Don’t go to a heart surgeon for a broken arm . . .

If you fell and broke your arm, would you go to a heart surgeon?  Of course not.  You would go to an orthopedic doctor who could determine whether you need a cast, sling, surgery, etc.

The same principle applies in law.  If someone has sued you for cutting down the tree on their property, you wouldn’t hire a tax attorney to represent you.  Similarly, if you have a special education law issue, you shouldn’t hire an attorney who focuses on wills.

Perhaps people don’t realize that lawyers focus their practices on certain areas.  We do this so we can become ‘experts’ in those areas.  The days of the ‘general practice’ lawyer who handles any and every legal problem are long gone.

However, hiring the wrong lawyer is exactly what happened in the case Z.Z. v. Pittsburgh Public School Dist. (PA Commonwealth Ct., Nov. 30, 2016).  The Pittsburgh, PA firm that represented parents, Steele Schneider, consists of primarily employment law and business law attorneys.  While they do list special education law as one of their practice areas, I don’t believe they are members of COPAA (special education advocates and attorneys organization) or any other special education law group nor have I heard of them before this case (and I practice a fair amount of special education law in Pennsylvania).

I believe the Z.Z. case was correctly decided by the court in favor of the school district and against the parents.  I also believe the reason for that is the parents (and perhaps also their attorneys) were overzealous in this case and jumped the gun, specifically seeking legal remedies through Due Process before even completing the IEP process.  The Hearing Officer found (and confirmed by the Commonwealth Court) that the IEP process had not even been completed and parents had not fully cooperated with the process before filing for the lawsuit, thus the school district had not violated IDEA.  Good special education lawyers would have counseled the parents against filing a lawsuit until the IEP process was completed and, if the case was already filed, would have advised the clients not to pursue it further.

There is an ethics rule that states that an attorney should withdraw from representing a client if “the client insists upon taking action that the lawyer considers repugnant or with which the lawyer has a fundamental disagreement.” PA Rule of Professional Conduct 1.16(b)(4).  I’m also concerned that the lawyers involved in the Z.Z. case had the wrong motive for representing the parents.  (I’ll leave that up to your imagination as to what that motive might be.)

Unfortunately, a similar thing occurred in the case Batchelor v. Rose Tree Media School Dist., (3rd Cir. 2014).  In that federal court appeal, Frank Schwartz, Esq., a commercial / employment law litigator from the firm Lamm Rubenstone LLC, created horrible special education law for parents.  That case ruled that parents have to exhaust every legal remedy against a school before a hearing officer prior to going to court, even including anti-discrimination laws like Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which say you can go directly to court.  How did this happen? Simply, Schwartz based his argument using an old version of the law that was no longer applicable (specifically, relating to exhaustion.)  This is much less likely to happen if the clients had selected an attorney that focused his/her practice on special education law (or Schwartz had referred the case out to a special education lawyer).

Thus, my conclusion is that lawyers who don’t truly practice in special education law on a regular basis should not take these cases because they end up creating bad precedent for parents and children with disabilities.  These cases also harm the public’s perception of special education lawyers and advocates.  This frustrates attorneys whose true motive is to assist these clients.  My advice to special education clients is do your research and make sure your attorney focuses his/her practice on special education law.


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