for a larger limitations period [emphasis added].  61 F.3d at 557-558.

In Oak Park School Dist., 886 F.Supp. 1417 (N.D. Ill. 1995), the plaintiff sought a compensatory education, claiming that the school district failed to provide him with a free and appropriate public education.  886 F.Supp. at 1419.  The Oak Park School Dist. court recognized that the limitations period to be applied depended on the nature of the claim being brought.  886 F.Supp. at 1420.  Accordingly, the court rejected the 120 day limitation applied in Dell because that limitation applied to an appeal of an administrative ruling which was of a different nature than the initial due process request for compensatory education made in the Oak Park School Dist. case.  Id.  Instead, the court held that Illinois’ two year statute of limitations applied.  Id. at 1423.  In its ruling, the Oak Park Court cited the decision in Janzen v. Knox County Bd. of Education, 790 F.2d 484 (6th Cir. 1986), in which it stated that it is imperative that the selection of state limitations periods under the [IDEA] be made ‘on a case-by-case basis.’

Similarly, in Cheeney v. Highland Community College, 15 F.3d 79, 80 (7th Cir. 1994), the court held that the Illinois two year statute of limitations was applicable to the Rehabilitation Act claims.  The district court noted that because the Act does not establish a statute of limitations or any tolling procedures, the court borrows the applicable state provisions.  Id. at 81.  In borrowing statutes of limitations for federal statutes, the courts look to state statutes governing personal injury suits.  Id.

On the other hand, in Farrell v. Carol Stream School District No. 25, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9062 (N.D. Ill 1996), the court referenced both the 120 day and the two year statute of limitation period.  This case concerned a plaintiff seeking the sum of a half-million dollars for the mishandling of him in mainstream educational classes rather than affording him special education.  Id. at 1-2.  Here, the court sanctioned both a 120-day and a two year statute of limitations period, finding that the parents had failed to satisfy either limitation period.  Id.  In Farrell, the plaintiff sought tort damages for which in effect was a claim of “educational malpractice”.  The nature of the claim in Farrell is completely different from a claim for reimbursement for services rendered.  Consequently, the statute of limitation applicable in the Farrell case has no bearing on the statute of limitations for reimbursement issues.

Based on Oak Park School Dist. and Farrell, the due process claim for educational reimbursement could be governed by the Illinois two year statute of limitations for personal injury.

Different circumstances convey different results when dealing with courts applying limitation periods for federal statutes.  Because the IDEA does not contain a limitation period, the majority of courts have elected to use the personal injury two year statute of limitations with regard to the filing of due process actions.  Similarly, they use the 120 day limitation period concerning appeals and attorney’s fees.  Any request in relation to the IDEA made over such limitation periods is generally too long and will be time-barred.