Awarding Attorney Fees To School Districts

As many school districts, county offices of education and charter schools (“LEAs”) continue to face extreme financial hardships the proposition of having attorney’s fees awarded to an LEA for legal expenses associated with defending a due process hearing has becomes more alluring. While the IDEA allows LEAs to recover attorney’s fees, the circumstances under which the fees for an LEA can be awarded are significantly limited.

Under current law a court can award attorney’s fees "to a prevailing party who is an SEA or LEA against the attorney of a parent who files a complaint or subsequent cause of action that is frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, or against the attorney of a parent who continued to litigate after the litigation clearly became frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation." (20 USC Section 1415(i)(3)(B); 34 CFR Section 300.517(a)(1)(ii))  Fees can also be awarded "to a prevailing SEA or LEA against the attorney of a parent, or against the parent, if the parent's request for a due process hearing or subsequent cause of action was presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass, to cause unnecessary delay, or to needlessly increase the cost of litigation." (34 CFR Section 300.517(a)(1)(iii))

Prevailing Alone Is Not Enough

While an LEA must be established as the prevailing party in order to recover attorney's fees for frivolous, unreasonable, or baseless litigation, Oscar v. Alaska Dep't of Educ. and Early Dev., 50 IDELR 211 (9th Cir. 2008), that alone does not necessarily entitle the LEA to a recovery of fees.  Just because student did not prevail on some or all of due process complaint issues/claims does not automatically render those claims frivolous, unreasonable, without foundation, or for improper purposes. R.P. v. Prescott Unified School District, 56 IDELR 31 (9th Cir. 2011)  The burden is on the LEA to produce evidence to the court that the student failed to present evidence during the due process hearing that would entitle him/her to relief and that the claims against the LEA were knowingly baseless or for improper purposes.

Recognizing Frivolous Claims

The good news is that courts recognize a frivolous complaint when they see one. In a recent California decision, the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, gave the green light for an Orange County school district to seek recovery of attorney’s fees. The case involved allegations that the District unreasonably delayed filing for due process after the parent objected to a student’s triennial evaluation. The Court found that the mother’s vague objections and her characterization of the assessment reports as “stupid” coupled with her counsel’s general arguments during the hearing were frivolous. The Court noted in its decision that “[t]he frivolous arguments advanced by the Mother in this case have forced District to incur expenses in this litigation that could have funded special education of students with disabilities, including Mother’s own child. If the District wishes to recover these expenses so as to provide services to Student and other children like her, District is free to file a motion to do so.”  C.W. v. Capistrano Unified School District, 112 LRP 39913 (C.D. Cal. 2012)

Clean Hands

Even when the student’s allegations are determined frivolous, unreasonable without foundation, or for improper purposes, the LEA must be found to have clean hands.  Even where there is proof of unjustifiable litigation on behalf of the student, the inappropriate action by the student can be offset by inappropriate actions of the LEA. Where such a finding exists the award of attorney’s fees for an LEA can be decreased or negated all together.

In an August 8, 2012 decision by the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, the Court awarded the student and the LEA $5,170 each in attorney’s fees. The decision indicates that the Court’s intent was to offset each party’s fees so that neither party could benefit, due to separate acts of purported wrongdoing in the eyes of the Court.  M.M and E.M v. LaFayette School District, 112 LRP 40570 (N.D. Cal. 2012)

Many factors must be taken into account when an LEA is considering seeking an award of attorney’s fees following a successful due process hearing. The involvement of counsel is advisable to ensure that all legal and practical issues are considered and addressed.

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