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The Parent Right to Recover Attorneys' Fees is One of IDEA's Most Important Procedural Safeguards

Tuesday, November 14, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Denise Marshall
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COPAA filed a Motion to file an amicus brief in the Fifth Circuit, Ashely Kraweitz, an individual with disabilities, by and with and through her parent/guardian/next friend, Amanda Parker v. Galveston Independent School District on November 8, 2017.  Selene Almazan and Roy T. Atwood drafted and filed the brief for COPAA.   The brief supports the parents and urges the Court to uphold the district court’s ruling that the parents are entitled to attorneys’ fees for the work done to secure the favorable ruling that Ashley was denied a FAPE and entitled to transition services to prepare her for adulthood.

 

The parental right to recover attorneys’ fees is one of the IDEA’s most important procedural safeguards because as COPAA knows firsthand, without the availability of fees, parents would find it very difficult to obtain representation.  IDEA thus allows a “court, in its discretion, [to] award reasonable attorneys’ fees … to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability.”  20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3). Courts have consistently held that fees should “ordinarily” be awarded to prevailing parents “unless special circumstances make such an award unjust.” E.g., Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983).  Moreover, “a request for attorney’s fees should not result in a second major litigation.”  Id.  In this case, there was no finding of special circumstances that would render the award of attorneys' fees to the prevailing parents unjust.

 

As COPAA further explained, the school district’s suggestion that because the parent did not receive an award for everything the parent requested, does not make the parent any less entitled to attorney’s fees as the prevailing party.  In Ector County Indep. Sch. Dist. v. VB, the Fourth Circuit explained that “in determining whether a party is a ‘prevailing party’ and thereby eligible to receive attorney’s fees at all, we examine whether the remedy the party obtained fosters the IDEA’s purposes.”  Ector County Indep. Sch. Dist., 420 Fed. Appx. 338, 345 (5th Cir. 2011).  Clearly, the remedy of provision of transition services to prepare her for adulthood awarded to Ashely in this case without a doubt fosters IDEA’s purposes. 

 

Finally, COPAA explained that Congress specifically provided that federal district courts have jurisdiction over attorneys’ fees claims for parents who prevail in due process proceedings.  20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3).  Nothing in IDEA requires that the underlying educational controversy remain alive at the time the claim is filed in federal district court.  Id.  Moreover, federal courts have consistently held that jurisdiction of an attorneys’ fee claims under IDEA is maintained even after that case subsequently becomes moot on the merits of the underlying claim.  E.g., E.D. v. Newburyport Pub. Sch., 654 F.3d 140, 143 (1st Cir. 2011) (“eligibility for a fee award is not lost even when subsequent developments render claim moot overall.”).  And as the Supreme Court noted in Burlington, IDEA proceedings are “ponderous” and “a final judicial decision on the merits of an IEP will in most instances come a year or more after the school term covered by that IEP has passed.”  Sch. Comm. Of Burlington v. Dep’t of Educ., 471 U.S. 359, 370 (1985).

 

The Appellant’s brief is here; COPAA’s brief is here.


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