WAS THE SCHOOL DISTRICT ENTITLED TO ATTORNEYS’ FEES?
Case citation: M.M. v. Plano ISD, 2014 WL 1118146 (E.D. Tex. 2014) (unpublished).
Summary: B.M., a minor, was enrolled in the Plano Independent School District for the 2010-11 school year. The parents filed a request for a Special Education Due Process Hearing with the Texas Education Agency on or about October 7, 2011. In their request, the parents alleged that the district failed to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to their son as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The parents requested compensatory reimbursement for their minor child’s placement in private school.
Before the hearing, the special education hearing officer determined that jurisdiction did not exist over the claims. The parents appealed to federal district court, alleging that the hearing officer erred by dismissing their claims.
The case was assigned to a federal Magistrate Judge, who recommended that the trial court rule in favor of the parents and return the case to the hearing officer for a decision regarding the merits of the claims. The trial court adopted those recommendations and returned the case to the hearing officer. The parents then requested attorneys’ fees, claiming that the decision to return the case to the hearing officer gave them “prevailing party” status that warranted an award of attorneys’ fees. The district opposed the parents’ request for attorneys’ fees. In the meantime, the parties entered into a settlement agreement, which stated that it “does not confer ‘prevailing party status’ upon either party …”
Nevertheless, the parents continued to pursue their request for attorney’s fees and submitted as evidence a copy of the settlement agreement. However, the parents’ attorney redacted (i.e., covered) the wording related to prevailing party status. The Magistrate Judge recommended that the parents’ request for attorneys’ fees be denied and the parents filed objections with the trial court. In response, the district requested attorneys’ fees as sanctions for the parents’ continued pursuit of their argument that they are entitled to attorneys’ fees.
Ruling: The trial court agreed with the Magistrate Judge’s decision to deny the parents’ request for attorneys’ fees but entered sanctions against the parents’ attorney. The trial court observed that for a party to be a prevailing party entitled to attorneys’ fees under the IDEA, “the relief obtained must be a judgment on the merits, a consent decree, or some similar form of judicially sanctioned relief.” In this case, the trial court order returning the case to the hearing officer did not constitute a judgment on the merits, consent decree, or any type of “judicially sanctioned relief.”
Furthermore, the terms of the settlement agreement specifically stated that it did not confer prevailing party status upon either party. According to the trial court, the Magistrate Judge spent time considering plaintiffs’ motion for attorneys’ fees, drafting his Report and Recommendations, and then considering two requests for extensions of time to file objections. In addition, the trial court was required to rule on a request that was “baseless both in law and by the plain language of the settlement agreement entered into by the parties. This was a waste of both Defendant’s and the court’s time.”
A court may impose sanctions under Rule 11(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure if a document has been presented for an improper purpose such as causing unnecessary delay or expense, or if contentions lack evidentiary support. The court concluded that the parents’ objections and the improperly redacted settlement agreement “were filed by counsel, Ms. Myrna B. Silver for an improper purpose, namely to harass, and impose costs on Defendant.”
Further, the redacted settlement agreement was a “deliberate attempt, in bad faith to mislead the court and to impose costs upon, and harass,” the district. According to the trial court, the payment of sanctions to the district, in the amount of reasonable fees incurred by the district in responding to the objections, would best serve the goal of deterring the parents’ counsel and others from similar conduct in the future. The court ordered counsel for the parents to pay the district almost $4,000 in attorneys’ fees.
Comments: Courts are reluctant to impose sanctions on parties involved in litigation, or their attorneys, but this federal judge was clearly peeved.
WAS THE STUDENT’S PROGRAM APPROPRIATE?
Case citation: Studentv. Leander ISD, Dkt. No. 006-SE-0913 (Hearing Officer Sharon M. Ramage January 13, 2014).
Summary: The student attended school in the Leander Independent School District and qualified for special education services as a student with a specific learning disability and an emotional disturbance. The learning disability was in the areas of basic reading, reading fluency, reading comprehension, written expression, math reasoning, and math calculation. The student also had a history of hyperactivity, anxiety, depression, attention difficulties, and social skills deficits.
The student’s program, at one time, consisted of a general education placement for math and language arts. However, the student experienced stress and shut down in the general education setting. The student’s Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) Committee therefore recommended a modified curriculum for math and language arts with resource room support. The student’s father disagreed with the modified curriculum because it placed the student in the Minimum High School Program (MHSP) rather than the Recommended High School Program (RHSP). The parents requested a due process hearing, claiming that the program provided by the district was not appropriate.
Ruling: The hearing officer ruled in favor of the district, finding that the student’s individualized education program provided the student a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The district had attempted a general education placement for the student, but the student exhibited anxiety and was not successful academically. While the student and mother agreed with the modified curriculum, the father continued to request a general education placement. Based on a review of the student’s assessment and performance, the hearing officer concluded that the student’s educational program was appropriate and provided the student an education in the least restrictive environment. The student required a modified curriculum in core academic areas to obtain meaningful educational benefit.
The father also complained that the district failed to provide prior written notice to him of its intent to place the student on an MHSP and modify the student’s curriculum. However, the student’s records reflected ongoing discussion and collaboration with the parents regarding the student’s need for a modified curriculum. Placement on the MHSP was mandated due to the student’s modified curriculum. Thus, the hearing officer ruled in favor of the district.