WERE THE PARENTS “PREVAILING PARTIES” ENTITLED TO ATTORNEYS’ FEES?
Case citation: Alief ISD v. C.C., __ F. 3d __, 2013 WL 1337370 (5th Cir. 2013).
Summary: C.C. received special education services from the Alief Independent School District when the parents filed a request for a due process hearing alleging multiple violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The district, in response, filed its own request for a hearing. Declining to proceed further, the parents voluntarily dismissed their complaint. However, the district continued to pursue its case, producing evidence of its compliance with the IDEA.
After the hearing officer ruled in favor of the district, the district sought attorneys’ fees as the prevailing parties to the litigation. The trial court rejected the district’s request for attorneys’ fees. The parents then requested their own award of attorneys’ fees, claiming they had become “prevailing parties” by defeating the district’s request for attorneys’ fees. The trial court denied the parents’ request and the parents appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The main issue on appeal was whether a parent who loses a suit under the IDEA becomes a prevailing party by defeating a district’s request for attorneys’ fees.
Ruling: The Fifth Circuit held that the parents did not become “prevailing parties” by defeating the district’s request for attorneys’ fees and, thus, were not entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees. Under the IDEA, a trial court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys’ fees as part of the costs to a “prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability.” A prevailing party is one that attains a remedy that both (1) alters the legal relationship between the school district and the student and (2) fosters the purposes of the IDEA. While a party does not need to prevail on every issue in the matter, the party must prevail on some “significant issue” in the litigation that results in some benefit that the party sought in bringing the suit. Further, according to the appeals court, the relief obtained must be a “judgment on the merits, a consent decree, or some similar form of judicially sanctioned relief.”
Here, the record showed that the parents filed an unsuccessful complaint against the district. Although the trial court denied the district’s request for attorneys’ fees, the parents failed to show that they succeeded on the merits of their claims or received any desired remedy from the hearing officer. The appeals court held that “successfully defending an ancillary request for attorneys’ fees, without more, does not qualify as the relief on the merits necessary to create a prevailing party.” The appeals court affirmed the judgment of the trial court denying the parents’ an award of attorneys’ fees.
TO WHAT EXTENT WERE THE PARENTS ENTITLED TO ATTORNEYS’ FEES?
Case citation: S.F. v. McKinney ISD, 2013 WL 775529, 113 LRP 13463 (E.D. Tex 2013) (unpublished).
Summary: S.F. attended school in the McKinney Independent School District and received special education services due to autism and a speech impairment. The student had been deaf since birth and, according to the parents, used American Sign Language as her primary mode of communication. After a dispute arose over the student’s program and services, the district requested a due process hearing under the IDEA to attempt to demonstrate the appropriateness of the student’s latest full and individual evaluation. In response, the parents counterclaimed, raising numerous separate claims for relief.
The hearing officer concluded that the district’s reevaluation was not appropriate and that the parent was entitled to reimbursement for the private assessments that they received. [See, McKinney ISD v. Student, 026-SE-1009 (Hearing Officer Steven R. Aleman, May 10, 2010); Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest, April 2011]. The parents filed an action in federal court seeking reimbursement of attorneys’ fees and expenses incurred in the due process hearing. The trial court agreed with the hearing officer that the district improperly administered the autism assessment and failed to administer the test in the student’s mode of communication. [See, S.F. v. McKinney ISD, 2012 WL 1081064 (E.D. Tex. 2012)(unpublished); Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest, May 2012]. The trial court determined further, that as “prevailing parties” to the IDEA claims, the parents were entitled to reimbursement for attorneys’ fees incurred in the preparation of the issues upon which the parents were successful at the due process hearing and in the instant lawsuit. The parents then filed a motion, requesting more than $250,000 in attorney fees.
Ruling: The trial court did not grant the full amount of requested attorneys’ fees, but held that the parents were entitled to almost $180,000. The court found that the attorneys’ fees and costs to award the parents would be limited to those incurred in the preparation of issues upon which they were successful at the due process hearing and the instant lawsuit to the extent those amounts could be separately determined. The court observed that it may reduce the amount of attorneys’ fees if it finds that (1) the parents or their attorney unreasonably protracted the litigation, (2) the amount exceeded the prevailing hourly rate in the community, (3) the time spent was excessive, or (4) the parents’ attorney did not provide certain information to the educational agency in its complaint.
The trial court determined that the attorneys’ fees requested were based on a reasonable hourly rate (ranging from $225-$275) and that the time spent was not excessive. The trial court reduced the requested amount, however, for non-taxable costs included in the attorneys’ request. The trial court also declined to award fees for discovery conducted after the discovery deadline and fees related to an unsuccessful request that the due process hearing be video-recorded. The request also improperly included fees related to an unsuccessful statute of limitations argument. Other bills for purely clerical tasks also should not have been included in the request. The trial court reduced the pre-suit fees, related to the due process hearing, for those issues or theories of recovery on which S.F. did not prevail. Also disregarded were post-suit fees, for time spent on unsuccessful claims brought before the trial court, such as claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Therefore, the trial court reduced the student’s request for attorneys’ fees from more than $250,000 to $176,000.
WAS THE STUDENT ENTITLED TO A PRIVATE PLACEMENT AT DISTRICT EXPENSE?
Case citation: Student v. Lewisville ISD, Dkt. No. 139-SE-0112 (Hearing Officer Lucius D. Bunton, January 7, 2013).
Summary: The student attended school in the Lewisville Independent School District and had a history of developmental delays, learning and speech impairments, and emotional problems. In 2008, the district served the student through Section 504, with accommodations and instructional modifications. The student was successful in all of his classes and passed state-mandated assessments. The student continued to be successful through the 2009-2010 school year, under the Section 504 program.
However, some behavioral issues arose, leading the student’s Section 504 Committee to develop a behavior intervention plan (BIP) to address problems of anxiety, attention-seeking behavior, and organizational issues. The district conducted a full and individual evaluation (FIE) in January of 2011, but determined that the student was not eligible for special education and related services. The parent agreed with the decision at that time. However, the student exhibited increased behavioral problems at home with the parent, including anxiety and depression, and self-injurious behavior. Thus, in August of 2011, the parent notified the district that the parent no longer agreed with the decision that the student did not meet eligibility criteria for special education. The parent also notified the student’s ARD Committee that the student would not return to school in the district, and would attend a private school instead.
Meanwhile, at the parent’s request, the district paid for an independent educational evaluation (IEE). In addition, the student’s ARD Committee met and determined that the student was eligible for special education due to an emotional disturbance. The ARD Committee conducted a functional behavior assessment (FBA) and developed an individualized education program for the student, that included counseling goals and objectives and psychological services, among other things. The parent disagreed with the district’s proposed IEP and refused consent for the special education placement.
The IEE concluded that the student was eligible for special education services as a student with an emotional disturbance, an “other health impairment” due to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and autism. Because the district and the parent disagreed about the student’s eligibility criteria and placement, the parent requested a due process hearing seeking reimbursement for the cost of the student’s private placement.
Ruling: The hearing officer determined that the student was not entitled to a private placement at district expense. It was undisputed that the student was eligible for special education, but the parent contended that the district did not offer the student an appropriate placement and related services. The parent also sought reimbursement for the costs and expenses for a unilateral placement at a private school.
According to the hearing officer the record demonstrated that the district provided, and continued to offer to provide, an appropriate educational program for the student. The placement offered by the district was individualized based on the student’s assessment and performance. Further, the student’s program was administered in the least restrictive environment and was provided in a coordinated and collaborative manner by the key stakeholders in the matter. Further, while enrolled in the district, the student exhibited positive academic and nonacademic progress. The parent failed to meet the burden to show that the private placement was an appropriate placement for the student. Consequently, the hearing officer denied all relief requested by the parent.