A Parent Ordered to Pay a School District’s Attorneys Fees Appeals

EBCALA recently submitted an amicus brief to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in G.M. v. Saddleback Valley Unified School District.  G.M., a mother of a child with disabilities, appealed to the Ninth Circuit after the District Court denied her claims and ordered her to pay the District’s attorneys fees.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), school districts have an affirmative obligation to find and assess children whenever there is a reasonable suspicion that they may have a disability. Here, the school received an e-mail from the child’s psychologist which informed them that she had a “major depressive disorder” and needed academic assistance. The District refused to assess.

The following month, G.M. made a specific request for special education assessment.  Again, the District refused to do any testing. As her daughter continued to worsen, G.M. had no choice but to pay for a private school out of state. She thereafter sought reimbursement from the District.

When the District finally did assess the student, it agreed that she was eligible for special education. But instead of meeting her unique needs, it proposed returning her to roughly the same program that had been failing her.

The parties went through an administrative “due process” hearing and then proceeded to federal district court before Judge David O. Carter. Despite the uncontested evidence that the school was made aware of Student’s “major depressive disorder,” and G.M.’s express request for assessment, Judge Carter insisted that the District had “no reason” to suspect that student had a disability. In fact, Judge Carter wrote parents out of the equation completely and asserted that assessments must be based on what the District knows rather than “whims” of parents.

The IDEA generally allows a prevailing parent to collect attorneys fees, but restricts school districts from receiving any fee award except in the most egregious circumstances – where a case is absolutely meritless or where it is brought simply to harass the District and is utterly frivolous. Judge Carter overstepped this guidance and awarded fees on a non-frivolous case.

The outcome of this case will have a huge impact on all children with disabilities (including autism) and their families who may want to fight their local school’s educational decisions. Suing a school district is never easy or inexpensive, but it can be done. And a prevailing parent can be reimbursed for attorneys fees. But now, if a parent does not prevail, she may be subject to not only her own attorneys fees, but the fees of her school district as well. That could easily double the expenses if she loses. Moreover, it will be harder to find an attorney willing to take IDEA cases because attorneys will be understandably cautious about accepting cases if they might be subject to fees as well.

This added concern of attorneys fees and increased expense is likely to have a chilling effect on IDEA cases. Parents will be less willing to prosecute cases, and lawyers will be more hesitant to take on IDEA clients. In turn, this will embolden school districts to cut programs for children with special needs. If parents are less likely to challenge unlawful programs, it is easier for the school district to offer them.

EBCALA has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this matter in the hope of impressing upon the 9th Circuit the importance of these rights and the negative impacts such awards will have on families and children with disabilities including children with autism.

Amicus briefs were also filed by Disability Rights Legal Center, Disability Rights California, Public Counsel Law Center, Learning Rights Law Center, Children’s Rights Clinic at Southwestern Law School, Pepperdine University School of Law Special Education Advocacy Clinic, Loyola Law School Center for Juvenile Law and Policy, University of San Diego Legal Clinics, Council of Parent Attorneys & Advocates, and California Association for Parent-Child Advocacy.