In a decision likely to cause anguish among public school officials, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals retrospectively granted “prevailing party” status to parents of a child, whom the parents had unilaterally placed in private school because parents believed the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) was inadequate.
The award of attorneys’ fees to parents was granted years after several courts had ruled that the IEP was actually appropriate and sufficient to deliver FAPE.
E.R. was identified as needing special education and related services during her first grade year in the Ridley School District. The parents, M.R and J.R., (“Parents”) and school district representatives agreed upon an IEP for the remaining part of that year, but disagreed about what should be in E.R.’s IEP for Grade 2. The Parents unilaterally placed E.R. in a private school and filed an administrative due process complaint.
In 2009, the hearing officer agreed with the Parents and ruled that E.R.’s IEP was deficient and, therefore, denied E.R. a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the hearing officer’s agreement with the parents established that E.R.’s private school placement was her “then-current educational placement.” E.R. was entitled to “stay put” in that private school placement until all appeals of the hearing officer’s decision were exhausted.
The school district appealed the hearing officer’s decision to district court. The district court ruled in favor of the school district, stating that E.R.’s IEP was appropriate and provided her a FAPE. The Third Circuit Court affirmed the ruling in favor of the school district in 2012.
The Parents declined to pursue further IEP-related claims, but requested the school district to reimburse them for their daughter’s tuition to the private school during the “stay put” period, from 2009 through the completion of the appeals process. The school district refused and Parents filed a second lawsuit in district court seeking this relief.
This time, the district court ruled in the Parents’ favor and ordered the school district to reimburse Parents the tuition for the period of time the private school was E.R.’s “stay put” placement. The school district appealed to the Third Circuit. Unfortunately for the school district, the THird Circuitaffirmed the district court’s decision. The school district then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari, but the petition was denied. That denial concluded the appeals process in E.R.’s second case, and the school district was obligated to pay the parents for E.R.’s private school tuition from 2009 until the denial of certiorari in 2015.
Parents then claimed they were “prevailing parties” and filed a motion for an award of attorneys’ fees under IDEA. The district court denied the motion, stating that the Parents had only obtained “interim relief” by obtaining the tuition for the period during which the appeals process unfolded. Therefore, according to the district court, Parents were not prevailing parties, and thus were not entitled to claim attorney’s fees. Parents appealed to the Third Circuit.
Here is where the “anguish” comes in for school districts.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the district court and ruled that Parents were prevailing parties and entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees. The Third Circuit put forth three arguments to support their decision.
First, to be a prevailing party, the Court stated that the party must achieve a “material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties” that is “judicially sanctioned.” Third Circuit precedents had called that “merit-based relief.” In E.R.’s case, despite failing to obtain a permanent private school placement for E.R., Parents did prevail on their claim for reimbursement of tuition under IDEA’s stay-put provision. Stay-put is a procedural right under IDEA. Therefore, the Third Circuit explained that E.R.’s Parents were the prevailing party because they obtained permanent procedural relief through an independent merits-based determination.
Second, the Third Circuit looked to the Congressional intent reflected in IDEA’s provision for an award of attorneys’ fees in litigation. The Congressional purpose was to ensure that the right to litigation would be available to parents of children with disabilities when needed. If attorneys’ fees were not available to parents under stay-put provisions, many parents who cannot readily afford private counsel could not financially afford to enforce IDEA’s stay-put provisions.
Finally, the Third Circuit looked to previous opinions in the IDEA context to support their decision. The court pointed to several prior decisions, one discussing reimbursement for costs of supplementary services, and one affirming reimbursement of costs for a temporary stay-put provision, where the court noted that parents were prevailing parties. Therefore, the court summarized that “retrospective and compensatory relief” can be the basis for an award of attorneys’ fees. “Forward-looking relief and temporary injunctive relief,” on the contrary, are not bases for awards of attorneys’ fees.
The Third Circuit concluded by emphasizing that the stay-put provision provides two distinct but concomitant rights, (1) a physical right for a diabled child to stay put in her then-current educational placement, which is a temporary right to forward-looking injunctive relief that does not determine the merits of any claim, and (2) if a school district refuses to provide or pay for the child’s then current educational placement, the stay-put provision establishes the parents’ right to monetary reimbursement, or, in the alternative, the child’s right to compensatory education. Both of these second-named rights are rights to backward-looking compensatory relief and require an independent merits determination.
Bottom Line for Schools
For public school districts, this long-standing litigation might resemble difficulties with the proverbial “Chevrolet” of IDEA . . . . . first, the carburetor fails. That part of the Chevy is fixed, but then the radiator leaks. The radiator is fixed, and the fan belt breaks. And the fixes continue. Finally, it is time for a new car. The stay-put procedural provision of IDEA was E.R.’s Parents’ new car. Under the stay-put procedural protection of IDEA, E.R.’s Parents’ were successful in obtaining a significant portion of their child’s elementary education tuition in a private school of their choice. In addition, they recovered attorneys’ fees. How this decision will play out in future litigation in the Third Circuit and beyond remains to be seen.
If you have a question about the IDEA, please contact legal counsel or one of the Special Education Law Practice attorneys at KingSpry.
This article refers to M.R., J.R., & E.R. v. Ridley Sch. Dist., 2017 WL 3597707 (August 22, 2017)
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.