A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Third Circuit Holds Parents Entitled to Attorneys’ Fees on IDEA Procedural Issue

By on November 14, 2017 in Special Education/504 with 0 Comments

Special education cases can be quite expensive for school districts to litigate. This is especially so when parents are prevailing parties and the fee-shifting provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) requires the school district to reimburse the parents for attorneys’ fees. Typically, parents are only entitled to attorneys’ fees if they are successful on the underlying merits of the case, not when they succeed on procedural or interlocutory issues. However, on October 11, 2017, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in H.E. v. Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School held that parents can recover attorneys’ fees involving procedural issues if they vindicate a procedural right under the IDEA that is not “temporary forward-looking injunctive relief.”

In this case, the parents enrolled their three children with disabilities in the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School (“Charter School”) located in Pennsylvania. The students were eligible for services under the IDEA. The parents alleged that the Charter School failed to meet its obligations to provide a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) to the students. In 2014, the parents and the Charter School entered into a settlement agreement resolving all of the parents’ claims regarding the children. The settlement agreement called for the Charter School to fund compensatory education hours for each student and to contribute towards the parents’ attorneys’ fees. The Charter School permanently closed in December 2014 and never fulfilled its obligations under the agreement.

As a result, the parents filed for due process against the Charter School and the Pennsylvania Department of Education (“PDE”) alleging that the agreement with the Charter School was voidable and that PDE should provide compensatory education to their children due to the Charter School’s previous failure to provide them with a FAPE. The hearing officer dismissed the parents’ administrative due process complaint reasoning that the parents were required to initiate an enforcement action against the Charter School through the settlement-of-claims process.

The parents appealed the hearing officer’s decision to District Court, which reversed and remanded the case. The District Court reasoned that the parents’ complaint sought enforcement of the settlement agreement, which could be heard by way of a due process complaint. The District Court instructed the hearing officer to render a substantive decision regarding the parents’ FAPE claims.

The parents filed a motion in District Court seeking attorneys’ fees as prevailing parties for their victory in reversing the hearing officer’s initial decision dismissing their administrative due process petition. The District Court denied the parents’ request for attorneys’ fees, reasoning that they were not prevailing parties under the IDEA because they were only successful in a procedural issue and not a substantive one on the merits.

The parents appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the District Court and agreed with the parents. The Third Circuit held that if a parent vindicates a procedural right under the IDEA which is not “temporary forward-looking injunctive relief,” that parent is considered a prevailing party and entitled to attorneys’ fees. In this case, the Third Circuit found that when the parents were successful in reversing the hearing officer’s dismissal, they vindicated a permanent procedural right that cannot be nullified later and therefore the relief obtained is not considered “temporary forward-looking injunctive relief.”


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About the Author

About the Author:

Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq. concentrates her practice on the representation of boards of education and charter schools in all areas of school law including: labor and employment, special education, Section 504, student discipline, FERPA, Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, student residency, civil rights, tenure, OPRA, and OPMA. In connection with these representations, she is experienced in handling matters before State and Federal courts, including the Office of Administrative Law. Ms. Dev is an experienced special education litigator and defends school districts in due process hearings from inception through trial. In addition, she has handled matters before governmental agencies, including the U.S. Office for Civil Rights and New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. Ms. Dev routinely conducts training and seminars, drafts policies and manuals, and provides strategic advice to school administrators regarding school law issues. Ms. Dev was recently recognized as one of South Jersey’s Awesome Attorneys as published by South Jersey Magazine. She is licensed to practice law in New Jersey, the District Court for the District of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.


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