Ninth Circuit Holds That Student is Entitled to Special Education Services Under IDEA Despite Satisfactory Academic Performance.

On September 1, 2016, the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court’s ruling in L.J. v. Pittsburg U.S.D. that a student with several disabilities under IDEA was not eligible for special education services because his academic performance was “satisfactory” in the general education classroom.


L.J. is an elementary school student who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and ADHD, and who has frequently exhibited suicidal tendencies.  As a result, L.J. demonstrated behavioral issues both in class and away from school, including difficulties with anger, self-control, violent outbursts, and bullying.  L.J.’s mother requested evaluation and that the School District find L.J. eligible for special education services.   The District convened a student study team, which lead to L.J. being placed in another school and receiving a behavioral plan and a one-on-one aide.

Two IEP meetings were held, in which the District determined that L.J. did not have a qualifying disability and that L.J.’s academic performance was satisfactory.

An Administrative Law Judge upheld the District’s determination that L.J. was not eligible for special education, finding that L.J. did not have a qualifying disability, and even if he did, he would not be eligible for special education services because his academic performance was satisfactory.

L.J.’s mother appealed the ALJ’s ruling to the District Court, which granted summary judgment for the School District.  The District Court found that L.J. did indeed have three qualifying disabilities under the IDEA (specific learning disability, serious emotional disturbance due to his ODD and bipolar disorder, and other health impairment due to his ADHD.)  However, the District Court found that “L.J. did not need special education services because of his satisfactory performance in general education.”  L.J. v. Pittsburg U.S.D., at 11.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court’s ruling, finding that  L.J.’s “satisfactory performance,” including average or above-average testing scores, did not render him ineligible for special education services because even though L.J.’s “satisfactory performance” occurred in a general education classroom, this improvement was likely attributable to L.J. receiving one-on-one assistance and behavioral counseling.  Id., at 16-19.  The Court further held that “L.J. has shown himself to be an intelligent child, so his academic performance could have been even more improved with the appropriate specially designed instruction.”  Id., at 19.  As such, the Ninth Circuit determined that L.J. should be found eligible under IDEA ordered the School District to formulate an IEP.  Id., at 21.


  • Under this ruling, “satisfactory performance” does not, without further examination, disqualify a student from being found eligible for special education services.
  • In determining whether a student is eligible for special education, the substantive focus of an IEP team should be whether or not the student has a qualifying disability as defined by the IDEA.
  • Once it is determined that the student has a disability, the team must determine whether the “support provided through the regular school program is sufficient” for the student to be successful. J. v. Pittsburg U.S.D., at 13-14; see also 20 U.S.C. § 1401(3)(A), Cal. Educ. Code § 56026.
    • If the regular school program is sufficient, the IEP team may determine that the student does not need special education services.
    • However, the IEP team must examine whether the student’s success in a “general education classroom” is attributable to special education-like services or student-specific accommodations that the student may already have been receiving.
    • If the student’s satisfactory performance is at least partially attributable to services previously provided that are not part of the general education program, such as one-on-one assistance, extra time, behavioral plans, etc., the student should be found eligible for special education services under the IDEA and the School District should provide an IEP.
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