In an interesting case out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a court has found that a voluntary change of course by a school district, even in the course of due process, does not confer prevailing party status upon the parents. In the case of G.B. v. Easton Area School District (No. 17-551 E.D.Pa., Aug. 29, 2017) it was found that a voluntary choice to give the parents what they wanted in the course of a due process hearing did not entitle the parents to fees.
Factual Background In The Case
In G.B., the parents filed for due process, seeking various documents that they contended were educational records about an incident between the student and student’s assigned paraprofessional. The district filed a Motion to Dismiss, contending that the claim was not within the jurisdiction of the special education hearing officer.
The hearing officer granted the motion in part, as to some of the records, and denied it as to other records and directed the school district to either voluntarily provide the records and/or provide a list of records at issue and that a hearing would be held as to those records.
The district provided some of the records in question in “a spirit of compromise” and provided a list of records withheld.
The parents withdrew their request for due process, then filed a claim in federal court for fees under the IDEA, contending they were the prevailing party.
What The Court Found
The court found that the parents were not the prevailing party. The court explained that to be the prevailing party, they must obtain at least some of the requested relief, or a material change in the parties relationship, and that the change must be judicially enforceable.
In this case, the court found that the order of the hearing officer did not create a judicially enforceable change and that the school district voluntarily chose to change paths.
Put another way, the only sanction that the school district would suffer if it did not turn over records was that they would be forced to go to a hearing. The fact that the school district chose course out of fear of additional litigation was not sufficient to create prevailing party status.
The court denied the request for fees.
Bottom Line for Schools
This case gives school entities a way out of due process without paying fees when the only issue at stake is some type of action being taken by the district, for example changes to an IEP, the production of documents or possibly even tuition reimbursement, by simply giving the parents what they have requested.
While the case is likely of limited import, given that most cases will also involve claims for compensatory education, it is one tool available to school entities in certain circumstances.
School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. They are meant to be informational and do not constitute legal advice. John E. Freund, III, is our editor.