Hearing Officer

Hearing officer is the generic term given to individuals who preside over administrative hearings. A hearing officer may also be called an “administrative law judge” in some jurisdictions. In short, a hearing officer is expected to be an impartial third party to a dispute, someone who considers both sides and then renders a decision. Typically, a hearing officer has the authority to administer oaths, take testimony, consider evidence, and make findings of fact and law. While somewhat similar to a judge in that a decision is rendered, a hearing officer considers complaints made relative to some source of administrative law—that is, statutes, regulations, or policy.

In school law, such hearings may consider disputes related to a number of legal issues including, but not limited to, special education law, discrimination law, employment law, student records, and student discipline. The source of law guiding such a dispute may have its home in federal law, state law, or local policy. In addition to specifying that a hearing be available, the particular source of law may also dictate the minimum qualifications a hearing officer must hold.

At the federal level, a number of statutes require school boards to establish complaint procedures whereby aggrieved parties may challenge the actions of school authorities. Those procedures frequently require hearings as part of the dispute process. In such instances, a hearing officer is called on to adjudicate disputes. For example, a parent or adult student who wishes to challenge information in a student file may request a hearing if school officials refuse to remove it from the record. Pursuant to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the hearing must be conducted by someone with no “direct interest in the outcome of the hearing.” Both parties are then bound by the hearing officer’s decision. Complainants must also be afforded the opportunity for a hearing before an impartial third party under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of Education Amendments of 1972, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Of all these federal provisions, none is more explicit about the role and requirements of the hearing officer than the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA requires that a hearing officer be someone who understands the IDEA, its regulations, and any complementary state laws; has the knowledge and ability to conduct a hearing according to standard legal practice; and has the ability to write a decision that comports with the law and standard practice. In addition, a hearing officer should not have any personal or professional conflicts of interest related to the dispute and may not be employed by either the state educational agency or the local school district. While the IDEA does not specify that a hearing officer must be an attorney, some states add this requirement. Other IDEA provisions specify how hearings are to be conducted, what the decision must address, and the timeline by which disputes should be settled.

State law, too, may specify that some disputes be resolved after proceedings before a hearing officer. For example, state law may allow a teacher whose license to teach has been denied or revoked to challenge the action by means of a formal hearing, presided over by an appointed hearing officer. Likewise, state law may create a hearing procedure for students to challenge a local school district’s decision to suspend or expel.

Finally, local school authorities may create procedures that employ a hearing officer to settle disputes. For example, they may agree to be bound by a provision of an employee union contract that specifies that if the two parties cannot agree about the meaning of a particular contractual provision, a hearing officer will be appointed to settle the matter.

In some instances, the law may require that a complainant first exhaust administrative remedies before seeking redress in a court of law. For example, parents who have a complaint under the IDEA must first have the dispute heard by a hearing officer prior to filing any civil action. In contrast, a person who has a complaint under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act may either request a hearing or file a complaint in civil court.

The IDEA also illustrates another principle related to the work of hearing officers and whether their decisions may be appealed. The IDEA explicitly provides that any party who disagrees with the order of a hearing officer may appeal to either a federal or state court. Other sources of law may make a decision of the hearing officer final unless an aggrieved party can demonstrate “clear error” or the deprivation of an explicit constitutional or statutory right.

In all instances, a hearing officer’s work relates to the principle of due process. Due process is a legal principle that has its home in the Fourteenth Amendment. Due process requires that governmental decisions are made in a just and equitable manner. A hearing officer, as an impartial party to a dispute, is to weigh facts and evidence in order to ensure that no individual or group is deprived of rights they hold as a result of administrative law.

Julie F. Mead

See also Americans with Disabilities Act; Due Process; Due Process Hearing; Due Process Rights: Teacher Dismissal; Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act; Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504; Title VII; Title IX and Sexual Harassment

Further Readings

  • Russo, C. J., & Osborne, A. G. (2006). The Supreme Court clarifies the burden of proof in special education due process hearings: Schaffer ex rel. Schaffer v. Weast. West’s Education Law Reporter, 208, 705–717. 
  • Zirkel, P. A. (2006). The remedial authority of hearing and review officers under IDEA. Administrative Law Review, 58, 401–427. 

Legal Citations