New special ed case involving charter schools and attorney’s fees

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit handed down an excellent decision on October 11, 2017 for parents of children with disabilities.  In the case of H.E., et al.  v. Walter D Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, et al., the Court held and reaffirmed its prior ruling that “success on a claim for procedural relief can constitute a victory ‘on the merits’ that confers ‘prevailing party’ status” allowing the parents an award of attorney’s fees.

Parents had children with disabilities enrolled at Walter D Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School.  The parents had alleged that the charter school was not providing a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to their children.  The parents entered into a settlement agreement with the charter school whereby the school was to provide the children with compensatory education and contribute towards the parents’ attorney’s fees, but before the school could deliver on the agreement, it closed in 2014.

The parents filed a Due Process complaint against both the charter school and the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PADOE), alleging that PADOE as the state agency was responsible to make good on the charter school’s agreement.  However, the administrative hearing officer dismissed the parents’ case and held that the parents could not go after PADOE and had to get their relief through the charter school’s settlement claims process.

Parents filed an appeal in the federal district court seeking reversal of the administrative hearing officer’s decision plus attorney’s fees and costs for having the fight the battle.  The federal court vacated the hearing officer’s decision and sent the case back to the hearing officer on the issue of compensatory education, but denied the parents’ claim for attorney’s fees because it was a victory on purely procedural matters, not a substantive claim, and therefor they were not “prevailing parties”.

The federal appeals court reversed the federal district court on that basis and said that parents were indeed prevailing parties and entitled to reimbursement of their attorney’s fees and costs.

Thankfully courts are beginning to recognize that these battles are difficult and expensive for parents to bear and their statutory right to be reimbursed for the costs and fees paid to fight these cases when they win should be honored.  It is a re-balancing of the playing field.

The full decision can be downloaded from the Third Circuit Court of Appeal’s website here.  (It is a PDF file)

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