Tenth Circuit Finds No “Practical Finality” Exception to Administrative Remand Rule in IDEA Case

In C.W. v. Denver Cnty. Sch. Dict., No. 19-1407 (10th Cir. Apr. 20, 2021), the panel dismisses an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act appeal under the “administrative remand” rule and remands with directions to stay the action pending the administrative hearing.

“Through his parents, C.W. sought and received a due process hearing with a state administrative law judge (‘ALJ’) under the [IDEA]. He argued the District had failed to provide him a free appropriate public education (‘FAPE’) as required by the IDEA. The ALJ provided C.W. only partial relief.” The plaintiff filed in district court for review of the ALJ’s decision. “The court ruled partly in favor of C.W. and partly against him. It remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings.” But instead of staying the proceedings, it entered a “what it labeled a ‘Final Judgment’” and the plaintiff appealed.

The Tenth Circuit ordered briefing on appellate jurisdiction and then holds that it must dismiss under the administrative remand rule. Under that rule, a district court’s order remanding “to an administrative agency for further proceedings is ordinarily not appealable because it is not a final decision.” Although the Tenth Circuit does not appear to have ruled on the specific issue, “[c]ourts of appeal have routinely applied the administrative remand rule when district courts have remanded IDEA cases to state ALJs.”

The plaintiff argued that the appeal fell within the “practical finality” rule, covering appeals where there is “an important and urgent issue” and where the “the danger of injustice by delaying appellate review outweighs the inconvenience and costs of piecemeal review.” But the rule, the panel holds, does not apply here. “He wishes to challenge the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the District on his non-IDEA claims. We can fully adjudicate C.W.’s appeal once the administrative remand concludes and the district court enters a proper final judgment. C.W. is a private litigant. He is not precluded from appealing issues after an administrative remand.”

The plaintiff argued that the entry of the “Final Judgment” would prevent review of the order after the remand. “C.W.’s argument fails because the district court’s ‘Final Judgment’ label was inaccurate. The district court may enter final judgment only after the administrative remand concludes and it has adjudicated any appeal by C.W. and/or the District of the ALJ’s decision on remand. Once the district court enters a proper final judgment, all interlocutory orders, including summary judgment on the non-IDEA claims, will merge into it.”

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